When I told my parents I was going to Egypt, they freaked out. My dad, who was sure I'd come home in a body bag, threatened to steal my passport. Such are the views of a conservative father with only one daughter. Even when that daughter is 24 years old.
I made it to Cairo, one week after the attack on the Israeli embassy there, and while I wasn't afraid of violence, I was worried -- well, curious -- about being a woman in Egypt, not to mention an American one. I looked for information on what to wear and watch out for as a female tourist in Egypt, but couldn't find a comprehensive guide. So, ladies, here's what you need to know.
While Egypt is a Muslim country, it is much more progressive than other Arab nations. Some women wear a niqab (a veil covering the face), others wear a hijab (a covering of the hair and neck but not the face) and still others do not cover their heads at all. Women are not required by law to follow a dress code, so as a tourist, you can wear whatever you'd like; some people do. But whatever comfort you might find in wearing minimal clothing in the heat will be cancelled out by the discomfort of having men stare and yell at you. Save the push-up bras and cleavage-bearing tops for your next trip to Brazil.
You do not need to cover your head in Egypt, but dress modestly. Wear pants or long skirts. Cairo is hot, so loose fitting pants are going to be more comfortable than a pair of skinny jeans. It is also dusty and dirty, so white clothing will appear soiled far more quickly than clothing of other colors.
Sunglasses are a must, not only because it's bright out but also because they make it easier to avoid making eye contact with men on the street. If you find yourself without shades, don't look men in the eye -- it's considered a form of flirtation.
Before my trip, I was warned that outside Egypt's major cities the locals are much more conservative and that you must dress accordingly. But I found the opposite to be true. I took a cruise down the Nile and stopped at major tourist sites like the Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple. With the exception of a few souvenir dealers, everyone at these sites is a tourist, and they dress as such. Among tourists, you can wear what you want (within reason). There's no point in sweating it out in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt if everyone around you is in shorts.
While you don't need to wear a headscarf, it's not a bad idea to carry around a lightweight pashmina in case you go into a mosque and want to cover your head. In the more conservative mosques, if you're not completely covered, they will ask you to wear a bathrobe-type garment.
"Your conservative equals their slightly-less-scandalous, so skinny jeans need a long shirt, and even a high-neck shirt must either be loose or be layered with a loose sweater. There are many occasions where you can wear whatever you want at your destination, but the transportation and walking in between is the killer," said Alison, an American journalist who has been living in downtown Cairo for two years. So while a cocktail dress is perfectly acceptable attire at many parties, walking the streets in one is another matter altogether.
"Egyptians are very friendly and outgoing people," said Alison. "You can certainly socialize, but while in the US (or Lebanon for that matter) it's perfectly acceptable to talk to a stranger at a bar, be aware that this is not part of the Egyptian culture. When Egyptians go out at night, they do not interact with others outside their immediate group. So be yourself and enjoy the hospitality, but keep the rules of the locals in the back of your mind."
Expect harassment, ranging from harmless flirtation -- men will call you sukar (sugar), mozza (banana), butta (duck) and ask how many camels you cost -- to men staring at you, following you, grabbing your chest or butt and verbally harassing you. This is less common than flirtation, but nevertheless common. Avoid walking alone at night.
"It happens to all women in Cairo at some point, but do not be afraid of taking public transportation, like the metro, or going to certain areas, because there is no pattern of location," said Alison.
According to a report by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights titled "Harassment: The Social Cancer," 98 percent of foreign female visitors to Egypt and 83 percent of Egyptian women experienced some degree of sexual harassment, and 62 percent of Egyptian men admitted to harassing women, both foreign and local.
There is always the potential for unwanted attention from men, but if you use common sense and dress appropriately, you can relax and enjoy Egypt's rich history, abundance of archeological sites, and delicious cuisine.
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