I’m used to traveling alone as a woman and dealing with a little bit of sexism everywhere I go. From the initial shock of being a girl on the road alone (“Why isn’t your boyfriend with you?”) to dealing with catcalling (“Hey there, Miley!”—why does everyone think I look like her?), I’ve dealt with my share of problems. However, on a recent trip to Egypt, I experienced a whole new level of harassment.
I loved Egypt for many reasons, the antiquities, the history, and the marvelous smells in the air of saffron and lotus flower. Floating down the Nile river and seeing the pyramids have so far been one of the major highlights of my travels.
But how I was treated was not.
Granted, I know that I am the foreigner in this situation. I am aware that I am purposefully placing myself in a situation where I have little to no control. Traveling as a woman is never easy to begin with, and I knew that even when I booked the ticket.
Instead of lamenting this after I had arrived and witnessed the accosting I was likely to receive as both a foreigner and as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, I decided to perform a little experiment for other women who might be wondering how best to get around Egypt without being bothered. I call it, “The Great Headscarf Experiment.”
I embarked on a thirty-minute walk to the local café for some WiFi. My boyfriend, who had accompanied me the entire time, reluctantly remained behind. Without my headscarf, I started my journey out on the streets of Luxor.
As you can guess, it was a difficult journey. Every man that didn’t call out to me on the street was given a silent prayer of thanks on my part. One man followed me for four blocks with his phone, taking a video of my ass as I walked. I could list a few of the names I was called, but I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. Even some little boys ran up to me asking for candy. When I didn’t give them any, they told me to “feck off.”
I had read forums before traveling that going without a headscarf should be fine, but unwillingly, I had drawn far more attention than I have ever wanted in my life. I was relieved when I finally reached the café and was able to sequester myself in a corner.
Taking extra care to make sure that my scarf was in place (along with my sunglasses), I began the dreaded walk back. This time, it was much better, however. I was at least called “madam” by a few of the drivers selling carriage rides. Though I was still obviously a foreigner and a girl, at least I seemingly had the sense not to advertise it, according to the men on the street. It was quieter, and I had learned that pretending not to exist was the best way to go about it.
And no kids approached me.
Though I would love to encourage young women traveling to Egypt to go without the head scarf and to defy cultural norms, I would recommend taking care. By the end of my walk, I was so angry that I was shaking—and this was only an hour of my day. Wearing a head scarf made me realize how powerless we as women can be in a foreign environment—and that much of the world has a long way to go before we can feel totally safe.
However, this experience does not make me discourage women from traveling (either solo or with someone) to Egypt. In fact, I learned more about myself than practically any trip that I have taken so far. I also learned about being a foreigner, and how it can be a very different thing from one culture to the next. If you are a woman, please go to Egypt and continue to be strong and independent—that’s what the country needs.