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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Traveling with the F-Word (That’s Right…Feminism)

Let’s have a little talk, shall we?

As a gender studies student, I was determined that I would somehow incorporate a blog post discussing this wonderful thing called feminism. For those of you that are not acquainted with feminism – or perhaps need a little refreshing in the midst of the anti-feminist backlash – allow me to welcome you back into the classroom.

Feminism is essentially the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. And when I say ‘essentially’, what I mean is that I copied and pasted that right out of the dictionary. Plagiarism points for me.

Gender equality – or inequality, I should say – bleeds into every area of life. We hear about the gender ratio in parliament, the wage gap between female and male employees, and even the extent of legal independence women should have in some parts of the world. As important as these issues are, there is a further niche where gendered assumptions and expectations permeate, however implicitly: travel.

In the travel arena, I am a very privileged individual. Pretending otherwise will not do anyone any good. I’m privileged because I grew up in a safe country rich with opportunity (shout out to New Zealand), am from a financially stable background and have a supportive family who encourage anything and everything I set my mind to. The term ‘privilege’ receives a bad reputation because it includes connotations of individuals who have never had to work a day in their life, don’t understand what it means to be confronted with setbacks, and who are generally just ‘bad people’. I acknowledge that the avenues I have taken to make progress towards my goals may not have been characterised by the hardship many other people experience, but that doesn’t automatically make me unworthy of enjoying them. Accepting that I am in a position of privilege – as uncomfortable as that process may be – affords me the opportunity to overcome the prevailing obstacle in the way of holding myself partly accountable for the injustice in today’s society.

Travel can be a feminist pursuit through many means. Anything that furthers women’s ability to achieve things that society may not necessarily acknowledge or approve of for women is a feminist issue. This article will illustrate 3 tropes which you – as a female traveler – can identify to challenge the mentalities that prevent women from participating in an equal and rewarding experience of the world 💪

The “Settle Down” Trope

You know what I’m talking about – the idea that a woman has only succeeded at being a woman if she has managed to land a job, find a man, slap a ring on her finger and pop out two or three young ‘uns. That, ladies and gentleman, is the arithmetic of womanhood. Anything that strays from this paragon means she has failed.

One of the many problems with this trope is that it doesn’t accommodate goals such as travel. How is a woman supposed to maintain a 9-5 job when she’s never in one place long enough to make the interview? How is a woman supposed to settle down if she doesn’t have the suburban house with the white picket fence? An airport is no place to raise children.

The reality is that this paradigm does not fit every woman. Truth be told, I would be surprised if any woman – or man, for that matter – was perfectly content following this preconceived course. Success is subjective, and in the words of Swami Vivekananda: “The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence.”

The “Vulnerable Woman” Trope

“But is it safe? You know… for a woman?” 

“Will you have a man with you?”

“No parent wants their daughter alone in a foreign country – you’re being selfish!”

If any of these sound familiar to you, then you will have been exposed to the Vulnerable Woman Trope. This is the one where – upon announcing your travel plans – people automatically latch onto the implications of your gender.

Now, I’m not stupid. I know that there are some places in the world that it would be simply irresponsible to venture alone. But there are also a lot of places that – while they certainly carry their risks – should not be off-limits for someone purely because they identify as a woman and not a man.

Statistics illustrate how men are actually twice as likely to experience violent assault committed by strangers than women. Yet, you rarely hear people warning their fellow male friends to avoid traveling alone. This fixation on the danger of solo female traveling only disseminates the cultural falsehood not only of women as vulnerable and helpless beings, but also of the conceptual impossibility of men as victims of crime. These ideas work to scare women out of expanding their comfort zone, and are all but an invitation for victim-blaming if a woman does happen to be assaulted whilst traveling on her own.

The take home message is that you should not let misogynistic stereotypes around female independence limit your opportunities. No one should travel somewhere without educating themselves on personal protection and welfare, and consulting the social and political landscape of any prospective country before booking those plane tickets should be a priority. Bear in mind that gendered advice around security can be delivered more for the purpose of reaffirming the Vulnerable Woman Trope rather than actually presenting a realistic view of safety. Traveling alone can be a rewarding and empowering experience – for both women and men – and we need to understand that threats to this independence are not all that meets then eye.

P.S. a fantastic resource for genuine advice on street harassment whilst traveling is this article by Everyday Feminism.

 

The “Woman = Things” Trope

When I was preparing to move overseas for the first time, I pulled a Marie Kondo and down-sized my possessions to the point where I could fit everything I owned into one suitcase. When I would share this with my friends, they would be astounded and ask how I could get rid of so much shit. And that’s what I want to emphasise – that it really was ‘shit’. It may have been shit I was admittedly attached to, but it was nevertheless shit. When it came down to it, I didn’t really need five pairs of Nikes. Nor did I really need three sets of reusable coffee flasks. Once I accepted that, a more minimalist lifestyle suddenly became a lot more appealing.

Society is obsessed with ‘things’ – and by ‘things’, I mean anything that you can buy/own. We tend to hierarchise people based on money; a habit propagated by commercialism and capitalism. We are taught that the more things we own, the more successful we are. We further observe this through the notion that shopping equals happiness.

Why is this a feminist issue, I hear you ask? Well, consider the relationship between females and shopping; the stereotype of women as ‘shopaholics‘ is well-established and reinforced by the philosophy that individuals that own a lot of stuff possess higher prestige and status. By going against the grain, females are gambling being judged as a lesser woman who has perhaps failed at cultural femininity.

Anyone who travels knows only too well that lugging bags upon bags of belongings wherever they go is a burden. Half the point of traveling is to detach yourself from material ownership and to feel at home – not within the four walls of a house – but by the quality of the people around you. A nomadic lifestyle is incompatible with the convention of women accumulating more and more stuff, which is all the more reason to challenge it.

Some final thoughts…

Travel provides many opportunities: the opportunity for new experiences, the opportunity to meet new people… and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to learn.

Growing up in New Zealand, misogyny manifests in micro-aggressions. In other words, sexism is an implicit and underlying mechanism that characterises the female existence in a seemingly insignificant way (emphasis on the ‘seemingly’). But when I am in foreign places, the gender inequality can sometimes be so palpable, it’s like a slap to the face.

The downside to being a Kiwi is that it’s easy to take a relatively egalitarian society for granted. But through living in one of the more privileged countries in the world, us females have a political voice that is heard and respected. Educating first ourselves and then others about the injustices occurring in other societies is an opportunity that should not be undermined but rather encouraged.

Through a feminist approach to traveling, women become more aware and vocal of the inequalities plaguing humanity. I am a firm believer that social change is a bottom-up process, and what better way to start than by challenging the mentalities that reinforce sexist travel tropes.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash

Hungry for more? Be sure to check out my blog post: The Bucket List: Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel (Or Why Tourism is Political) 🌍

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