Friday, September 19, 2008

Sexual Harassment in Egypt

My experience in Cairo so far has been a reaction to the culture. In preparing myself to be in Cairo, I’ve heard sooo many things a woman should to avoid being harassed. For those of you who I told about the wet hair thing, totally not true – my Egyptian friends laughed at me when I asked! But it pretty much boils down to this – whether or not you are wearing hijab, abaya, niqab, or nothing at all you will be harassed at some point.

Walking just outside of our hotel, men will generally make kissing noises, or try to gain your attention with the 2 phrases they may know in English. These men vary from little boys who may run up to you and pinch your bottom, to the Egyptian soldier trying to look cool in front of his peers. Even drivers will honk in a specific rhythm (supposedly mimicking “Ana Bahebek” or I love you” to get your attention.

Whatever they do to try to get your attention, men here see harassment as cool. It’s a boost to reassure their masculinity. As a foreigner, my fellow international students and I are treats for their eyes, something new and exotic. This is how it was explained to us by AUC administration during our sexual harassment meeting. We will attract attention no matter if we cover our hair, legs, and arms or not. But, the extent of harassment varies greatly because of what you wear and how you act.

So what to do and what not do? One of the best things you can do is to dress modestly. Loose, layered clothing that is neat and clean. The more distinguished you look, the better off you may be. Do you need to cover your hair? I’ve found it’s really up to you. Some places, like the pyramids for example, it’s actually very convenient because of the sun and you fend off vendors trying to sell you cheap turbans.

When I go to Khan el Khalili, I don’t cover my hair, but I do make a point to dress much more moderately. The vendors in Khan are rather funny. Don’t be surprised if you go and you hear phrases like “Spend you money here, make you very happy” or “Come to my shop, and marry me, I promise I shower everyday”

Some things that I have learned besides how to dress are what to say. The Arabic survival course really helped because the Egyptian dialect of Arabic is very different from the Modern Standard Arabic I’ve learned in the States. Greeting someone with Salam Aleikum without a smiling face will release the tension of ‘them vs. you’ and asserts you as a dignified person. The immediate reaction to Salam Alikum is Aleikem aSalam, which really lets this person know that you are not flirting or wanting other behavior besides respect. If someone will not stop trying to get your attention there are two phrases that greatly help.

1. Walk over to them sternly, make the sternest face you can, and say “3yb!”. Aiyb basically means shame and will remind these men of the days their mother would chastise them for being bad. You can also make the tisk tisk tisk hand gesture with this for added emphasis. My residence director has had great success with this phrase, and practicing saying Aiyb with a stern face is very amusing – although don’t crack when you do it for real!
2. The second phrase, which really should be used if a male is staring at you is “Ghud el Basr” (I may have not transliterated that correctly). This comes straight out of the Quran and means “Avert your gaze”. Saying this sternly will also be chastising as you are reminding the male not only that he shouldn’t be staring at you, but also that you

These phrases are more for men and boys that you won’t be in contact with everyday or that say something really inappropriate. For males that you come in contact with in a daily basis, i.e. shopkeepers, or kids on the street, if you set a tone initially that you mean business and you are not to be mocked or harassed they will respect you for it. They will even become protective of you if they see someone trying to harass you in or give you a hard time!

Besides these things, the number one most important thing to do IS TO IGNORE THEM. Men want to see a rise from you, no matter positive, negative, angry, or whatever. By ignoring them, or pretending that they don’t exist, they will stop immediately. If they continue to persist in getting your attention, the phrases above should be used. Also, don’t walk the streets of Cairo by yourself; go with a group, especially one that is mixed with males and females. It really helps. This has been my experience in Egypt thus far, and it has been useful. I haven’t had more than the usual phrases, kissing noises, and marriage proposals. ☺


Debbie said...

Well written. How many marriage proposals? The place you will really need to be careful of marriage proposals will be Jordan! Expect at least 2, seriously!

Majda said...

I think 2 or 3, although one girl was being seriously considered by one of the merchants in Khan el Khalili - he offered six camels!

Anandaconda said...

Wow! Is six camels really the going rate for a hot lady these days?