The wonders of Egypt can be tainted for some women by unwanted attention from the locals. But there’s plenty you can do to limit this, says KIM SMITH.
“Aussie, cute and sweet, will you marry me?” an old Egyptian man in downtown Cairo asked, in a proposal so humdrum it felt as if he was requesting a hand with an odd job, not one given in wedlock. “No thanks,” I declined politely as Mr Serendipity moved on to his next budding bride.
Wedding proposals are fairly common in Egypt, I soon learnt, especially if you have blonde hair. Whether or not they are genuine, it’s all quite harmless. Egyptian men tend to go a bit ga-ga when it comes to foreign women mainly because their conservative lifestyle is prohibitive when it comes to sex and Western women can be seen as a bit loose and sexually reckless. The finger can be pointed at Hollywood movies for this perception, although it should be noted that a lot of the nation is educated to know better (despite many still proffering proposals and pick-up lines). As long as you’re sensible and don’t encourage suggestive exchanges, you shouldn’t have any problems or need to unreasonably sacrifice the liberty of your holiday. The reality is that these Allah-fearing men know the difference between right and wrong and, at most, the more game men will touch your hair.
Soon after turning down wedding pitch number one (by the end of two weeks, there were quite a few), I experienced another bout of male attention – again in Cairo, where it really is a man’s world – but with a more precarious twist. A man walking behind my girlfriend and I started hissing at us in a manner akin to the way you might shoo a pesky animal. Although Mr Snake didn’t seem to have any ill intentions and even wore a slight look of amusement, we decided to err on the side of caution and step up the pace away from him. We later found out he probably just wanted to get our attention or could have been questioning our morals.
Proposals, hissing and other remarks such as “you’re a beautiful goddess” and “I trade my four wife for you” are best handled with a polite smile and shake of your head or by simply walking away. The same goes for the men who click their tongues at you.
Local customs and traditions provide some insight into behaviour towards tourists. Sex is taboo and forbidden until after marriage, even though people might not get hitched until they’re in their thirties. It’s expected that men will establish themselves with some money and a home first.
Older Egyptian men also seem to enjoy the game, but that’s probably because foreign visitors dress and act very differently to what they are used to. Observing local women should provide enough evidence that our lives in London are a world away from theirs. They, like Egyptian men, live by very strict rules and very rarely will you see any smoking or drinking alcohol in public or even travelling alone on public transport (women tend to sit together away from men, and foreign women should feel comfortable to join them).
Even though most western women act in ways that no conforming Egyptian women would (such as drinking or smoking or sharing a room with your partner), most locals will take this in their stride. It’s by showing some respect to the cultural differences that you will also discourage unwanted attention.
This is especially true when it comes to dress. Many Egyptian women, particularly in rural areas, wear traditional long black abeyyas that hardly show any skin. In larger cities such as Cairo, dress is more modern but still conservative. Despite my efforts to cover up in long flowing skirts, tops and scarves, I still felt half-naked at times by comparison. Less is more doesn’t apply here and parading around in miniskirts and clingy tight tops isn’t encouraged. While you don’t need to hide every inch of yourself, clothing that covers your chest, thighs and upper arms is recommended (if you’re travelling off the beaten track out of the major hubs, it’s also advised to cover up long hair). However, there are times when you don’t have to be so modest, such as when you’re lounging around a hotel pool, along the Sinai coast (Dahab) or onboard a felucca boat, so remember to take your bikinis.
Security for single female traveller is found by walking with other people, or at least one other, at all times. If you’re against any type of attention, wearing a wedding ring will help; alternatively, try donning sunglasses to avoid eye contact.
Reassuringly, crime against foreigners is taken very seriously in Egypt and the consequences are dire. In a worst-case scenario, if you’re groped or feeling scared, yell ’emshee’ (go away) or ‘aram’ (evil) and hopefully the perpetrator will be shamed into stopping or you’ll attract some help.
Just remember to be smart and show respect and – like the travellers who have been flocking here for the past 3000 years – you’ll love the Ancient Country and all its wonders. Sense of humour essential.
Pick-up lines to look out for
Your eyes are like stars on the Nile”
“Pretty Australian, pretty marry me”
“I can’t give you a camel, but I’ll give you my heart”
“Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Australia beautiful just like you”
“You look like Cameron Diaz”
“You’re breaking my heart, please don’t go”
• Kim Smith travelled to Egypt with On The Go Tours (020-7371 1113). Their 14-day King Ramses tour starts at £459.”