Almost every female visitor to Egypt has experienced some degree of sexual harassment: penetrating stares as well as lewd and suggestive comments by male by-standers, touching, groping and rubbing on public transport and in crowded areas, genital exposure and in rarer cases, rape. A recent survey carried out by ECWR (Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights) found that 88% of foreign women and 82% of local women, even those wearing hijab and fully covered, have experienced one or more of the above.
This upsurge in sexual harassment is the result of a complex situation facing Egyptian society including the influence of mullas in the mosques and increasing ‘Islamization’; the economic situation with high male unemployment; cultural and religious mores regarding sex and marriage; male hostility to the increasing numbers of women leaving the home to work, and the all-pervading impact of the Internet.
So how can foreign women travelling in Egypt protect themselves against, or at least minimize, unwanted attention while still enjoying the Egyptian experience.
- Travel with a male friend if possible.
- Try to arrive at the airport during the day and arrange for airport transfer either with a hotel or MISR
(Egyptian travel Agency) limousine.
- Use licensed taxis, preferably those recommended by reputable hotels, to travel around large cities.
- Sit up the front with the women in local buses if you must use public transport and in the first car of the Metro which is reserved for women.
- Do not go onto a train platform or into a carriage if there is no other woman around.
- Don’t walk in deserted areas and never ask men for directions. Ask women.
- Keep doors in hotels and on sleeper trains locked.
- Be aware when visiting Internet shops and cafes as young predatory males often hang out there.
- Watch out for groups of young teenagers trying to engage you in conversation.
- Avoid shaking hands with salesmen and don’t allow men in bazaars and shops touch you or invade your personal space.
- Never accept an invitation from a stranger to accompany him somewhere, never return to a shop to purchase something after hours and never go into the back room of a shop alone.
- Be careful in the camel and horse enclosure near the Sphinx and don’t ever ride in tandem on a camel.
- Don’t strip down to a bikini to sunbathe or swim unless in the privacy of a top class hotel along the coasts of the Red Sea and Sinai. Even then you will still attract unwanted attention.
- Avoid direct eye contact with males if possible. Wear sunglasses to make this easier.
- Wear headphones to avoid hearing filthy comments and even if you do, try to ignore them.
- Create a scene if a male tries to touch you and make sure you catch the attention of those around you by shouting out something in Arabic like ‘ihtirim nafsakin’ (‘behave yourself’) or in English like, ‘how dare you touch me, who do you think you are?’ Shock and humiliate the perpetrator who will likely run off in embarrassment.
- Follow the example of some of the more courageous local Egyptian women, who carry veil pins and capsicum spray.
Although many Egyptian males are charming, funny, hospitable and helpful, sexual harassment of foreign women is the rule rather than the exception. However, there is no need to be paranoid or travel in fear. To enjoy your holiday, just be aware and take reasonable precautions.