Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Harassment of Women on Cairo Streets

Warning: While most of my posts are General Audience, this post has some material that you may not want young children reading.

Sexual Harassment on the streets of Cairo is a common topic that comes up whenever a couple of women here in Egypt meet up, online or in someone's home.

There are those that say that it isnt really bad, incidents of rape are so low compared to the US, what's the harm in a little cat calling? The problem is that if you ignore the cat calling, it then turns to men masturbating at the sight of a women (I've had friends who said they saw their taxi drivers masturbating with one hand while driving with the other, simply because a foreign looking woman got into the back seat of their car), groping (which happens in a lot of cases) and could eventually by progression lead to rape if this malaise is not stopped in its tracks.

I've posted before, about Sexual Harassment but its mostly been newspaper articles or other people's experiences. Few women choose to detail their own humiliation for dissection to the world (its a different matter between close friends who understand and have gone through the same - that is in a way, slightly therapeautic)

When I last traveled to Dubai in March, most papers were filled with the news of 2 construction worker immigrants who were facing court proceedings for cat calling/ whistling at a South East Asian maid.

Points to be noted about Dubai.
1. Women (foreigners/expats) here cover far less than the majority of women in Egypt. (think tank tops and shorts to the maximum, but off shoulder, backless, low necklines are pretty common too)
2. This is a muslim majority country and local Emirati women are predominantly dressed in the black abaya type hijab. Fully covered black robes and heads/hair covered.
3. There is a high number of single men - men who have left their wives behind in home countries because they cannot afford to bring them over when they are here on long work contracts/ unmarried men.
4. There is a large population of hired labour living in what would be considered as Below Poverty Line status in the rest of the world.

All of these have been used as excuses to brush away sexual harassment in Egypt, yet Sexual harassment in Dubai overall is not even 0.1% of what "I" face in Egypt on a daily basis.

Why? Mainly because authorities take action about any such complaint. The law is tough and it is applied without fail. No excuses.

I'm not saying that everything about Dubai culture is perfect or everything about Egypt is imperfect (I've lived in Egypt for 3 years) but harassment on the roads makes me tend to avoid going out unless absolutely necessary or in a large group of friends. I know a lot of expat women in Egypt who are here on husbands postings, who do not visit anywhere that is not an expat dominated location for fear of being assaulted. While such fears may not be justified, it is a real feeling that these women live with daily.

A closer look at my wardrobe, shows me much higher necks and back lines than 3 years ago. Sleeves below the elbows, loose fitting semi-shapeless clothes. Visiting Lebanon and Dubai makes me realise how much I have changed my own style of dressing to suit this country. (Not that I ever wore plunging necklines to work in India, but they didnt all end above my collar bone either) Changing the way I dress, was just one of the adaptations to blend into the culture and surroundings in Egypt.

My husband and I both love traveling around the country/city and discovering hidden gems of cultural, architectural and historical interest which takes us into sometimes weird areas. Our driver/translator despairs when 'Madame' wants to visit Souk al Gumma (The second-hand Friday market) and other such areas, which he tells me even his mother and sister who have lived in Cairo all their lives, avoid.

But a part of the charm and beauty of living in another country is to explore its nooks and crannies. Unfortunately in Egypt, exploration into some of these nooks and crannies brings a lot of unwanted attention and in many cases, especially if my husband isnt with me, harassment both verbal and sometimes physical. So one has to be extra careful about where one goes, with whom one goes and what kind of clothes one is wearing.

Fortunately, not being cursed with blond hair, white skin and blue eyes, the harassment that I face is less than those who look "foreign" even if they are conservatively dressed.

Yes, making a scene helps and you don't need to speak in Arabic. I remember generally strolling around the pyramids alone when my husband went inside one of them (I'm claustrophobic and chose to not go in) one of those camel ride guys was persistently trying to get my attention. As is the case with most touts in the pyramids area (I have visited over 25 times in the last 3 years) I continued to ignore him, as though I couldn't understand him and refused to make eye contact. (this may seem rude, but works in most cases of persistent touts) Usually after 3-4 tries they leave me alone. This guy actually touched my hand and attempted to give me the riding whip/stick for the camel. While his gesture was not sexual, he was still "touching" me without my permission and when I had given him absolutely no reason to believe I was interested.

In Egypt, Egyptian women will never permit a strange man to ever touch them, so why do they think it is ok with tourists/foreigners? Anyhow I screamed at him in English "How dare you touch me, what do you think of yourself, what gives you the right to even touch me?" Nothing abusive, nothing indecent. In English and loudly. It was enough to make the people around stop and look and stare at the man. There was nothing confrontational about my attitude. I just made a noise to attract the attention of other people around to what was clearly something this camel guy should not have been doing. He immediately apologised and slunk away. The incident shocked him (I train people in NLP and Body language, so I KNOW he was shocked) and I doubt he will be touching any women any time soon.

But why do foreign women coming to/visiting Egypt allow these men to touch them, hand on shoulders, holding hands (not shaking hands) People whom they have just met in a shop, not people they know. They would not allow men in their home country to impose on their personal space this way, but yet some of them are perceivably ok when it happens to them in a new country. Any theories?

