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Martial-arts trained 'lady guards' latest security craze in Egypt

By Ben Wedeman, CNN
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Lady guards do not carry weapons, defending clients through diplomatic means, but they can disable attackers.
  • Women in Egypt are training to become bodyguards
  • The profession may seem out of place, but demand for "lady guards" is growing
  • They defend "society women," film stars and foreign visitors
  • Eighty-three percent of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- In a slightly musty gym in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, three young women in head scarves are learning how to defend themselves.

Their teacher, a huge man in loose black trousers and a white tunic, is instructing them in the finer points of Aikido, a Japanese martial art.

The women, among them 21-year-old Dawlat Sami, are learning to become "lady guards." That's what Sami's employer, Falcon, an Egyptian security company, calls its growing army of female bodyguards.

It is a profession that seems somewhat out of place in conservative Egypt.

"At first, my father objected," Sami told CNN. "But when he came with me and saw what we did, he changed his mind."

When they're not practicing Aikido or pumping iron under an old black-and-white poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodyguards get classroom instruction. The emphasis is on staying alert, maintaining a professional demeanor, and not getting too cozy with clients.

In the last three years, Falcon, one of Egypt's leading security companies, has trained more than 300 female body guards. Demand for the service is growing, according to Falcon Managing Director, Sharif Khalid.

"In our society women don't want to be searched or have their bags inspected by men," Khalid told CNN. Falcon's clients include movie stars, foreign visitors and patrons Khalid refers to as "society women."

People say women can't work as bodyguards, but I want to change that idea
--Randa Mohamed, trainee lady guard
  • Egypt
  • Martial Arts
  • Women's Issues

Lady guards do not carry weapons. They defend clients first through diplomatic means but, if all else fails, they can disable attackers.

Female body guard training emphasizes quick thinking above all.

"The body isn't so important," said Khalid. "What matters is that [female body guards] can pick out suspicious people and react quickly, because with security, if you delay just a moment, things can go very wrong."

The women who join Falcon know, however, that the skills they learn may well come in handy outside of work. "If I have any problems, or somebody bothers me, now I know how to defend myself," Amani Mahmoud, another trainee female body guard told CNN.

Sexual harassment is a growing problem in Egypt.

According to a 2008 poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR), 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign female visitors polled have experienced sexually harassment.

Egypt has made some efforts to crack down on this problem: Last year a court sentenced a man to three year in prison for groping a woman on the street. But that was the exception. For the most part, Egyptian police -- under paid and in many cases poorly educated -- shrug off complaints from women.

So, it should come as no surprise that some women are starting to take matters into their own hands: "It's also about making a point," trainee Randa Mohammad told CNN.

"People say women can't work as bodyguards, but I want to change that idea. I want to show that women can defend themselves, and defend others," said Mohammad.

Falcon isn't the first in the Middle East to come up with the idea of female bodyguards -- Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi has been using them for years.

Gadhafi often appears in public with a phalanx of hefty "Amazons," who are armed and aggressive. In fact, back in the 1980s, a Libyan body guard rifle-butted a CNN producer who got too close to Gadhafi.

Falcon's lady guards, I'm happy to report, were nothing but polite and courteous with this correspondent.