Open Season: Being a Ginger in Egypt

I arrived in Egypt with little expectations about how I would be treated as a white, unveiled and ‘exotic’ (I use that word liberally) female.

As a student of gender studies – and someone who has an active interest in global politics – I was well aware that the Middle East’s relationship with woman is far removed from what I am familiar with in the west. It was to be the first time in my life that I represented the minority, and that thought both excited and scared me.

The next two weeks would expose me to a side of humanity that very few things could have prepared me for. It disgusted me; not disgust in the sense that I grew reluctant to venture out of the house without completely covering myself – which, FYI, isn’t even enough to stop men who feel entitled to make women uncomfortable in the public sphere – but disgust in the sense that I couldn’t believe people think that this kind of behaviour is actually okay. The argument from relativity suddenly lost its shine that trip.

Over those two weeks, I was subjected to people stopping in the middle of the street and pointing at me, cars honking as I walked down the side of the road, and the making of rude and unnecessary comments in Arabic as I walked past. At one point, I was in the middle of a marketplace when a man riding a motorcycle zoomed past, shouldered me and nearly knocked me off my feet. When I visited the iconic Great Pyramids, I was surrounded by local tourists more interested in taking pictures with me than the actual wonders. It was flattering until they started grabbing me.

Making friends… us gingers gotta stick together.

All of this was just by existing in Cairo and minding my own business. Whilst I did not veil my head, I was dressed conservatively and respected the culture. None of the behaviour was provoked in any meaningful or justified way.

From my observation, about 85-90% of the women I saw in the streets were veiled. It is also worth mentioning that – compared to their male counterparts – very few women even venture into the public sphere. I counted the occasions I saw people who represented tourists, and the number might amaze you: seven. Just seven – over two whole weeks. Egypt’s tourist economy has plunged from 14.7 million to 5.4 million per year, and it is noticeable. Tourists have become something of a commodity, only fueling the attitude towards them.

The irony of the whole trip was that the occasion on which I felt most comfortable in public was when I visited a nightclub. I remember thinking that there is definitely something wrong with a culture where you receive more unwanted attention on the streets than in a freakin’ bar.

I’m not comfortable arguing that it is easier being an unveiled woman than a veiled woman in Egypt, as other travel bloggers have. There are cultural forces at work there that someone like me can’t even imagine, and it isn’t a competition of oppression. I’m also aware that my experience was far more benign than that suffered by other females. I’m just writing this blog post to share my personal experience so that if you are a woman with intentions of visiting this incredible country, at least you’re not walking in blind.

I never once felt unsafe or threatened whilst I was in Egypt. I think a large part of that is because I mentally prepared myself for the attention and was always in good company. But I can wholeheartedly understand why the experience would be enough to deter someone from the Middle East altogether. It’s a shame, because the two countries I have traveled to in this region so far – Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – left me with rich knowledge and positive memories that surpassed my wildest expectations.

You don’t have to lose all sense of identity in Egypt to avoid harassment. Even if you were wearing a niqāb, the chances are, you would still receive some form of it. After all, studies reveal that 99% of Egyptian women have been subjected to misogynist behaviour on the streets of Cairo (what is being called a ‘moral epidemic’).

But what you can do to prepare is educate yourself on the culture and understand that there is nothing you are doing to deserve this treatment. There is nothing morally justifiable about it. It it simply the result of a lack of education, public safety, poverty and dangerous cultural ideas. The only way it can be challenged is by standing up to it and raising awareness about the injustices served.

 All of the photographs in this post were taken at the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel of Cairo.
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Cultural Appropriation (Or Why That Bindi is Racist)

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, I do not want my travel blog to simply be about Insta-worthy pictures and food porn. My goal from the very beginning was to use this blog as a resource and vehicle by which to educate myself and others on issues entrenched in the tourism industry (and society in general). The issues I have discussed in the past – see feminism and why tourism is political – are prime examples of how travel and politics are not mutually exclusive. This latest article is one I have been wanting to write since the inception of this blog.

Culture not costume. Artwork courtesy of the Odyssey Online.

If you’re a follower of pop culture – or you use the internet – the chances are that the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ would have emerged once or twice in the context of someone such as Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry.

In short, cultural appropriation can be defined as when “people from a dominant culture take cultural elements from a marginalised group without knowing or caring about how their actions affect marginalised people”.

