When Shima Fikry’s husband died in July 2018, the then 37-year-old grieving widow suddenly became the key breadwinner for her three children in her rural hometown of Zagazig, Sharkia governorate, some 82 kilometers to the northeast of Egypt’s capital, Cairo.
A government employee who had heavily relied on her late husband to support their family, she scurried to find another source of income that enables her to single-handedly make ends meet.
“My husband’s pension wasn’t enough, and I needed to find an extra source of income for my family,” said Fikry, the founder of Shemo for Sharkeya Ladies Rides. “I had to find a solution using what was available for me.”
With little left behind by her late husband but a car, she decided to provide a service that is uncommon in Sharkia and beyond: a women’s-only car-hailing service. By early 2021, she had obtained her driving license and was independently running a business of driving around women, relying on social media to promote her services, and on a conservative culture that is overly-protective of its women amidst widespread sexual harassment to make her business boom.
According to UN reports, around 86.5% of Egyptian women don’t feel safe in public transportation, with sexual harassment being a widespread threat facing women in the Egyptian community. While Egypt is ranked 126 out of 156 in the overall 2021 Global Gender Gap Index and 146 in the economic participation and opportunity, rural areas in the Arab world’s most populous country impose even more constraints on women’s recreational, financial and social opportunities due to their reserved cultures and rigidly-ingrained gender roles that largely favor men over women.
As such, Fikry found such limitations on women an opportunity to provide a much-needed service which quickly grew from carpooling to organizing day trips for ladies.
“I wanted to do something sustainable and safe for me. Besides, the women liked the idea because there would be nothing to annoy or harass them during our rides,” she told Al Arabiya.
For Marwa Ghareeb, 37, Shemo for Sharkia Ladies has been the perfect solution to inch out into a world beyond family.
“It’s unsafe to travel alone in public transportation with strangers. I would be apprehensive, and my family would be contacting me now and then to make sure that I was okay,” said the Sharkia resident, whose late father allowed her to travel in the family's company only. This has limited her social network as well as affected her emotional well-being and, having quit her job to tend to her ailing parents, her isolation has multiplied.
“My father was very strict. He didn’t allow any traveling unless it was with the family. Therefore, my life has become constrained after graduating from college,” said the holder of a university degree in commerce.
Marwa, therefore, found Fikry’s women-only carpooling services an ideal answer to her commuting restraints. “Traveling with Fikry is much easier and emotionally relieving for me. She is a good driver, and she isn’t annoying or morbidly curious like most car drivers,” said Ghareeb.
In a span of months, and despite a global pandemic that has brought the world to a halt, Fikry’s reputation as a safe driver with a courteous and cheerful demeanor had won her thousands of followers, and an expanding base of clients beyond her home city. Her business’ Facebook page quickly multiplied in number, drawing over 15,000 female members from all around the country, and by April 2021, she was organizing day trips for women of different ages, at the behest of her customers.
“When they suggested going on trips, I liked the idea because I love traveling and exploring new places. I began with some tours for small numbers, and when the demand increased, I started making deals with buses and planning full trips,” Fikry excitedly explained.
While various entities, including labor unions and social clubs, organize regular day-trips across Egypt, especially amidst efforts by the government to boost internal tourism during periods of disrupted international tourism that have plagued the vital sector over the past decade, such trips are mostly family-targeting, and do not provide the privacy which women clients of Fikry appreciate.
In the past year, Fikry has organized over 30 one-day trips to Egyptian cities popular among tourists, both local and international, such as Cairo, Alexandria, but also to cities with a more local appeal, like Ismailia, Fayoum, and Port-Said.
Although Sharkia governorate has been her take off point, she is often joined by women who come in from other Egyptian cities, Cairo, Tanta, and Ismailia, looking to explore new places in the company of like-minded women.
Fatma Abdeen, a 34-year-old psychotherapist from Tanta governorate, is one of Fikry’s frequent customers. Living around 80 kilometers away from Fikry’s pickup points, she drives her car for at least 90 minutes to be able to catch her trips. The cheerful and supportive vibes of Fikry’s trips, and their exclusivity to women, are what makes her travel this far to join her trips, Abdeen explained.
“I’m one of those who doesn’t like to interact a lot with men. During Fikry’s trips, we get to make new friends, be free, laugh, sing, and joke together without any restrictions,” said Abdeen.
Belonging to a middle-class dwindling under increased economic strains, Fikry vies to make her trips affordable for women in the same social and economic segment. “It’s challenging to set the prices as I’m always trying not to overwhelm my customers. I usually go on a test trip, check entrance fees and travel costs, and then add a small percentage for myself,” said Fikry.
Her trips range in price between $8 and $20 per person, depending on the destination, activities and itineraries.
Being a mother too, Fikry appreciates mothers’ need for a relaxing time while on these trips. Putting her own intuition and experience in organizing itineraries, she arranges children-friendly trips, paying attention to details that would get children engaged, including bus seating that bring them together before they even reach the trip destination.
“I was worried that my eight-year-old son wouldn’t enjoy his time, but when we reached our pickup point, I found that Fikry had seated us next to other children to get them to know my son before we reached the trip location,” said Abdeen.
In planning her trips, Fikry also takes into consideration school breaks and examination schedules, to allow as many mothers, and their children, a day off from academic stress when possible.
While Fikry’s trips are a way to disconnect her clients from daily routines that confine them to work and tending to their family’s obligations and commitments, these getaways also offer life-changing experiences for others who had never gotten the chance to travel alone or who have little social skills.
“A lot of my customers tell me that my tours help them get out of their comfort zones. Some parents have even reached out to me and told me that if it weren’t for my trips, they wouldn’t have allowed their daughters to go out,” Fikry said.
Encouraged by her clients’ growing trust in her services, Fikry is planning to start organizing overnight trips for those who are interested.
Those benefiting from these trips are not limited to middle-aged and young women, but older women who join these feminine groups to discover new boundaries and achieve personal fulfillment and happiness.
“The companionship is always prompting me to join Fikry’s tours. I went with them to places for the first time in my life. It’s making me feel the change and have inner peace,” said Nawal Abdelrahman, a 66-year-old from Sharkia governorate.
This article was written in collaboration with Egab