Point to be noted. Most of the harassment, my friends & I have faced, has been in Cairo. Men in Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria (unless during the Cairene summer invasion), Dahab, Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada, Abu Simbel, Bahariyya, Siwa, Sinai have been way more respectful of women.

Also published on


Anonymous said...

As an egyptian man, I'm ashamed to hear this although I know its very true, it happens to foreign and egyptian women alike, its mostly harmless like you said but very annoying I would imagine.

Kim said...

My experiences have mostly been "not so serious", I wouldn't call them harmless, as some of the horror stories other women and girls have been through. I have heard tales of horror subjected on girls as young as 7 and as old as 60 and above.

I think I managed to keep my experiences on the safer side, bcause I never go anywhere alone. In certain areas, I only visit if my husband or another male friend/relative is around. I also tend to ignore the verbal assaults as blank noise unless a person gets completely in my face. Then I retort.

I once screamed at a guy in my street, after that all the shopkeepers on my street keep an eye out for me, to make sure none of the passing men go overboard.

I think, most men in Egypt are decent and cultured. The problem is that they dont speak up against it when they see something like this happen. It is passed away in most cases with just another "maalesh"

I think my making a scene helped them see that such behavior wasn't acceptable (to me) and I did not "enjoy" such attention.

Since I also gave a lot of business on that street - ironing, groceries, fruits, etc etc I had a passing acquaintance with all these shopkeepers and from my behavior they sensed that I was not a "open minded" woman.

Ps: In Cairo, an "open minded" woman is normally taken to be one who is "open" to having indiscriminate sex.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

As a very old resident of Egypt (20+ years here and 60 years old) I've noticed a couple of things about this very aggravating issue. One is that there are, most unfortunately, quite a few "open-minded" foreign women around...often bored wives of expat workers for whom any attention from anyone practically is appreciated. I'm not saying that all the expat wives are like this..on the contrary, it is a minority but the best reinforcement strategy is intermittent, so having a few sprinkled here and there is terrific to keep the unwanted behaviour around. One of the worst places for harassment is the stables area at the pyramids of Giza, since many of these women take up horseback riding...or at least riding. Women who actually are simply interested in horseback riding often have a miserable time there.

The second thing that I've noticed, having raised my kids here, is that Egyptian boys are basically raised without any training whatsoever in how to address women politely or to carry on sensible conversations. Furthermore the training in delay of gratification is almost totally missing. They learn that if they persist, they will get what they want..when they are young this takes the place of tantrums and shouting matches and when they are older, they harass women, both Egyptian and foreign. Coming from a good "stiff upper lip" British tradition, my son was thoroughly trained in politeness and delay of gratification, and I suffered the criticisms of my Egyptian mother in law that I would "break his spirit" this way. Not too likely. She actually admitted when he was a teenager that it was posssible I'd known something about childrearing...that was a total shock!

My wardrobe hasn't changed as much with culture as it has changed with age..there are simply some things children shouldn't be exposed to. :-) On the other hand, as a woman of some age with the appropriate white hairs to prove it, I find that I'm treated quite well, but then I also live in the villages where traditional values of politeness to elders are stronger. There is a really tough experience curve here wherein the younger women have a much harder time than the older ones.

Kim said...

Maryanne, your life experience is invaluable, especially given how you are immersed in the Egyptian culture around you.

I totally get what you say. You have a very good point here. Mothers here rarely correct their children. Run behind them incessantly to feed them (If they dont have a maid to do the running) among other such tantrum enabling behavior.

If a child doesn't respect his own mother, how will he ever respect another woman when he grows up?

My issues with child rearing in Egypt is another can of worms alltogether. So will leave that for another post/rant :)

Hicham said...

Kim, I see there's a problem with women's harassment is related to the mentality of the person and how he was raised up and the stereotyped image about 'western women' and 'women' in general.

That said, I think that well educated and well raised people don't go through such stuff either being Muslims or Christians, you mostly find these silly attidtude from non-educated/low educated and teenagers.

Anyway I recommend being in groups especially when going to touristic places like Pyramids and being moderate in cloths.

me said...

Slm Kim

Stumbled on your blog (researching studying in cairo)

If possible can i email you (or you can mail me - would like to pick your brains on living in Cairo.

My wife & i plan to spend a few months there later this year and busy getting advices from all sorts of peeps :)


Kim said...

Thank you for your suggestions, but these measures really don't help all that much. I know from experience.

With my skin color, my style of dressing (long pants/skirts and below elbow - mostly full sleeve tops) I am often mistaken for an Egyptian until I open my mouth. I do not look Western in any way. No fair skin, no blonde hair, no blue eyes. but I still face harassment in many parts of Cairo.

I wear shorts sometimes to Alexandria, Hurghada, Dahab and have NEVER faced such problems in those cities. Unless as I mentioned before, the Cairene hordes have seiged control of Alexandria.

Groups only helps if you have a majority of young men in the group, not otherwise and even then, there are weird comments being passed.

Hicham said...

