When I told a friend of mine that we were traveling to Egypt, one of the first things he said was , “You’d better get used to being ignored or treated like a second class citizen.” Much has been made of the differences in the way women are treated in Muslim countries vs. the “liberated west”. Recent articles touting the horrors of female life under the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the horrors of western women in the “land of the veils.” have been popping up in just about every news outlet. My friend’s view is obviously colored by these perceptions of the Muslim world – that women are chattel, kept sequestered behind veils and locked doors.
Like the Egyptian view of western women as loose and undisciplined, the western view of Egyptian society is probably just as extreme.
I did worry a bit about our traveling style, though. I tend to be the planner and interact with people (making hotel reservations, asking about things at restaurants, etc) and my husband is quieter and less confrontational than I am. I was worried that this would be an odd situation, as people would be more likely to converse with my husband, or rely on him to make decisions and “lead the way.” I don’t know if this will be an issue or not.
There are pages in every guidebook warning women to “dress conservatively” and act in a polite but distant manner with strangers. These are usually matched by the warnings that Egyptian men can be extremely rude or suggestive to female tourists. I was puzzled about this attitude – if Islam requires such conservative and protective attitudes towards its own women, why was it suddenly OK to harass western women? Why would an Egyptian man who wouldn’t even think of speaking to or touching an Egyptian woman think it was acceptable to do so if the woman was foreign? The explanation is not satisfying: that because of the way we dress and the loose morals presented in television and movies, western women are seen as “loose” or “provocative”, and thus not subject to the same strict code of politeness as local women are. That broad generalization just doesn’t fly with me – sure, any one woman could open herself up to harassment by dressing in skimpy clothes or flirting in public, but I still don’t get it.
Mark mentioned that it was unlikely to happen to me, at any rate – being accompanied by a 6’4″ Viking in a culture where it is a serious taboo to impugn someone else’s wife is reason enough to leave me alone. He’s probably right. Other than venturing into a few places where local women might not go – a coffee shop, for example, which is the purview of men only – I’m not likely to be on my own anyplace.