Ella’s story: Being a woman in Cairo
I was studying in Cairo for the summer, trying to improve my not-so-great Arabic. A few weeks into our time there, my roommate and I decided to go for a shop in the marketplace in the middle of the day.
Both of us had been making a conscious effort while in Egypt to dress conservatively – loose trousers, baggy shirts, nothing “provocative” by Egyptian standards. (Something that quite a few Western tourists never bother doing). In our naivety, we assumed that by dressing in a culturally respectful way, we would be treated respectfully.
Anyways, we were walking through the marketplace when this man began following us, muttering sexually suggestive phrases in Arabic at us (never imagining, I’m sure, that both of us understood full well what he was saying). We ignored him, darting in and out of shops to try and shake him off. He just hung around outside them, waiting for us to come out.
Eventually, he came up behind me and began rubbing his pelvis against me, and groping my butt. I managed to shake free of him, and then he did the same to my roommate. Unbelievably, he came up behind me AGAIN to try for another feel, at which point I elbowed him as hard as I could in the stomach. As I turned around, I saw him looking at me with this expression of mingled fury and hurt – as though somehow, he’d been doing me a tremendous favour, and I was the one behaving outrageously.
Another time, early in the morning, I had a guy follow me for about an hour. He followed me all the way to my classes, leering, catcalling, calling me a whore in Arabic – all at 8 o’clock in the morning. All I had done was hold a door open for him as I went out of a coffee shop.
I’m sure everyone now is aware of just how bad the sexual harassment problem in Egypt is, but I just want to go on record as having said the following: it doesn’t matter what you wear, it doesn’t matter if you speak any Arabic, it doesn’t matter how many people you’re with, and it doesn’t matter what time of day it is. If you’re a woman in Cairo (particularly a Western woman), men will follow you, make comments, and call you a whore – and it has to stop.