Since living in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt I can’t help but notice how I feel utterly undervalued and invisible when I am out and about amongst local people. I noticed long ago that Egyptian women are rarely seen in the area where I live and the majority of my time in public is amongst Egyptian men. What is it about my interactions with the people around me here that leave me feeling this way? I must point out that I am not blaming Egyptian men for my feelings of inadequacy whilst living here. But I am curious as to what has brought this on for me. How my experiences here have brought about one simple fact for me….I feel like a second rate citizen here, the property of men, purely because I am female. It saddens me deeply and has affected my opinion of this little piece of Egypt more than I care to imagine.
I have been brought up within a loving family and as part of a society where being female has not held me back and has not been of any significance in my life choices. I can honestly say it didn’t occur to me until recently that being female could affect how others believe my life ought to be lived. I thought everyone just saw me as, well, me. How fortunate I am to have been valued for being who I am and for having been allowed every freedom and choice that came my way, irrespective of my gender. My voice has been heard, my opinions respected by others (well, sometimes), I have a career of my choosing and I have experienced great joy being a woman. I have my own unique gifts and strengths and I have expressed them freely.
Lucky me? Though surely it should not come down to luck. It should be every person’s birthright to be heard and to be free to make their own choices in life. For many people that simply is not the case in our complex world and we limit and divide people for reasons of race, gender, age, religion, money, sexual orientation and so forth. It is not my place to comment on the huge subject of discrimination right now, I am no expert, but I can say that it appals me to think of women being thought of as the lesser sex. It appals me to think of anyone being segregated and labelled at all to be honest. In my opinion there is no place for such attitudes in our world if we ever hope to achieve harmony and see people in their true greatness, regardless of their gender, beliefs and so forth. We are all equal.
Anyway, before I start going into full feminist mode, let’s come back to my question. What is it about my interactions with some people here in Sharm that leave me feeling, quite frankly, like crap? I have pondered this over many cups of tea and decided to quietly observe myself and those around me every time I go out in order to understand what on earth is going on. And here is what I observed with as little judgement as possible. It is quite difficult not to judge though as these incidents involve me and I am pretty unimpressed at being treated this way. I feel like shouting very loudly here that I do in fact exist and no I am not a prostitute. However, I fear that may result in me being arrested or sold for a camel.
Firstly, when I go out alone and get the tiny blue bus into town, nobody will sit next to me. These buses are no larger than a sardine tin and are crammed with people trying to get into town. No matter how busy the bus is, the men that hop on and off to go about their daily business will not sit anywhere near me unless absolutely necessary. If possible they will all rearrange themselves when a woman boards the bus (a very rare occurrence) so the woman and I are sat together away from the men. Furthermore, when we all hand our money forwards to the driver, many of the men will not let me pass their money forwards when I offer to help. I am beginning to wonder if I have a disease that I am unaware of or perhaps I just smell.
Furthermore, I have had the misfortune of being groped by the local men on these blue buses. They either avoid me or grope me it would seem. This one I judge wholeheartedly as utterly appalling. I am under the impression that because I am a lone white female in a foreign country, where women are rarely seen, I must therefore be a prostitute. That or some of the men have no understanding of personal space, which I believe might not be the case. I have asked other women that live here and have heard many awful reports of being treated this way and worse. It is apparently just the way it is. At this point I really do want to shout and scream but admit I felt too intimated on the bus to speak up. Plus the only words I can say in Arabic are yes, no, here, please, thank you, goodbye, crazy, one, two, three, four, five. I suspect that won’t get my point across sufficiently.
Secondly, when Nick and I go to a certain local supermarket and I pay with my money, the cashier hands the change back to Nick. He will not pass the money to me, despite the fact I paid. Now that really takes the biscuit. This is my money with which to buy large amounts of amazingly sweet Egyptian bread and also tonic to go with my gin. If the other cashiers cotton on to this and start giving my money to Nick all of the time there will be a problem. What if Nick doesn’t share the bread? This needs to be nipped in the bud straight away but again I don’t know how to get my point across in Arabic.
