Women traveling with a friend may be wondering what the situation is like now that the ‘Arab Spring’ has led to massive changes in the way Egypt is governed. Female travelers are experiencing few problems and being American is a good thing as far as local people are concerned. It can be exciting being in a country at a time of positive change and Egypt is no exception. There is evidence of a new optimism and an opening up of attitudes which can only be beneficial for women taking a trip to Egypt.
A woman traveling in Egypt with a friend is likely to attract attention but seasoned travellers agree there is more chance of hassle back home than in Cairo, and it is widely considered to be a safe city for those planning a trip to Egypt. The majority of Egyptian men consider it bad manners to harass any traveler in their country and will offer a warm welcome comparable with any other city. Police action for any kind of unpleasant situation will be swift in Egypt where foreign women are concerned, and female travelers can expect the same protection under the law as they would get in their own countries.
Egypt values its foreign travelers highly and will react strongly to events which might damage its reputation as a country of hospitality. Women receive no different treatment in this respect than male visitors. Local people have a healthy respect for the police and are unlikely to want to create situations where they attract the attention of the authorities, and this is a factor that women planning a trip to Egypt can certainly think of as a plus point.
When traveling with a friend in Egypt it is good idea to remember than an aloof attitude will gain respect, and that wearing clothes which respect the culture of this amazing country will also assist them in a trouble free passage. The culture in Egypt is completely different to that of western countries, which is why it is so fascinating to visit. Just as westerners would expect a certain dress from tourists, Egyptians appreciate travellers making an effort too, as a mark of respect for the way Egyptians live and their beliefs.
The western custom of innocent personal contact between men and women, for example, which may be as simple as a touch on the back or a squeeze of a shoulder, would be considered crossing a line in Egyptian communities. Men and women who are not married simply do not make physical contact. Egyptian men will on no account invade the personal space of a woman.
This being the case, a western woman traveling in the country would expect the same courtesy and is entirely justified in protesting extremely loudly if this cultural norm is not respected for her too. There is no need for a female traveler to be polite and accept that a touch is ok; make it quite clear from the start that boundaries are in place. Otherwise the impolite gentleman will - rightly in his view – assume that it is all right to take things further. Quite often westerners will be reluctant to make a fuss; but for a women undertaking travel to Egypt it is perfectly legitimate to make a fuss if touching, no matter how apparently innocent, takes place.
For the most part if an unwanted touch takes place, especially if a man rudely approaches from behind, and a woman traveller reacts with indignation, an immediate apology will follow and the rules have been established. The same applies to chatting in bars and other areas of town where men traditionally congregate and which are less frequented by females. To travel in Egypt requires a strong sense of entitlement to personal space for a woman and this includes measuring how far a woman traveler chooses to engage in a friendly manner with local men. It is best to maintain a distance from Egyptian men, not because to not do so is dangerous, but because in Egyptian culture too much familiarity from a woman is seen as giving out alternative and undesirable signals.
There is no shortage of Egyptian men wanting to engage both male and female travelers in conversation. Before long tourists who travel to Egypt will have found their entire life history has been the subject of questions from all corners. It’s important to remember that there is never any reason to give out personal information, and it is far simpler for women to say firmly they are married, preferably with children regardless of the true picture, and discuss your respective families accordingly.
In fact some women travellers find it is useful to wear a wedding ring. It is just a case of thinking ahead, being a good judge of situations, and deciding on a consistently firm attitude which does not invite overbearing intrusions. The truth of it is that any unwanted attention is easily dealt with and once men realize you have a no nonsense approach they won’t dare cross your boundaries. Respecting and participating in the cultural norms for women living in the country, which include avoiding eye contact, not accepting food or drink, not showing flesh and covering hair, will help to make your visit a pleasurable and memorable one.
It is important to remember that life for many Egyptians involves poverty and street trading is a way of life, so expect to be badgered by those selling to what they perceive to be rich westerners, regardless of your sex. There are fewer travellers than usual in Egypt right now and this means that the ones who do go will expect a lot of attention. We are talking attention here though, not danger. Women travellers do well to walk purposefully past stores they don’t want to visit, and show no hesitation.
