Author: Haley Gray
Living in a new cultural context forces you to reexamine societal norms you might not otherwise have noticed. Having spent two months in Jordan and one week in Egypt, suffice to say I hold a fresh look at gender dynamics in the U.S. Here’s what traveling through Egypt without a guy taught me about going where you want to as a woman–even when it’s a little scary.
While abroad this semester, my Jordanian friends were shocked when I told them I was planning on visiting Egypt without any men to accompany me. Their disbelief was due to the sexual harassment culture in Egypt
being notoriously worse than it is in Jordan, let alone anywhere else. Based on our experience in Jordan, foreign women are
cat-called and stared at like they’re pieces of meat if they don’t have a man
with them. When you’re with a guy, Arab men tend to barely look at you.
A friend and I had decided to check out
Giza, Cairo, and Luxor for the Eid break, a week–long Muslim holiday for which
school is cancelled. Our Arabic professor, a Muslim woman who is known and
loved around the program for having drifted cars in her younger years, joked
with us that we’re “tough binaats” (binaat is Arabic for girls). We knew we could handle whatever we were in for.
me start by painting a picture of what it was like. At best, a couple of young
men followed us around the town square in Luxor telling us we were beautiful. They eventually got bored with us ignoring them and left. At
worst, a disgusting pubescent boy trailed behind us all morning, glaring
hatefully at us and groaning “f*ck” every time we looked over. When we
eventually stopped to get money from an ATM he came up quickly and groped us
In Egypt, it is not uncommon for teenage boys to dare to grope
you if you are alone. If you are passing through a tight crowd, which there are
a lot of in Cairo, especially during Eid, gaggles of men reach their hands out
to discretely grab at women as they walk by and laugh with each other as they
shout disgusting things to you. In a speech at Georgetown University following the revolution in December 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the sexual harassment epidemic in Cairo, “This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people.”
the revolution, sexual harassment has become a seemingly insurmountable problem
in the socially conservative country. Maybe you have heard of “The Girl in the
Blue Bra,” the anonymous woman who was seized by a horde of military officers
and savagely undressed and assaulted in Cairo during the Revolution. Maybe
you are familiar with the stories of the many female journalists who have been
similarly attacked by crowds of ferocious men during the revolutionary protests
in Tahrir Square.
objectification of women is part of daily life in Cairo. For the most part,
women are bombarded with insultingly sexual “compliments” and slurs as they
walk through public spaces. This goes for ill-advised foreigners in shorts, for shy Muslim girls who wear the hijab, and for fully-veiled women taking
the subway to work.
the worst during Eid, when boys don’t have school and fill their free time
harassing women among the crowds of Egyptians who spill into the streets for
the holiday. Incidents of violent, collective sexual assault skyrocket during
this religious holiday. This year, more than 735 incidents of harassment were
reported to the police in Egypt during the Eid holiday, according to Washington
the most alarming aspect of sexual harassment in Egypt is how much of it comes
from children. Gangs of boys, probably between ages ten to fifteen, are in my
mind the most disturbing offenders. Many shout graphic sexual comments at women
as they walk by. Most hiss at you and some will even go so far as to follow you
“It is strange to say, but we are
constantly scared of small children. Not necessarily a physical fear, but more
so the fact that a child could have the ability to inflict fear,” said female
journalists in Cairo Sophia Jones and Erin Branco in their article on sexual
harassment and the revolution.
My friend and I couldn’t help but feel as if boys in Egypt are brought up to view women as
objects for their entertainment. They seem to have no respect for women.
the first few days of our trip, my friend and I just rolled our eyes and
grumbled about how gross the men in Cairo are. We actually laughed the first
time one of us got our asses grabbed while getting into a cab–like it was just
the novelty of being in Cairo.
stopped being funny when we realized that men had the audacity to look in our
eyes, with an air of sternness and superiority, and yell something disgusting
or grab us. They would often even toss their heads back and laugh at us with
their friends as they grabbed at us like they were entitled to it.
right now you’re thinking, “Gee, you really could have avoided all that if you
had just gone with the guys.”
so. What sucks about being a woman in Egypt is not the sound of the words that
horny, hateful men shout at you. It’s not the feeling of the touch of the
disgusting men who dare to grope you. It’s the nagging sense that every man you
come across views you as less of a person than they are. It’s the feeling that
no matter how strong and smart and unique you might think you are, about
half the population views you as an object for their enjoyment and couldn’t
care less how you feel about it.
would not have changed if we had been walking through the streets of Cairo with
a guy. Yes, we surely would have been harassed a lot less. But it would have
been out of respect for the man we were with, not for us.
is one of the more extreme examples I could use to illustrate this point. But
think about it, girls: there have surely been times you have insisted on having a
guy with you to go somewhere or walk you somewhere at night. Maybe you have not even done something you wanted to to because you didn’t want to risk going
somewhere you thought might be sketchy without a guy.
not advocating for going against your gut if you feel unsafe. What I am saying,
though, is you are kidding yourself if you think you’re getting more respect
when you bring a guy with you to avoid unwanted attention. You shouldn’t need the
crutch of a male companion to be treated like a human being, whether you’re
applying for a job or walking through a dark ally at night.
there is anything I have learned from traveling without a guy through Egypt,
it is that it is worth the risk to go where you want and do what you want
regardless of the men around you. Don’t perpetuate the gender dynamics that
keep women from having as much freedom as men do.
how did we deal with the harassment in Egypt? We made a little game at hissing
back at the boys who hissed at us. I got pretty comfortable with flipping guys
off. By the time the disgusting boy in Luxor grabbed our asses at the ATM,
though, we had had it. My friend spun around and screamed “F*ck you” at the top
of her lungs.
god she did. The boy was terrified. He didn’t bother us again.
Haley Gray is a junior DWA major, currently studying abroad in Jordan. She can be reached at [email protected]
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