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Taxi revolution on Tehran streets

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Tehran

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The bright green women's taxis are an increasingly familiar sight in Tehran

When Roqaya Khalili wants to visit friends or relatives, or do the weekly shopping at the supermarket, she picks up the phone and dials a four-digit number.

A few minutes later, a bright green taxi draws up outside Roqaya's home in a suburb of west Tehran.

At the wheel is Sahar Foghani, one of around 700 women cab drivers in Tehran who are making a living, or supplementing the family income, working for a taxi agency run by women, for women.

It's a scenario that would be unthinkable in nearby Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving.

Women's rights in Iran may have some way to go.

But they are free to go out on their own, to drive their own vehicles, or to take taxis driven by men if they like.

'Better drivers'

A customer boards a Women's Taxi in Tehran
The service handles 2,500 customers a day and is growing quickly

But Roqaya Khalili is one of around 40,000 registered customers who prefer to move around in cabs with women in the driving seat.

"I feel safer in a woman's taxi, from all points of view," she says.

"A lot of the men drivers are young and impatient, and they're not disciplined. Women are simply better drivers."

That's a view with which Sahar Foghani, battling daily with Tehran's traffic jams and antisocial driving habits, clearly agrees.

"I've been driving for nearly two years now, and have never had a bump, or a violation ticket," she says.

Sahar has two teenage children, and says she took to the roads to help her husband make ends meet in harsh economic times.

"It's tough on the kids, as they're often stuck at home on their own, but they've been really helpful," she says.

Like 70% of the drivers working for Women's Taxis, Sahar owns her own car, buying it off the company in instalments.

"I can pay off the car over 60 months, so this is an investment as well as providing some extra income," Sahar says.

A Women's Taxi driver changes a tyre in Tehran
Women learn basic maintenance such as how to change a tyre

"Tehran traffic is really heavy, so you have to love driving to do this job," she adds.

High gear

The agency's control centre on the southern edge of Tehran handles about 2,500 jobs a day.

Customers phone in to the centre, and their details are sent out by radio to whichever of the cabs is closest to the address concerned.

At the centre, the women drivers are also given lessons in basic car maintenance and such essentials as how to change a burst tyre.

All the operators at the centre are women too.

But the concept was the brainchild of a man, Mohsen Uruji, who says he spotted a gap in Tehran's transport system.

"What was missing was a role for women," he says.

"By setting up this purely private sector company, we've been able to provide jobs for many women, as well as a service for other women who want to travel around in a more relaxed way."

An operator takes a call at the call centre in Tehran
All the operators at the call centre are women too

Many of the drivers are war widows or divorcees who really need the work, and are referred to the agency by some of the big welfare foundations.

The project has mushroomed.

"We started off with 10 ten cars," says Mr Uruji.

"Now we have 700, and plan to expand to 2,000 in Tehran, as well as opening up in other cities."

Ahead of the pack

Many of the customers are of course highly conservative Muslim women who feel uncomfortable travelling alone in a vehicle with an unknown man at the wheel.

So in that respect, the service is catering to traditional tastes.

A woman pays the driver in Tehran
The business provides much-needed income for widows and divorcees
At the same time though, it is giving the women drivers the opportunity to get out there and earn some money in a profession which even in most western countries is often regarded as something of a male preserve.

The concept seems to have caught on and identified a real need.

So the bright green taxis driven by Sahar Foghani and others have become an increasingly familiar sight, forging their way through the horrendous traffic jams that are such a dominant feature of life in Tehran.

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