To many, Egypt’s capital city of Cairo is a maddening metropolis marked by its traffic gridlock, complex religious discourse, and contested gender politics. The metro system is frequently referred to as the only functional and dependable system in the city. It is available for only a single Egyptian pound, and runs fairly frequently. In its current configuration there are two women-only carriages attached to the middle of each train. The cars, which were formally introduced in 2007, enable women to travel more or less unmolested and fluidly around the sprawling metropolis. This makes Cairo one of several cities throughout the world, from Tokyo to Tehran to Mexico City, which have recently implemented similar women-only carriage policies for the purposes of public transit.
What has been the effect of such policies? As a Jewish-American woman of colour and a former resident of Cairo, I became interested in analysing whether gender segregation in the Cairo Metro is simply a matter of protecting women from sexual harassment, or whether it has come to play a role in the larger religious and cultural debate about the role of women in Egyptian society. While I was living in Cairo, I often engaged in lively conversations with Egyptians about these ideas. Later during graduate school, I conducted interviews with Cariene women to give a real voice to this often overlooked quotidian aspect of Egyptian life. Women-only carriages were never going to enter Egyptian society unnoticed and without criticism. Through these conversations and interviews, I realised that the consequences of urbanism (of which the metro is one example) on women’s rights in Cairo extend far beyond its transportation system. The existence of women-only carriages is just one feature of the national conversation about women and their place in public spaces — a paradigm that is still evolving.
The metro was built out of a powerful drive to create a globally-inviting Cairo. Its intentions were to lessen traffic congestion, increase more fluid public access through the city, and facilitate women’s safe passage. The metro is the circuit board of Cairo. It carries around three million people per day and is unarguably the fastest, cheapest and safest means of public transportation in the entire country. It is also one of few metro systems in Africa. Three lines and sixty-one stations connect over forty-eight miles of Cairo. It is a vibrant and veritable system.
Until the women’s-only passenger cars were introduced, however, Cairene women were regularly subjected to gender-based violence, harassment, and unwanted touching on the mixed-gender trains. It is well documented that sexual harassment is a profound problem in Cairo. According to a 2013 UN report, a staggering 99% of women and girls reported having had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Still, Cairo is certainly not unique in its harassment issues. In Japan, for example, it has been reported that over 64% of women in their 20’s and 30’s reported being groped on the train or in transit stations. Indeed, the problem is so well recognised in Japan that there’s even a special name for subway sexual harassment: chikan.