Lots of women travel solo in Egypt, and most have a great time in the country. Travelling alone as a female, though, is unfathomable to many Egyptians, so expect a lot of attention. Some of this is welcome; as a lone female you're more likely than a single male or travelling couple to be befriended by families and local women and garner invites to people's houses. Unfortunately though, you're more likely to encounter some unwelcome attention as well.
Egypt has a bad reputation for sexual harassment. In a 2013 UN survey, a staggering 99.3% of Egyptian women stated that they had been subjected to some form of harassment. For the most part, this presents as wearying amounts of cat-calling, declarations of love, leering or being followed down the street, and minor groping in crowds or closed-in spaces such as buses or taxis. This can all put something of a dampener on your travels.
Attitudes are slowly changing. Sexual harassment was made a criminal offence in Egypt in June 2014; in September 2014 Cairo University took the initiative to officially adopt an anti-sexual-harassment policy on campus. Both these unprecedented steps are a huge leap forward in recognising a problem that has been brushed under the carpet for years. In saying that, Egypt has a long road to travel in tackling its harassment issues head on.
- Expect copious questions about your marital status and number of children. Egyptians are highly family-orientated and talking about family is a normal conversation starter, particularly with strangers. If you're single and childless, expect countless queries about why this is. Sometimes, to preserve your sanity, it's easier to make up a cover-story about your 'husband' and 'children' back home.
- Use the women-only carriages on the Cairo metro. Not only are they less crowded than the other carriages, but they're also a great opportunity to meet local women.
- Stock up on tampons and other female sanitary products before travelling. Even in the main centres they can be difficult to source.
- Trust your instincts. If you enter a hotel or restaurant and feel the atmosphere is leery, you're probably right. Don't grin and bear it. Just walk straight out.
- Carry a scarf to cover your head inside mosques.
- Sunglasses help deflect attention.
- Get older: after your mid-30s, the hassle diminishes.
Egypt is a highly conservative country, so this is not the place to be breaking out your hot pants and strappy tank tops. You will stick out less like a sore thumb if you dress modestly, covering shoulders, cleavage and knees. T-shirts (with a sleeve that covers upper arms), long pants and long skirts not only aid to deflect unwanted attention but also help in encouraging interactions with local women, some of whom wouldn't approach travellers wearing skimpier attire.
Bikinis and swimsuits are best left to the private beaches of hotels. On public beaches and in the desert hot springs wear a t-shirt and shorts over your swimsuit at the least.
Adopting The Right Attitude
It's easier said than done, but ignoring most verbal harassment is usually the best policy. If you respond to every one, you’ll wear yourself out, and public shaming seldom gets satisfying results. Very few harassers will persist following or cat-calling for more than a few metres if you act as if you haven't noticed them.
Walk and act confidently; persistent harassers tend to latch onto those who look like they don't know what they're doing.
Most importantly, don't presume that every man who wants to strike up a conversation is out to get you. Egyptians tend to be gregarious, naturally hospitable and extremely open to talking to strangers. As the majority of Egyptians who work in tourism are male, you'll miss out on some great local interactions if you're too scared to talk to them.
For many female travellers being cat-called in Egypt can be particularly unnerving if you can't understand what is being said. Once you know what the wannabe Lotharios are actually muttering as you walk past, you may find it more cringeworthy than scary. Egypt's most common cat-calls are:
- Muza Hugely popular slang term for a curvaceous, pretty female. You're being compared to a muz (banana) for your curves.
- Asal (honey) Exactly the same as in English.
- Sarokh (rocket) In young male street-slang this means 'this girl is rocket', a compliment to your exceptional beauty.
- Ishta (cream) Going out of fashion but still occasionally heard; describing a good-looking female.
- Mahallabiye In a country of sweet-tooths, it's not surprising that the popular dessert of mahallabiye (milk custard with pine nuts and almonds) has become a slang word for a pretty woman.
- Gazelle Although you may be feel slightly put out at being compared to a small desert-dwelling mammal of the antelope family, Egyptians consider gazelles their most beautiful native animal and being called one is supposed to be complimentary.
Public Spaces To Be Wary Of
- Never sit in the front passenger seat of taxis, servees or microbuses. On all public transport, try to sit next to another woman.
- Don't go to baladi (local bars) unaccompanied.
- Some coffeehouses are strictly men-only affairs. Check out the scene before sitting down.
- Avoid city buses at peak times; the crowds make them prime groping zones.
- The evenings of Eid Al Fitr (the holiday at the end of Ramadan) seem to be an excuse for groups of young men to roam the streets harassing women. If you're in Luxor, Cairo or Alexandria at this time, it can be best to stay off the street after nightfall.
- Avoid crowds where testosterone is high: street protests, post-football match celebrations and the like.
Responding to Persistent Harassment
For serious encounters and any incidences of physical contact, don't be afraid to create a scene. Saying 'haraam aleik!' or 'ayb aleik!' (both mean 'shame on you!') or the simpler 'imshi!' ('go away!') is usually enough to stop most harassers. Don't hesitate to ask for help. Most Egyptians are hugely ashamed of the harassment problem their country has. While, because of embarrassment, many won't intercept as they see harassment occurring, bystanders will usually jump to your aid if prompted.
Also, report any harassment to HarassMap (www.harassmap.org). This NGO does excellent work in breaking the stereotypes that surround sexual harassment in Egypt by documenting the extent of incidents throughout the country.
What To Do In An Emergency
For help, counselling and legal advice if you have been seriously attacked, you can contact the Egyptian women's rights organisations El Nadeem Center for Victims of Violence and Torture (010-0666-2404; firstname.lastname@example.org) or Nazra for Feminist Studies (010-1191-0917; email@example.com).
HarassMap (www.harassmap.org) is also an excellent resource for advice.
The Dark Side Of Egypt's Demonstrations
An international spotlight was thrown on Egypt's high levels of violence against women after the 2011 Revolution when a huge number of sexual assaults and rapes occurred at protests and rallies, including a couple of high-profile attacks on foreign female journalists. Over the four-day protest period in July 2013 alone, which resulted in the ousting of President Morsi, Egyptian anti-sexual harassment groups reported 91 cases of serious sexual assault or rape of female demonstrators in Tahrir Square. In June 2014 a video of a female protester being attacked by a mob went viral, prompting a long-overdue nationwide debate on sexual assault in Egypt. Since then, local NGOs have launched several high-profile campaigns endeavouring to help change Egyptian society's high levels of tolerance towards all forms of sexual harassment.
Films & Books For Women Travellers
- Read Rosemary Mahoney’s Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff and G Willow Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque, two very different tales of female solo travel in Egypt.
- Watch Cairo 6,7,8, a great 2011 fiction film about three Egyptian women dealing with sexual harassment.