Yeah Kim, I know what you mean exactly and nothing to say more but being sad for that stereotyped mentalities.

The funny thing -if it can be called funny- is that when you talk about it people look at you as if you're nuts and here I mean when a man start talking about it and you find them muttring comments like being "FEMINIST"


Anonymous said...

Lorna, truly interesting what you say in the end about Luxor etc. I live part of the year in Luxor and I couldn't live there whole year as I get so very sad and offended by those men. And SOME men, they show no respect for women whatsoever. And the thing is I NEVER look at local men and I do not wear revealing clothes.

I have many friends who live in Hurghada and some of them say it can be horrible there too. I have been there only for about two weeks and not once anybody approached me. I have to say I was very surprised, pleasantly, as you can guess.

But for me Cairo is different. Yes I know that if I would walk in downtown it can be probably worse but I almost never have any business there. Living in Heliopolis is fine, sometimes someone can shout something but in Luxor some of the comments are REALLY bad (I always react because if I don't they never stop doing it - the thing in Luxor is that it is such a small town so everybody knows you and the word goes around. I am so fed up with it that from now on I will drag everyone of them to the police station if I have to. I have a right to walk the Luxor streets without any stupid comments.)

But if you go little bit outside of Luxor, oooh the people are so nice. I often wonder that tourism and especially sex tourism has ruined Luxor. It is very sad. Because tourists think that an average Egyptian behaves like that and they never want to come back.

Anonymous said...

^ Ooops, little bit confused at this time of night. By Lorna I mean Whazzup Egypt of course...

Anonymous said...

having been around for a few years in cairo, male, foreigner, i can say that this situation has steadily degenerated in the last 10 yrs. it used to be quite the contrary before that, people were much more respectful and gave women the space on roads than many other countries. after the veiling trend ,and the more inner directed culture that has developed post 9/11, what we see now is that the males generally tend to think and act like foreign women, or any woman who is not fully covered in a sack is worth a pass. have no idea if it is out of frustration of not seeing any more beautiful, beautifully dressed women on streets of egypt any more ( this is a fact), or is it just that this is seen by then as harmless and encouraged by the crowd in most cases. or maybe becos there is no punishment or official disapproval of this.what a shame for such a beautiful country.

Kim said...

Researched Facts and figures from the New York Times

trailing grouse said...

Hi Kim,
Great post! I've been here nearly 10 years and contrary to what 'Anonymous foreign male' says, it was just as bad 10 years ago. I know, I had hands put between my heavily and loosely clad legs (yes, I do mean 'there') by men coming out from noon prayers in my second week in Cairo.

I am also blue eyed, blonde and white skinned - a colour that hasn't changed much despite all these years living in Egypt, because it's usually always covered. The way people (taxi drivers etc) check my morals is by asking, "Are you Russian?" If I answer yes, I'm essentially a prostitute. If I answer no, I'm essentially a prostitute that takes a bit longer to agree.

I have a big group of Egyptian friends, male and female. One day, we all went out. Some of the girls were unable to make it, so we had about 8 guys and 2 girls. We ended up going home early, because my male friends were so outraged by the comments of passing men, never mind the attempts to touch me (it was a holiday, so more crowded than usual).

Well-educated Egyptians rarely spend time walking on the streets in Egypt, they drive or take taxis, so never really see what happens. These guys (all doctors, engineers and artists), who had known me for about 4 years, were truly shocked at what was being said and attempted to be done. They shouted at the passersby on my behalf (I told them to ignore it, that's what I did) and with that not working, were so worked up, that they were ready to fight (and these guys are NOT street fighters!!).

I read something a few years ago about a girl in India who moved to a city from an outlying area to go to university and was so fed up with the lack of respect in her area, that she took photos of the men who harassed her and put them online. I loved that idea!! Some men would ask why she took a picture of them, and the report said that when finding out, many would apologise and beg her not to upload them, sometimes crying! If Egypt were my own country, I would start something like that.

Kim said...

Hi TG,
Great suggestion. We did bandy about that suggestion in another forum and the general consensu was that a non-Egyptian woman taking a picture of a harasser in Egypt may lead to more physical danger for her. So what you say about being able to do it, if it were your own country would hold true.

Anonymous said...

hello, i am really glad to be able to read about people's experiences on this blog. Moved to Maadi, Cairo recently and other than men harassing me the events that have upset me the most is groups of really young kids, boy AND girls taunting me, circling me,saying nasty things,coming up to me, pushing in to me.And once a big group of kids ran over as soon as i got into a taxi and proceeded to put their hands through the open window and touch/poke by chest whilst laughing. This had really uspet me so much i felt like it was my fault, but i am alwqays respectful and cover up,i dont go out with tank tops,always wear a scarf if my chest is visible etc.Ifelt so violated and scared that it was children that did this, and it has not been the same since and now i am very scared every time i see a group of young it just better to get a driver/taxi all the time?i wanted to experience cairo walk around,do my own shopping,but all this harassment is hurting me so much i dont know what to do :(.thanks for listening,till it has happened to u u can never trly understand how scary and hurtful it was.

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