Amanda Cupido is the web editor for Femme-O-Nomics.com and a producer at Newstalk 1010.
My friends gasped, my mother cried and my co-worker bid me farewell by saying, “Nice knowing you.”
It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard of the problems. Yes, there’s political instability and gender inequality and poverty, but it’s been a dream of mine to see the Pyramids up close and cruise down the Nile. When I realized my time off work lined up with an organized tour, I took it as a sign.
I travelled with a Contiki group made up of 25 women and only five men; most of us being in our late 20s. As soon as our tour guide surveyed the group, you could tell he was worried.
“We have so many women this time” said Sherif, an Egyptian man who has been a tour guide in the country for over 20 years. “I usually tell the ladies to stick near one of the guys, but this time it’s going to be difficult.”
I didn’t think much of it, especially since I hadn’t read the recent statistics about sexual harassment of women in Egypt reaching “epidemic proportions.” In the last three months, the attacks have turned into mob-like showings with harassers that are younger than ever before.
Our first evening was spent in Cairo. Before braving the streets of the capital city, Sherif told us to “avoid dressing sexy” or else we’d get spit on by the local ladies and we’d be stared down by the local men.
We quickly noticed that few local women were out during the evening, which made my group even more prominent. As we turned each corner, we expected the worst.
Despite covering up using our typical clothing, entire streets of men would stop and gape as the ladies in our group passed them. They’d begin to hiss at us and mutter under their breath in Arabic. I didn’t see one political demonstration throughout my two-week trip. It was the behaviour of the local men, not the forces of revolution and upheaval, that threatened to ruin our trip.
It’s not an isolated problem. Egypt was once known as a tourist hub, with hour-long waits to enter destinations such as the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, which is known for showcasing the complete contents of King Tut’s tomb. Last week, there was barely anyone visiting alongside our group. Earlier this year, Egypt was getting 32% fewer visitors than it had been a year previously. According to our tour guide, the number of tourists has continued to drop. When you consider than an estimated 12% of Egypt’s population works in the tourism sector, the problem becomes clear.
It’s no wonder. After being in the country for several days, it was finally time for us to visit the Pyramids. We took a bus to Giza. When we arrived, the vista looked like a painted background. It was magnificent. But we didn’t have long to enjoy it. As we stepped off the bus, each person in my group was swarmed by Egyptian men trying to sell souvenirs. Incredibly, and again reflecting Egypt’s withering tourism sector, we were the only group at the Pyramids at that time. The dozens of men there, who once could have counted on thousands of visitors a day, were left with just us. They were desperate to make a sale: “What’s your name? Where are you from? Do you want to look at my shop?”
Sherif had told us to say a stern, “No, thank you” and walk away. The chorus of polite declines echoed as we neared the pyramids. Right when I thought we had avoided them all, a young Egyptian boy — perhaps aged 13 — approached me and my friend. He waved his camera phone in my friend’s face, trying to take pictures of her. She tried to quickly walk away but he followed her. I stepped between them and yelled at him to leave her alone.
Unimpressed, he reached out, grabbed my breast and squeezed.
Instinctively, I slapped him, hard. His face dropped and ran in the opposite direction. We had no further trouble, but after years of dreaming of visiting the Pyramids, I had somehow failed to consider that my first experience there would be being groped by a child.
The misogynist culture followed us everywhere we visited. Few women were seen working and the ones we encountered barely spoke English. They took a back seat to their husbands and would witness them stare down the tourists.
I thought about Sherif’s reaction to the number of females in our group. It made me realize that even as a local, he realized how corrupt their attitude was toward women.
Said Sadek, a sociologist from the American University in Cairo, told the BBC that the problem is “deeply rooted in Egyptian society.” He attributes it to a mixture of increased Islamic conservatism and dated patriarchal mentalities.
Perhaps. But given the current state of the tourism industry in Egypt, you’d think locals who work in the field would be trying to change that. If even the female tourists who are bringing badly needed funds into a battered economy can’t be accorded any respect, what hope do the locals have?
This article originally appeared in the National Post.
Category: Women in the World