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Women at wheel of 'pink taxis' challenge Jordan norms
[AMMAN] Nisrin Akoubeh checks the oil and water before getting into her taxi and pulling into Amman's heavy traffic for another day of shuttling fellow women across the Jordanian capital.
The red-haired mother of three works a gruelling 10-hour shift in her taxi - a rare occupation for a woman in this conservative Muslim society.
"I want to break the culture of shame and prove to Arabs and the Arab world that women are strong and are able to work in any area that could be monopolised by men," she said.
"Women have been able to drive normal cars for a long time, so why shouldn't they drive taxis?" Ms Akoubeh is one of a group of women who want to turn taxi driving into an acceptable profession for women, challenging Jordan's social norms.
The 31-year-old widow and former nurse drives one of a fleet of 10 "Pink Taxis" driven by women ... for women passengers.
Most of their customers are nurses on late shifts, university students or mothers whose children they shuttle to and from nursery or school.
Wearing a pink shirt and blue tie as she navigates Amman's congested roads, Ms Akoubeh often also picks up visiting Saudi women whose husbands don't allow them to ride unaccompanied with male taxi drivers.
"I thank God that I have lots of customers," she said.
Ghena al-Asmar, a 19-year-old student who often uses the service, said she feels safer riding the women-only cars.
"When I finish my studies at university in the evening or when I leave the house at night, I prefer to take these taxis because it's a woman taking a woman somewhere," she said.
"I don't think there's any shame in a woman working as a taxi driver - it's a profession like any other profession, and it shouldn't be limited to men," she said.
Around half a million women in Jordan have driving licences, about 20 per cent of the country's total drivers, according to the national traffic department.
Ms Akoubeh said some people give her encouragement but "there is always someone to remind me that 'this is men's work and you should be in the home.'" Jordan is relatively liberal in terms of women's rights compared to other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia which does not allow women behind the wheel at all.
But more conservative attitudes are still common.
Mohammad al-Ahmad, a 50-year-old civil servant, said driving a taxi is not appropriate work for women.
"We live in a conservative Eastern society governed by tribal customs and traditions," he said.
"There are lots of jobs and professions women can do that fit their abilities and preserve their place in society, without them being seen in a bad light." But Eid Abu al-Haj, head of an investment group behind a company that runs the Pink Taxi service, says encouraging women to drive is a service to society.
"Women are more careful and cause fewer accidents," he said. "By providing these cars exclusively for women, we are hoping to give women more comfort and privacy." The service was launched on March 21, when most of the Arab world marks Mother's Day.
"We started with five cars just for women, with women drivers, and now we have 10 drivers, between 30 and 45 years old, and we're hoping to expand soon," said Mr Abu al-Haj.
The concept has already been tried and tested in Cairo, another conservative city where women taxi drivers were previously unheard of.
Ms Akoubeh said she has a good salary, health insurance, social security and holidays, and she can choose what hours to work.
Other taxi drivers in Amman say they take home at most US$35 a day after paying a share of their takings to the companies that own the cars.
Driving in Amman is not easy work. Home to four million people and 1.4 million vehicles including over 11,000 taxis, the city is prone to choking congestion.
"It takes a lot of concentration and care, especially during rush hours," Ms Akoubeh said.
But she enjoys the work.
"I get to know new people every day," she said. "I enjoy my conversations with them and hearing their stories and experiences."