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.
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.
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.
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.
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; email@example.com) or Nazra for Feminist Studies (010-1191-0917; firstname.lastname@example.org).
HarassMap (www.harassmap.org) is also an excellent resource for advice.
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.