Just one kiss, he says, waving five Egyptian pounds at me.
One kiss on the mouth, and he’ll give me the equivalent of a dollar. I am walking through a bazaar in Cairo when I realize that sexual harassment has no limits here.
One man says he wants to marry me. Another grabs me by the arm and asks my name. A few simply yell, “China,” and hope I’ll turn around – I’m Asian, but not Chinese.
Harassment in Italy is notorious. But the catcalls I experienced in Venice and Rome pale in comparison to the shockingly sexual statements and shameless groping my roommate and I endured in Egypt.
This isn’t to say we didn’t expect it. After all, U.S. travel officials warn female citizens that they are “vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse” when traveling unescorted in Egypt. In a survey released by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights over the summer, 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women reported that they’d been sexually harassed in the country.
So we prepared. I spent nearly $200 on attire for the weeklong vacation, stocking up on long-sleeved shirts and ankle-length hippie skirts. We learned the Egyptian word for “No” – it’s laa. I packed a pair of sunglasses to avoid eye contact, a scarf to cover my curves and a hat to cover my long hair when necessary.
Physically, we were prepared. Mentally, not so much. If you’re a woman planning to travel alone or with other women to explore truly one of the most amazing civilizations in ancient history, I hope you pay heed.
We booked a room at the Paris Hotel Cairo hostel for our first night in Egypt and were very impressed when the hostel owner himself picked us up from the airport, stopped to buy us breakfast and then arranged our tour through the pyramids of Giza.
So when we returned from an awe-inspiring tour on camelback, we assumed that his invitation to join him for a beer on the hostel balcony was an extension of this top-notch hospitality. Over bottles of Stella Artois, we talked about his life in Egypt and our lives in the United States. We were advised by friends who’ve traveled the country to say we were married – my roommate had even bought a fake engagement ring for the occasion – but we figured we could trust the owner of our hostel when he asked.
He casually began detailing his sex life, describing a few of his more unusual fetishes. My roommate and I exchanged uncomfortable looks when he asked if we liked “to be kissed on the bum.” I came out of the experience physically unscathed, but my roommate was apparently subjected to some rather aggressive advances while I was in the bathroom.
That day, we paid for camel rides in Giza. According to a tour book, some guides will try to climb onto the back of the camel and ride with you. “Don’t allow this to happen,” it read. Sharm el-Sheikh, a popular tourist resort along the Red Sea, is always swamped with European tourists, so we went fairly unnoticed in that part of the country. We were able to shed our long-sleeved shirts for a day and sunbathe.
Still, one local refused to walk away after we repeatedly turned down his offers to massage us. At one point, he abruptly took off my hat and tried to rub my head.
After our brief trip to Sharm El-Sheikh, we headed to Luxor and toured the ruins of some of the most breathtaking ancient Egyptian temples and tombs, including that of King Tutankhamun, in the country. We then heeded the advice of every tour book and paid for a short felucca ride down the Nile.
This turned into a much longer ride than expected, with two local sailors who not only pawed at us but spent 10 minutes trying to kiss us and lure us back to their flat, where we “could all drink alcohol and have sex time.” The two didn’t actually begin to set sail back until we told them our guide was waiting for us on land and would notice if we weren’t back within five minutes.
My roommate said one of the men actually shoved her lips against his as she climbed off the boat.
These were some of the more disturbing experiences we had, but they are not the only ones. We were followed by men on the streets and my roommate, who is blond and blue-eyed, was an obvious target for unwanted attention.
So as I walked through that bazaar in Cairo on my last day in Egypt, I was not nearly as surprised as I should’ve been when solicited for a kiss. Neither did it surprise me much when a hand reached out and groped my butt.
I turned around but, of course, nobody took responsibility.
Some people might say we were lucky. Video clips of women being molested by mobs of men on the streets of Egypt have made their way onto YouTube in recent years, and some local women say they are sexually harassed several times a day.
I hate to say this, but I wish I had been traveling with a man.
To women traveling to Egypt, I say: Be wary. Cover up. And mentally prepare yourself to accept a culture that is more tolerant of sexual harassment then your own.