Cultural appropriation is largely misunderstood owing to a lack of critical discussion and the fact that you won’t actually find the term in a dictionary. (I also think it isn’t given the time of the day because lots of people deep down know they are guilty of it – and ignorance is bliss, amiright?).

Everyday Feminism summed it up quite nicely by saying that it is often taken to mean, “the policing of what white people can or can’t wear and enjoy”. Whilst there exists a rather objective definition (as written above), people can also take C.A. to extremes. Some people believe that everything is cultural appropriation, whilst some believe that nothing is at all. Whilst I certainly think that some critics of C.A. can get a bit carried away, I also believe that it is a complex idea that plays a different role in different scenarios. I believe that the issue becomes about learning and educating ourselves about it so that we can identify instances where it is not okay.

Model Gigi Hadid was criticised for wearing dreadlocks on the runway. Photograph courtesy of the Daily Beast.

Some Examples of Cultural Appropriation…

  • Bindis
  • Cornrows
  • Dreadlocks
  • Indian headdresses (I’m looking at you, Coachella)
  • Pretty much 99% of all cultural Halloween costumes
  • Basically Rachel Dolezal’s entire existence

Photograph courtesy of Marion Cameleon.

A common defence people employ when confronted about appropriating behaviours is that they’re simply celebrating another culture. After all, if they can’t participate in a tradition belonging to someone else, then how are we meant to share cultures? Isn’t that the very foundation of a more equal and humanitarian world? And then there are the people who get straight up offended.

The reality is that cultural appropriation plays a significant yet dismissed role in all of the inequalities people face today. To understand C.A. demands a comprehension of intersecting frameworks of oppression (shout out to intersectional feminism) and power dynamics. The key idea is that C.A. simply doesn’t go both ways; if it did, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But instead, the nature of a more privileged group of people borrowing cultural elements from a less privileged group is a one way street.

Amandla Sternberg delivers a crash course on cultural appropriation in ‘Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows’

This next part can sometimes be a little more complicated to get your head around. I know it was for me. Take the example of white girls braiding their hair into cornrows. That’s not inappropriate, you might respond. Black girls straighten their hair all the time! But what needs to be discussed here is that historical context is incredibly relevant. Consider the history of the United States; black people were discriminated against whilst white people reaped the rewards of a white supremacist society. As Everyday Feminism accounts, “when people of colour… conform to what the U.S. society considers ‘normal’, they’re often doing it for the sake of survival”.

“Assimilation doesn’t have the same impact as appropriation.”

Expressions of cultural appropriation. Photograph courtesy of Sikh Philosophy.

Cultural appropriation isn’t about memorising an infinite list of things that could offend people. There’s no value to that. Instead, it’s about “taking responsibility for your own actions that can cause other people harm“. I myself took responsibility after a phase where I insisted on wearing part of my hair braided into cornrows. At the time, I wasn’t aware that I was inadvertently participating in a culture that had historically – and even still today – been marginalised beneath mine (I’m talking about the participation part, not the historical part). But after taking a gender studies course at university and reading about these systems of social oppression, I realised that my behaviour had been less about how I looked and more so about taking what had never belonged to me in the first place.

The key message I’m trying to get across here, is that you don’t have to own something to appreciate it.

Even with well-meaning, good intentions, cultural appropriation is not something we should take lightly. We’re not just talking about fashion; we’re talking about the lived experiences of human beings. Identity is one of the most central facets of our lives, and for someone more privileged to take that away from us with little regard for who we are is plain discrimination.

“You only like me for my Sari.” Artwork courtesy of Zaiba Khan.

Traveling is a fantastic opportunity to expose yourself to the practices and traditions of different cultures whilst finding the fine balance between appreciating and appropriating. When you are engaging in ethnic activities or find yourself at the counter of a souvenir shop, ask yourself these three questions: does my privilege allow me to participate in this? Will buying this make anyone from this group feel uncomfortable? Am I committing harm to anyone by doing this?

I like to think that most of us are contributing towards a society where all people and cultures are valued and respected. We have made great progress in the last half century, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that we are still a long, long way away from achieving that ultimate goal. To punctuate with the words of the 35th president of the United States…

“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Artist Katy Perry is slammed for dressing up as a Geisha in a performance. Photography courtesy of Reaxxion.

If you’re interested in learning more about social issues, then I highly recommend you check out the primary resource for this blog post: Everyday Feminism. Everyday Feminism is an amazing tool for educating yourself on topics such as gender and racial equality, and presents information in an understandable and thought-provoking manner. Find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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