The Pitfalls of Traveling as a Woman in Egypt
When things get tough in other parts of the world, they have bread riots; in Egypt, we are having falafel riots. Not literally, of course. There are many things conspicuously missing from Cairo at present—most notably a reliable police force and a functioning constitution—but there does still appear to be enough food to go around.
I never would have guessed that, though, when I walked to the neighborhood falafel stand around noon yesterday and saw more than two dozen men clamoring past each other, waving scraps of paper in the face of the (incredibly stressed) old man who was working the counter. He was working frantically, his movements like those machines in the cartoons—dials spinning madly and parts shaking until they inevitably explode. Protests broke out from the crowd every time he took a new slip, and as he yelled back I could hear the strain in his voice from having lived too many years in this city.
Usually, walking around Cairo with a shock of blond hair sticking up off your head is not an advantage at all.
I paid, took my slip of paper, and walked out some five minutes later with three falafel sandwiches. Sometimes there are advantages to the way I stick out in a crowd, like when the starved mob makes room for you at the front of the crowd. But usually, not so much. Usually, walking around Cairo with a shock of blond hair sticking up off your head is not an advantage at all.
Female travelers to Egypt have been warned for years of the sexual harassment, and it’s only gotten worse since Mubarak’s fall and the lack of a strong state presence. Catcalls abound on the streets of almost every country in the world, including America (and, for that matter, Morocco), but the celebrity of Egypt’s harassment problem is testament to its magnitude. Walking the streets of Cairo is like nothing I’ve experienced in my life.
Knowing that you’re constantly being watched is a strange feeling; you don’t know how to carry yourself.
I walk downtown twice a week to teach English at a refugee services organization; on my way there, I walk alone during the dusk rush hour. Coming back, a friend and I walk together in the dark. It’s a crowded route. Our recorded average is one incident per twenty-four seconds, and while most incidents manifest themselves as a mere, “Welcome!” from an ogling and thoroughly unwelcoming teenager who never feels a need to greet our male colleagues, it runs the gambit up to groping or blocking one’s path forward. And it starts to add up. It is draining. It is annoying. And sometimes, it is darn near terrifying.
Knowing that you’re constantly being watched is a strange feeling; you don’t know how to carry yourself. It’s like constantly feigning a candid photo, or like being around a person you’re really attracted to. You don’t know where to put your hands, how to balance on your hips, the best way to tilt your head. Except you’re not posing for a picture or a love interest in a way that says “please find me beautiful;” you’re posing for a rude stranger “eff off.” I have perfected what I call my “bitch face” and my “aggressively late for an appointment” walk, and I have learned to never break out of it for any reason.
There is a culture of sexual dynamics here that I can never hope to fully comprehend. And I have nobody to ask because I have no female Egyptian friends.
Walking along the corniche in Alexandria a few weeks ago, I saw the most adorable young boy fishing alongside his dad, the sunset illuminating them both in profile. I allowed myself a smile at the sight. The dad saw me, elbowed the boy, and this kid—this 8-year-old child—clicked his tongue and yelled something unfit to print at me. So I don’t smile in public anymore. Ever.
But I’m not Egyptian. I don’t have the slightest understanding of the effects of such an environment on Egyptian women; I’m still recovering from the idea of a 10 p.m. curfew, parental permission to leave on weekends, and male maintenance workers being led into the female wing by a maid yelling, “Man on the floor!” at the top of her lungs. There is a culture of sexual dynamics here that I can never hope to fully comprehend. And I have nobody to ask because I have no female Egyptian friends.
There are no women on the streets of Egypt because the streets of Egypt are not safe for women.
Almost none of my students are women. There are rarely women in the cafes or on the streets; women don’t work in the drink stands or drive the cabs or refill the coals in a shisha. Even inside the walls of my university, the girls in my classes never talk to strangers, and on what basis would I initiate the conversation when we don’t even greet each other with a smile? It’s hard to selectively deprogram “bitch face” when you were born learning how to make it.
To be honest, I would have no Egyptian friends at all if it weren’t for the young men who approach me out of the blue in the library or at a cafe, obviously hoping to date me but who nonetheless stick around after I shut that down. And isn’t that just harassment by another name? There are no women on the streets of Egypt because the streets of Egypt are not safe for women.
The Pitfalls of Traveling as a Woman in Egypt
And the streets of Egypt are not safe for women because it’s so rare to spot a woman there. Whichever direction the causal relationship runs, however ingrained the culture of harassment is—something has to give. Because “bitch face” is turning me into a bitch.