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Why Female Travelers in Cairo Just Can’t Win

No matter what, women have to be on guard in Cairo. Your brain is on every minute of every day in order to keep yourself safe. It’s exhausting, but not unlike some other places I’ve traveled to.

As a confident traveler, I got cocky and assumed that as long as I was alert in Cairo, traveling as a woman wouldn’t be that different from anywhere else.

I guess I was wrong.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Sexual harassment in Cairo is everywhere, ranging from cat calls to assaults. Groping on metro cars is so common that there are separate cars for women, one of the only times segregation is a good thing.

Dressing conservatively and wearing a head scarf is just the start. Eye contact is considered flirting and god forbid you accidentally brush against a man while walking on a crowded street. It’s far too easy for a man to misinterpret something as a sexual invitation, so you have to be even more careful than normal.

And as if it isn’t already annoying enough to have street vendors shouting at you all day long to buy their things, women will deal with whistles and stares on top of that.

Seeing All Sides of the Story

For the first time ever, I traveled with a group of friends. Picture 20 college friends, all headed to the other side of the world for a mutual friend’s wedding (yes, in Cairo). So even though I was traveling with my husband, I saw and heard it all in Cairo as we recapped the day’s events back at the hotel. I had female friends traveling solo, some traveling as a group of females, and my own experience as a married woman.

Guess what? Everyone had annoyances and/or issues to varying degrees.

Solo Female Travel in Cairo

I am so inspired by women that travel solo to Egypt. My friends are living proof that it’s possible — maybe even enjoyable — so don’t be discouraged if that’s how you’re planning to travel.

They agreed that with proper precautions, personal safety wasn’t much of an issue. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Every day they dealt with constant pestering and sometimes even locals who followed them around.

What’s your ability to withstand that pressure? Some people are so good at shaking that off, but I’m the type of person who will end up fleeing to the hotel room and swearing I’m never going back out. I know others who would break down and scream when it gets to be too much.

Getting a guide to accompany you will help deal with the hassle, but you’ll lose the freedom of wandering around to soak things in. You can also make references to your husband (real or made-up) in hopes that men will respect that boundary.

Traveling With a Man Isn’t a Solution

Considering I was raised to believe I can do anything a man can, it’s awkward to say that I thought traveling with my husband would solve a lot of problems in Cairo. It’s true: I wasn’t oppressively harassed.

The problem is…as a woman in Cairo, you’re a second-class citizen. Men won’t talk directly to you and they’ll conduct business with the man you’re traveling with. It’s strange and frustrating for an independent women to no longer have any power.

It’s also logistically inconvenient when the woman is the one in the relationship making the travel preparations. Out of the two of us, I was the one who had all the plans and context. I did my best to make sure my husband had the information he needed to arrange things for both of us, but there were still a few hiccups.

Sometimes in the spur of the moment, I knew the answer to something he didn’t: like landmarks to give to taxi drivers when they don’t know exactly where you’re going. There were a few times I was flat-out ignored and other times when our haggling turned into me whispering prices to my husband who would speak them out loud. So ironic for a country that treated women as equals during ancient times.

Women Should Still Go to Cairo

The Giza Necropolis near Cairo, Egypt

Egypt is a man’s world, but it’s also an incredible place to visit. Consider the type of trip you want to have and plan accordingly by hiring guides or inviting friends if limiting unwelcome advances is important to you. Be prepared for some uncomfortable moments but those are outweighed by the opportunity to experience unrivaled hospitality and incredible history.

 

Becky focuses on hands-on experiences and interactive travel on her blog, The Girl and Globe. Although she calls Richmond, VA home, find her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest to follow along with travel tips and stories.

 

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10 Responses to Why Female Travelers in Cairo Just Can’t Win

  1. Danielle (Escaping Essex) November 10, 2016 at 2:19 AM #

    So strange to believe that there are still countries where women are treated like second class citizens, it makes me so angry! I’m glad you still had a good time and encourage others to go, I’d love to visit! Lovely post!

    • Becky November 10, 2016 at 10:05 AM #

      @Danielle, It’s all about being prepared…I’m hoping that women (local and visitors) start to earn more power and respect in the future. As an American who is used to being treated as an equal, it’s upsetting to see how things are so different there.

  2. Noelle November 10, 2016 at 8:28 AM #

    Wow, I’m surprised that the harassment is that intense. Certainly good to know if/when I ever travel there!

    • Becky November 10, 2016 at 10:05 AM #

      @Noelle, I expected some harassment for sure but it wore on me by the end of the trip.

  3. Casey Colesworthy November 10, 2016 at 10:24 AM #

    A seriously fascinating read and you do a great job of explaining your personal struggles as a woman. I primarily travel solo and have always, always wanted to go to Egypt but what you’ve just described has held me back. Honestly, even with years of solo travel under my belt, I’m not sure I could do it completely alone or even with another woman. Unfortunately, I think I would need a male presence to feel significantly more at ease. Thanks again for sharing this experience!

    • Becky November 10, 2016 at 12:38 PM #

      @Casey, It’s such a cool country that I wouldn’t write it off entirely. I’d recommend going with a group and/or a guide. It’ll help with some of the harassment + give you a shoulder to lean on when you just need to vent!

  4. Sabina Lohr November 10, 2016 at 3:08 PM #

    Hi Becky – I enjoyed reading what you have to say about your experiences in Cairo, and I’m glad you traveled there.

