During the month of July, I am writing about the time I quit my job at the peak of the recession and moved to Egypt, where I lived above a camel stable, across the street from the pyramids. This week I am writing about the unfortunate reality all women travelers face — sexual harassment — and the strong responses it evokes.
At lunch one day at my friend’s apartment looking out on the Nile in Garden City, I was talking with a woman who worked for the U.S. embassy. She was shocked that I rode the buses and train, and warned me against the dangers of public transportation in Cairo, which she and her colleagues are strictly forbidden to use. It’s true that the minibus I had taken to get to lunch had been overcrowded with its side door torn off, music blaring popular remixes, chairs hardly secured to the ground. Forget three to a bench seat or even seat belts. You might be squished in next to a load of laundry and a huge sack of sweet potatoes, four men and a boy or a woman cradling her newborn.
Besides the fact the U.S. policy ignores the reality that most Egyptians have no choice but to travel in such ‘dangerous’ conditions, what this woman didn’t know, because she’d never experienced it, is how safe Egyptians make the ride by looking out for one another. It was on the buses where I first discovered Egyptians’ kindness. Running to get onto a packed bus may look like a rough-and-tumble feat, but in reality you can’t launch yourself onto a moving, crowded bus without a hand reaching out to help you. I never knew how or who to pay, but on every ride, an Egyptian would help me get my change right and pass it up to the driver. If an elderly woman got on, a younger woman got up to offer a seat. Cairo is one of the most overpopulated cities in the world but its rates of violence are among the lowest, a fact I find very easy to believe knowing first hand the gentle watchfulness of Egyptians on public transportation.
I hope you had a good week, and are looking forward to another good week ahead. Come back and read–I am going to be writing about sexual harassment on the road, an unfortunate, but navigable, fact of life for women travelers. I’ll tell you about the time a man fell in love with me at the falafel sandwich diner, and about my experiences and thoughts on men who put their hands on your ass, uninvited—what it’s like, how it’s shaped me, and how other women and I respond. And ladies, let me tell you, I have yet to meet a woman who shrinks under a man’s wandering hand. On the contrary, I’ve seen public sexual harassment and abuse provoke sharp and skilled responses from women who will not rest until all women receive nothing less than total respect, all of the time.
For the next installment, check out Part III.