The Great Headscarf Experiment: Traveling in Egypt

traveling in egypt

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.”

Without headscarf.

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.

With headscarf.

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.

Conclusion.

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.

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

Comments

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  1. AdventurerDeb

    I live in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where we women must wear an abaya – a long cloak usually black but some colours are available. My foreigner friends had all told me I didn’t need to wear a head scarf. But one day, my Saudi students suggested so *should* cover my hair. While most foreigners don’t cover their heads, I do daily. I find it more easy to interact with locals now. It feels weird on vacation to go without my abaya and hijab. Thank you for sharing this article. I find that living in another country, it usually helps a lot to adopt the local customs. Cheers!
    AdventurerDeb
    @adventurerdeb
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    AdventurerDeb.wordpress.com

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      Alex Schnee

      Wow. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I agree–I think it’s not always a bad thing to adapt to local customs if it helps you to appreciate the culture more. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. What's Katie Doing?

    I hate to say it but cultural norms in that part of the world mean that if you walk around not adopting local traditions then you’ll stick out. Showing skin like your arms on the photo above means that men think you are a prostitute. Dressing like the local women and covering up does offer some protection from harassment, but I’ve still had it even when dressed modestly.. it’s as soon as they figure you are a foreigner!!

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      Alex Schnee

      I agree, Katie. It’s hard because you want to be able to show that you won’t find the harassment acceptable as a foreigner, but you also want to blend in and there is often only so much you can take. I covered my arms sometimes, but others I honestly didn’t want to totally abandon my rights as an independent woman who has experienced those rights in other places. Sometimes the only way to really make a statement is to make a statement–whether you’re harassed or not. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  3. Corinne L Simpson

    This is useful to know. I admit to being quite ignorant about how women are treated in certain countries – I haven’t ventured that far yet, so haven’t needed to research it! If I ever do go to Egypt, I’m wearing a headscarf! And taking a man (if I can find one haha).

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  5. SeizeTheGlobe

    Thank you for posting your experience. I’ve traveled throughout southern Africa, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi (but never north Africa or Egypt) and I did not experience anything like this when I didn’t have my head covered. I did, however, meet an incredibly lovely newlywed Egyptian couple on their honeymoon in Ibiza this summer. They made me totally want to visit! I’ll be sure to keep your experience in mind when I do manage to explore Egypt.

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  6. Marie

    Thank you for sharing your experience! Egypt is one of the countries I most want to visit, and I too wondered how much of a difference it would make to wear a headscarf vs. not. Would you recommend traveling there alone, or do you think it would be better to convince my boyfriend to join me eventually?

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      Alex Schnee

      I would say it’s okay to go by yourself, but it would be better with a boyfriend or even a guy pal. It’s enough to keep the harassment away for the most part. Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad this helped!

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