My Lonely Planet guide to Egypt makes women’s experiences traveling exceptional to the norm. A typical section might go on for 5 paragraphs about a beautiful garden, then end with a sentence about how women traveling alone should not walk there are night as we will be mistaken for prostitutes. Next item!
There are obvious and continuous hassels to traveling alone while female. Constant street harassment (which Egyptian women put up with as well) is the biggest one. Being followed down the street with kissing noises and compliments in the most acquisitive tone possible is scary. It can also be difficult staying in a hotel alone, as guests and staff may make ludicrous assumptions about our negotiable virtue based on our travel style. And, of course, having to constantly be concerned that we’re showing the appropriate level of modesty (this involves hundreds of self-checks every day, including sleeve and collar adjustments, knee arrangements, and eye-avertments). The level of body-policing involved in performing modesty is not inconsequential in its psychological and time-wasting costs.
But there are some significant benefits to traveling alone while female in Egypt:
- No one asks for baksheesh (bribes). When I first visited Egypt with my family in 2010, we were constantly being asked for 1 – 5 Egyptian Pound tips, for everything for directions to being let into a site we already paid to see. In my 6 days traveling here alone, I have been asked for baksheesh once, and even that was much more casual than what I remembered.
- Access to women’s spaces. The Metro has a women’s car where (for the most part) only women sit. It’s usually quieter than the men’s car, but even better, I don’t have to play eye-tag with everyone around me (in the men’s car, my usual smile-because-we-accidentally-made-eye-contact routine nets me minutes of ridiculously brazen stares). Yesterday, I rode the Metro with a woman, her friend, and her two babies. We spent the entire time playing peek-a-boo, giggling at how cute they were in my broken Arabic and the Mom’s broken English, and cheering as the Mom lifted the toddler girl up to the hold-bar to do baby pull-ups. Experiences I bet none of my male-friends have had.
- Directions come easier. I ask for directions a lot, because it is the perfect way to test my Arabic and learn new phrases, I don’t like to backtrack when it’s hot, and I get lost a lot because I have the time to just start walking in a direction and correct as I go rather than plan a detailed route. Every time I’ve asked for help, usually from men since they’re standing around not minding children or groceries and there are just more of them on the street, I get a smile and a pointed arm and, often, my favorite bit of conversation:
Hey, hey, where are you from?
Ana Amrikia–I’m American. Min wileat California.
Ah, American *thumbs up*. Welcome!
Shukran. I’ve felt very welcome here.
I’ve had this identical exchange at least three times a day since I came to Cairo and found it the same in Alexandria. Every single person I have told I am an American smiled and was happy I was in Egypt. Those I engaged in a longer conversation usually expressed either that they enjoyed American pop culture, love our people but have issues with our government, or want a visa to visit the U.S.
I have never felt unsafe because of my nationality, if anything, I feel more welcome once I tell people because I’m giving of myself in exchange for much-needed directions. I have often felt unsafe because of my gender, but that’s true every place I’ve lived. Dealing with harassment should not be but is part of the cost of being female, any place in the world. But at least in Cairo my reward for not throwing the last idiot who whistled at me against the corniche and pounding some sense into him is getting to see incredible views like this:
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”–Aldous Huxley
I hope Egypt is safer nowadays. I’m not sure though if there are no more demonstrations in the streets.