    I’ve lived in Egypt as well as other parts of the Middle East, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Cairo, alone and with male friends. I believe everything you say about the experiences you had in Cairo. I have a lot of close friends who are Egyptian men, some of whom live in Cairo, so I have insight into how they think and behave. I’ve also had a lot of experiences myself in Cairo. So I’d like to shed some light on the experiences you had for yourself as well as anyone else reading these comments.

    I know a lot of women say they are harassed on the streets of Cairo. I didn’t read that you yourself specifically experienced harassment, so I’m assuming maybe some of the other women you were with did, although maybe it was you. This of course should not happen anywhere in the world. The phrase unwanted attention that people use is a nebulous term. What some people consider unwanted attention might be considered by me or someone else to be perfectly fine. If I’m walking down the street and a guy is trying to talk to me, that is fine. If a guy is making vulgar remarks, that is not. Anyway, as you know, harassment and unwanted attention takes place not only in Cairo, but in many other countries all over the world.

    As far as groping, I was groped many times during my month in Vietnam. However, I have never been groped in Cairo or anywhere else in Egypt. I know other women say this happens in Cairo but there are other women do not say this happens. I want people who read this to understand that to go to Egypt does not by any means mean you will be automatically be groped. In fact, you probably will not.

    I do not remember seeing separate metro cars for women in Cairo, although I believe you that they exist. This is not to avoid groping or harassment. Rather, in the Arab world men and women don’t intermingle to the extent we do in the West, so it is more natural and comfortable for them to be seated with their own gender. You will find women-only metro cars elsewhere in the Middle East as well, like in Dubai. There are sometimes even a separate section for women reserved in the front section of buses in the UAE. Men have to sit in the back of these buses and are not allowed to sit in the front unless they are with their wife. Women are, however, allowed to sit in the back of the bus with the men.

    I know a lot of people believe that women in the Middle East are treated as second-class citizens, largely because Arab women, as well as religious Jewish women in Israel, cover their heads and dress more modestly than we do. I am not a second-class citizen no matter where I go and neither are you. Most men in Cairo do not think you are a second-class citizen. Maybe some do, if they’re jerks like you’ll find all over the world, but of course it’s not everyone. When men were speaking to your husband instead of you, they were almost definitely not thinking you are a second-class citizen. Again, this is a product of their culture not mingling men and women together to the extent we do. Any man who talked to your husband instead of you was actually probably being respectful of both you and your husband and trying not to make either of you feel uncomfortable by speaking directly to you instead of to him. Can you imagine if a Western man and woman went up to an Egyptian husband and wife in Cairo and the Western man had started talking to the Egyptian woman instead of the Egyptian man? That would have seemed strange to the Egyptians and would not have been comfortable for them

    What you wrote is actually really nice compared to other posts about women in Egypt, so it was good to read. I’m happy you concluded by saying women should still go to Cairo. I hope you’ll go back too and also visit the rest of Egypt some day 🙂

    • Becky November 10, 2016 at 4:04 PM #

      @Sabina, Thanks so much for your insight. It’s obvious that you know the country well and I loved some of your cultural insights. You’re right that it’s easy for me to interpret things one way when culturally, the Egyptians may intend something else entirely. The joy of traveling 🙂

      Any unwanted attention I received was not harmful, only annoying. I had a few whistles and cat calls (but frankly, I get those in many countries and fully expected those). My female friends who were traveling without men mentioned nonstop attention and at times direct/confrontational advances that made them uncomfortable, but never groping. I was grabbed by the arm at one point, but not in a sexual manner. I think it’s important for travelers to ask themselves what their comfort level is before going to Egypt (or any number of other destinations) and be honest about whether or not that will impact their personal experience.

      I loved Egypt and I cannot wait to return…I just know what to expect next time and how to best prepare myself for it. As part of that preparation, I love the idea of putting myself in their pair of shoes to understand why I’m being treated differently. Thanks for keeping my mind open!

  5. Giovanni Mounir December 12, 2016 at 10:47 AM #

    not all Egyptians are the same of course, but you are totally right there is sexual harassment, specially for foreigners :/ but Egypt still beautiful

  6. Susan December 26, 2016 at 3:46 PM #

    I traveled to Egypt almost 6 years ago. To put that in context, it was during their Arab Spring. There were no police and the country was without a leader. There were very few tourist visiting at that time and almost no females. I flew in on an empty plane with almost all men who were contractors in the region.
    If I were ever to expect men to run amok it would be then. I did not have that experience. I spent one day with a male tour guide and the rest of my time in Egypt (Cairo and Sinai) was spent traveling with a single female friend. I had no problems anywhere not even walking around by myself. The worst that happened was a vendor told my male guide that he would buy me for 1000 camels. I think he was trying to say I had value, perhaps only as chattel but also that I was desirable. I think it was meant as a compliment.
    I had more trouble in Haiti and Sicily. I Haiti was wolf-packed by a group of vendors and I had my breast grabbed by a vendor. In Sicily a male guide would not speak to me, only my husband despite it being obvious that I had the reigns.
    What I experienced in Cairo was no better or worse than what I experience in my little town in the US.
    In addition to what Sabina said, I think everyone’s tolerance is different. I am sure some women would view the comments that the merchant made about me different than I did.
    I love Egypt and would not hesitate to go back.

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