The women who guard other women in conservative Egypt
Cairo — Her hair neatly tucked under a Muslim headscarf, Dawlat al-Amine practises aikido regularly in a Cairo gym where she and her female colleagues learn martial arts to protect other women.
The blackclad "ladyguards" provide a niche service to women who have broken through the Arab world’s glass ceiling and achieved fame and fortune, but who feel they cannot resort to male protection out of deference to the region’s conservative mores.
The leader of neighbouring Libya, Moamer Kadhafi, is famous for his female bodyguards, dubbed Amazons.
But clients of the "ladyguards" include Egyptian actresses and pop divas, as well as princesses and wealthy businesswomen from the oil-rich Gulf.
"We were the first to create a service of ladyguards, for several reasons," said Cherif Khaled, managing director of Falcon group which first launched the service three years ago.
"Women in Egypt now have been able to break into different fields. They have become businesswomen, lawyers, judges, even marriage officials," he said.
"When given the opportunity, Egyptian women are able to succeed."
But Khaled added that even when women do break through, they ignore the conservative traditions of a male-dominated society like Egypt at their peril.
"At the end of the day, we are a Middle Eastern society. When a woman passes through a security check, she prefers to be searched by a woman rather than by a man," he said.
"When you are dealing lady to lady, things are much easier."
The Falcon group, a subsidiary of Egyptian bank CIB, employs 3,800 security personnel, providing services ranging from personal protection to cash transfer to security systems.
In 2008, the company made net profits of 13 million Egyptian pounds (2.3 million dollars).
It has some 300 "ladygyards" on its register, all of whom have been put through a rigorous training in martial arts and "static surveillance" skills.
"I like the idea of protecting VIPs and the idea that I can defend myself anywhere at any time," said Amine. "It is important for me to be able to protect my integrity."
Although Amine, 20, wears the Muslim headscarf, the hijab is not a compulsory part of the uniform.
She says her work has given her a sense of power and status in a country where women often fall victim to male discrimination or harassment.
Amani Mahmoud is also learning the ropes at the Heliopolis gym where Amine works out.
"It’s a new idea," she said.
"Why do boys always get the opportunities? I decided to enter this field to prove that I could do it and I found that I really liked it."
The-21-year old admits it was not easy persuading her family it was the right choice of career.
"I faced lots of problems from my father who said: ‘You are not going to be able to defend yourself’ but I have proved to him that I can do it and that I can be as brave as a man.
"I can go out on the streets and defend myself, in or out of work," she said.
Falcon advertises regularly in the Egyptian press. Recruits must be between 20 and 35, and have gone through higher education and have martial arts skills.
All are put through medical and psychological tests, including an assessment of their conflict management skills.
English speakers have an edge.
"If a woman client is going to a foreign country, we have to provide a ladyguard who has those skills," said Falcon client relations manager Mohammed Salah.