After a few years in the tourism doldrums, Egypt is back on travel wishlists. The pyramids, the River Nile, Luxor’s glut of tombs and temples, and the Red Sea’s world-class diving are all major reasons to start planning your itinerary now, but some female travellers may be hesitant to start packing their bags straight away.
It’s fair to say that Egypt has a bad reputation with some travellers. Women thinking about a first-time trip to Egypt are often regaled by at least one acquaintance who’s previously travelled there with tales involving lecherous men. This reputation annoys many women who have happily travelled around the country, solo or with others, for years, but even they acknowledge that some of it is deserved.
Egypt may not be the easiest place to travel as a woman, but overall, the good far outweighs the bad. Aside from its wealth of ancient ruins, historic monuments, vast desert and coral reefs, one of the main joys of an Egypt trip are the people themselves. Egyptians are some of the most hospitable and garrulous people in the world. Although catcalling is rife, for every time a young man yells at you in the street, there will be an invitation to sit down and have lunch with a shopkeeper or a temple site-guardian who dishes out tea and jokes with you. Some of the best times to be had in Egypt are these random interactions, and female travellers would do well to not shut themselves off from chatting to Egyptian men for fear of being harassed. Go prepared, but bring an open mind.
Will I be harassed in Egypt?
Unfortunately, the short answer is yes. Harassment drops off a cliff for women rocking grey hair, but women are very likely to run into some sexual and verbal harassment. Blue-eyed travellers, black travellers and travellers with curvier body-shapes seem to attract more. Most harassment tends to come from groups of young men loitering on street corners shouting obscenities as you walk past. This is wearying, though not usually particularly threatening. Verbal harassment notches up the creepy-index when it involves men trailing you down the street. Physical harassment is more likely to occur in crowded, ‘trapped-in’ situations such as public transport.
As for that other hassling that Egypt is famous for – the souvenir-tat vendors, boat and camel touts hustling for business – take comfort in the fact that they’re equal opportunity hasslers: they’ll happily harass both male and female tourists until you crack and buy that toy pyramid and gold glitter snow globe.
How to deal with harassment
The best way to deal with 99% of verbal harassment is to ignore it. Most street harassment isn’t going to escalate, and if you responded to every incident by confronting the assailant, you’d end up exhausted. If the harasser is persistent, a useful phrase is ‘ayb aleik’ (shame on you), which, if shouted, can stop some cat-callers in their tracks. If you do lose your cool, it’s important to realise that everybody reaches breaking point at some stage: be kind to yourself. Nobody has saintly levels of patience.
Because the vast majority of Egyptians working in hospitality are male, many of your day-to-day interactions as a short-trip visitor will be with men, but one tourism career path that's popular with Egyptian women is tour guiding. If you’re looking for a site guide and feeling like you need a break from all the testosterone, look for female guides on guide-booking websites or specifically request a female guide with a local tour company. In Cairo, if you’re a bit of a foodie, consider supporting the women behind Bellies Enroute who run food tours in the downtown area.
To tour or not to tour
Because of Egypt’s reputation, many women opt for the safety-in-numbers approach and book a group tour. If you’re short on time anyway and only want to see the highlights, tours can be great, but by their very nature tours are restrictive. Not only will you be giving up the freedom to explore, but group-think also leads to less interaction with locals (yes, even with the small-group operators who tout local experiences as their catchphrase), so those preconceived ideas you had about travelling in Egypt are unlikely to be smashed.
Place to avoid … and not to avoid
After dark, when the heat fizzles out, cities such as Cairo and Luxor buzz with families strolling the streets until late. Many solo female travellers find this an unexpected pleasure of their Egypt trip.
The vast amount of Egypt’s budget hotels are fine for solo women. Some dodgier hotels do remain, so trust your instincts. If your weird-vibe radar screams at you, find another place. There are absolutely no traveller-points awarded in staying somewhere you don’t feel comfortable.
Getting around Egypt as a female traveller
Some younger female travellers are huge flag-wavers for using Uber and Careem (the Middle Eastern version of the ride-hailing service) over standard taxis, though many experienced women travellers in Egypt don’t think there’s any difference in safety. Whatever taxi form you use though, sit in the back seat. With public transport, the Cairo metro has women-only carriages, which, as an added bonus, are always less crowded. On all other public transport, try to sit next to a woman. The sardine-squashed microbuses that run routes within towns can be prime harassment territory with little you can do about stray hands. Avoid rush hour if possible.
European-style bars and restaurants serving alcohol are fine for solo women to drink in. Egypt’s baladi (local) bars are best avoided if you’re by yourself. These spit-and-sawdust drinking dens are often frequented by a clientele who are there to get drunk, not just have a few beers. The typical drunken-male-at-bar hassle that can happen anywhere in the world is amplified here because women are a rare sight in these establishments. Staff will nearly always keep a protective eye on you, but your presence causes them undue stress as they attempt to stop inebriated patrons from staggering over to your table. If you want to check out these bars (and they can be great fun), go as part of a mixed group. Also note that there's rarely a toilet for women. If this is the case, head to the toilet in pairs rather than alone.
What to wear
Dressing modestly doesn’t necessarily lessen harassment (Egyptian women suffer just as much), but it helps hugely in other interactions. Egyptian culture (both Muslim and Coptic Christian) is conservative, and many locals wouldn’t dare strike up a conversation with a woman wearing skimpy clothing. If you want to experience the often hilarious, warm natural friendliness of Egyptians, dress respectfully by covering knees, cleavage and upper arms. If you want to visit a mosque, cover down to ankles and wrists and have a headscarf on hand to wrap over your head. Save the singlets and shorts for when you’re on the beach.