The level of eye contact you make during a trip to Egypt can decide how much hassle you are likely to get, so cut out the possibility of Egyptians misunderstanding your signals by wearing sunglasses, plus a hat to shade your eyes not just from the sun but from unwelcome attention from over enthusiastic street traders too.
By wearing shades during your travel to Egypt you can survey what’s around you without creating the illusion of being interested in anyone in particular. Don’t feel you have to engage in conversation or negotiation of you are being pressed to buy, as that can be seen as encouragement for vendors to respond, and gives them the opportunity to press for your attention.
It’s purely a practical measure and any encounter you have will be easily handled as long as you follow these simple guidelines. One of the most important things to remember is the universal rule which does not just apply to Egypt’s traders, but on the streets globally – don’t take anything in your hand, or else it is considered a sale and you will find it really hard to avoid handing over some cash to get rid of your tout. Travelling on a Nile cruise, for example, you will find lots of goods are thrown up onto your boat, and to take a hold of them gives the boatmen around the cruiser, who are trying to sell them, a chance to pressure you into handing over money in what they see as fair exchange.
Although your tour guides will protect you in the highly unlikely event of trouble, they will mostly leave you to it if you make the mistake of trying to return sale items to their owners having once picked them up. Again it’s a case of common sense. It’s worth remembering that different areas of Egypt have different attitudes to the hard sell – in Aswan around the Temple of Philae for example, there seems to be a more laid back attitude to making a sale than in the heart of Cairo.
Women travelers and their friends can experience Egypt really successfully by using the services of a tour guide, although independent travel is safe too. It is useful to have someone with you who understands Arabic and will assist you in getting full value from your experiences in this vibrant country. Sometimes you may wish to change your plans and go somewhere you had not originally decided to visit, and in this case an Arabic speaking companion can smooth over the process of making new arrangements. Also access the information provided by various foreign governments online, regarding any issues which might prevent travel to certain areas before you go, for example the US State Department or the UK Foreign office. In any case keep the contact details of the US Embassy on you so you can contact them for advice if needed.
Another option for women travelers is to look at Egypt chat forums on the internet where travellers frequently discuss their experiences in the country. This will put your mind at rest if you are having second thoughts after the Arab Spring. Women who have been to Egypt with their friends before you will have great advice, and this can be much better than reading a guide book, as you are getting information from real people on the same wavelength as yourself.
There is so much in Egypt that is not replicated anywhere else in the world; the Pyramids and taking a felucca down the astonishing Nile really do have to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. The fact that women travellers recording their experiences online go back to Egypt time and time again suggests there is nothing of concern from a safety point of view.
In that respect Egypt is the same as any other country anywhere in the world; use your common sense just like you would in the States. The majority of women, including western women who live in Egypt, will tell you that as long as you are firm about your boundaries, your personal space will be respected. There has been quite a lot written about women in Egypt by journalists needing to create a story, but the real experiences of women travelers on forums suggests sensationalist tales are just that, and not based on actual experience.
There are basic rules to apply to travel in Egypt which to be fair you would apply to any other country where you are traveling off the beaten track and not some of the established tourist centres such as Sharm El Shiekh. Sharm is dominated by tourists and there is generally a different attitude to dress and the behaviour of women. In other parts of Egypt which are not tourist oriented make sure you stay in a hotel rather than accepting offers of private accommodation, even if it seems cheap and friendly. Keep your personal possession secure and close. If taking a taxi, sit in the back and don’t feel you have to engage with the driver, which is a rule to apply in any country anyway.
Try to avoid spending time in areas where there are a lot of males in crowds and always dress modestly in Egypt. You can avoid a lot of the crowds and get round a lot easier by traveling to Egypt during Ramadan. Be confident and assertive about your right to have respect from those around you. Egypt is an Islamic country and it is important to respect the culture and traditions accordingly, just as visitors to the U.S. are expected to understand how things are done there.