Egypt and the Sexual Harassment of Women
It only took three days but I really questioned whether I wanted to continue cycling in Egypt. I was upset, frustrated, angry and intimidated. Was it the heat? The barren desert landscape? The dangerous traffic? No its the men, and the way they treat women.
I had ended up in Egypt sooner than planned and a little unprepared but was really looking forward to riding there in a landscape and culture so different from my home. How did this excitement turn to disappointment in so little time? Simple, sexual harassment.
After spending a month cycling through the country I will now (many months later) try to make some sense of this experience and just why it is so bad to ride a bicycle as a woman alone there. The unfortunate reality of being a woman anywhere means the possibility of sexual harassment. I have never been harassed so much though as I have in Egypt (not that I have traveled extensively but a bit).
Having read the travel advice online and in guidebooks for women travellers in Egypt I thought I was reasonably mentally prepared for what lay ahead. I knew I was coming to a country where women are often verbally hassled regardless of whether they are tourists or locals. I had read that dressing conservatively with long sleeves and pants was best though some reports suggested harassment regardless of what was worn.
I thought I was well informed and felt reasonably confident after six weeks of cycling through Turkey, a fellow Muslim country with conservative attitudes towards women where I had experienced unwanted attention from men as a foreign woman travelling alone. Then I arrived in Egypt.
From the first day walking around Port Said to the second last day in Sinai I was harassed. I became apprehensive, waiting for the next degrading act. I cycled into the desert in a hope to escape people and the chance of harassment but found it there too. It became the constant of my journey through Egypt, waiting for me in all cities, villages and roads. It left me changed. Im not sure for the better.
Was it so terrible now that I look back on it? The answer is still yes. It was the hardest country to cycle through because of this but also the most rewarding because I survived and saw the wondrous landscapes despite all the trouble involved. A woman on a bicycle in Egypt is an anomaly. The idea of a woman traveling alone, without some sort of male companion is troubling enough. So a woman alone on a loaded touring bicycle is a freak. Some sort of wild western fantasy (What will they think of next?) quite possibly a prostitute, at the very least open to sex outside of marriage, a disreputable woman.
I wish I was exaggerating, but Im not. I was hissed, jeered, stared and leered at and told to smile. One taxi driver in Cairo put on My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion and tried to tell me about this great restaurant he could take me for lunch. Vehicles continually slowed down beside me or stopped in front of me to get a better view. I was told Im beautiful, that ‘I love you’ and I have cool sunglasses. I was called sweetie, madam or lady. Whenever I had to repair my bike in public I was quickly surrounded by the male population and ogled at. I was groped and touched without consent on a number of occasions. Most nice conversations I had with Egyptian men ended up being some sort of attempt to chat me up.
I was told the harassment I received was merely boys playing. That men seeing me travelling alone will think I want to have sex with them. That I should start thinking about a husband and children as time passes fast. When a man telling me that marries a man and gives birth maybe then I will think about listening to him, maybe. Otherwise they can all get fucked.
Anyway as far as I can discern there is an unspoken rule in Egypt and other Middle Eastern Muslim countries such as Palestine that hinders women from riding bicycles after they hit puberty. There is some debate about whether this is because of skin and shape being inadvertently exposed whilst riding, or that it is a question of modesty and safety. There is also the difficulty to which one can ride a bicycle in the full abaya or long jackets worn by some. Whatever the case, its very rarely done. As I was told in Amman, its a ‘mans sport’.
I must clearly state here that I know nothing of Islam and I am not saying that Islam bans woman from riding bicycles, because it does not. Its cool for Muslim women to ride bikes in many countries including England and Saudi Arabia (cough, but only in parks and recreational areas, with a male relative whilst dressed in the full head-to-toe abaya, cough, its Saudi Arabia what did you expect?).
I didnt see a woman on a bicycle in Egypt, not once. In fact the next time I saw a woman on a bicycle was when I met a German woman, Rosie, living and cycling by the Dead Sea in Jordan. I have read that women cycle in the cities of Cairo and Alexandria, in small numbers albeit. Outside of the societal taboo one of the deterrents for woman cycling there is harassment. “Some women could not use bicycle in their daily commutes due to widespread harassment on Cairo streets.”
The harassment is not confined to the bicycle though this tended to increase it by far. A study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights said that 98% of foreign female visitors and 83% of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment. From what I understand the level of harassment has increased post revolution, with people no longer in constant fear of reprisal for their actions. The issue has been in the media since the coverage of protests in Tahrir Square and the assaults that occurred there.
With all these horrific statistics and news though there has been action. Groups have been formed, protests held, networks developed and the women have continued to join in the countries demonstrations despite the chance of being attacked. If only Egypt would realise the strength of half their population to change their country for the better and treat women with respect. But then again so should everywhere else…
Anti sexual harassment graffiti I photographed in Cairo. For more see https://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/women-in-graffiti-a-tribute-to-the-women-of-egypt/
Another one near Tahrir Square. Even more here http://www.acus.org/egyptsource/women-egypt-through-narrative-graffiti
‘678’ Egyptian film about sexual harassment, if you find the dvd send me a copy.