Thirdly, whenever I walk anywhere on my own I am approached by young Egyptian men. They stand in front of me so I cannot get away without a big side step, which is tricky when one is short. I can’t for the life of me see around these random men and for all I know I am likely to step on another one. The conversation always goes like this:
Man: What is your name?
Me: No thank you (in Arabic and hoping to deter Man)
Man: Where are you from?
Me: Here (and we’re back to English already. Man is not deterred)
Me: Yes. Here
Man: You like me?
Me: I don’t know you
Man: You have a boyfriend?
Man: You married?
Me: Not yet (note to self. That does not sound cool. Just desperate)
Man: Why not?
Me: My boyfriend has not asked yet (wow that sounds even worse)
Man: How old are you?
Me: Thirty four (Oh god here we go. I wince at what is coming next)
Man: You are thirty four and not married yet! Girls here marry at twenty!
Man looks horrified at me, is clearly appalled and then sees an opportunity. I am dying of embarrassment.
Man: You marry me if it doesn’t work out?
Man: Why not?
Me: Thank you. Have a nice day. Goodbye now
And onwards it goes. All whilst I am side stepping like a lunatic and getting nowhere. To add to the excitement of this I have also been kerb crawled by taxi drivers in much the same manner. They get quite irate at times when I dare to ignore them and walk on. One tried to run me down but failed miserably. I am impressed at their ability to drive, honk the horn, not hit the kerb and chat me up all at the same time. But seriously taxi drivers, please leave me alone. I only came out to buy bread and am probably old enough to be your mother. And I am well aware that in my baggy old t-shirt and board shorts I do not look hot. I look like a man and you are clearly desperate.
It has to be said the taxi drivers are hilarious out here though. I once counted how many seconds it took to be offered a taxi after leaving my apartment. Ten seconds. And then approximately every ten seconds afterwards all the way along the main road. Once we were offered twenty different taxis within the time it took to walk across the road. Taxis are everywhere. Every single day. The taxi drivers beep, follow you, slow down, ask ‘taxi?’, beep, kerb crawl, ask again ‘taxi?’ and then beep at you some more. And if you are lucky they also chat you up or try to run you over.
Finally, I love to go running here and do so of an evening. On my running route I pass a dusty little area where the taxi drivers gather and chat whilst waiting for business. It seems a nice area to congregate and drink tea and I run past them regularly. One day I was running along towards them and fell spectacularly right at their feet. It was a tremendous effort on my part to fall as embarrassingly as possible; I stumbled, flailed, hit the deck with a whooomph sound and skidded along the dirt on my stomach whilst holding my iPod aloft. Clearly my priority of what needed to be saved from the impact is slightly askew. I was a little shaken, grazed and dusty and, as I lay there regaining my senses, not one of the taxi drivers so much as blinked or tried to help me. There was no visible reaction. I felt like standing up, waving and shouting ‘HELLO MAN DOWN HERE! HELP ME!’ whilst pointing to my grazed knee. How they failed to notice me at their feet I do not know but the best part was the response that followed. Once I had dusted myself down and organised my haphazard clothing, I began to limp past them. One of them stepped out in front of me enquiringly.
Oh fuck off
Now I know we are from different cultures, different societies and we all prejudge. I have expectations of how I would like these Egyptian men to treat me and they probably have expectations of how they would like me to behave. I can only assume that the ones I encounter treat me in a manner that is appropriate for their culture and I cannot speculate as to what they think and feel towards me or women in general. Apart from with regards to the groping – that is entirely NOT my fault and is inappropriate at any time, any place. I recognise that I am a sensitive soul at heart and have enough self awareness to realise it is likely MY reaction to the above interactions that is the problem. My feelings are my own choice and it is up to me how I respond to others behaviours each day. I have a choice. Lately I have allowed myself to develop expectations of being treated poorly and of being hassled every time I go out. By expecting to be treated as second rate and as some kind of ex-pat prostitute available for purchase, I am tense. I am in a mindset that will make every interaction seem offensive no matter how innocuous. The power of the mind.
It is with that power of the mind that I am trying to turn this around for me…..Perhaps the local men do not sit next to me and do not pass me my money because they feel uncomfortable and do not know how to treat me. Not because they think I am second rate but because they are trying to be polite and respectful by deferring to what is appropriate for them. Perhaps the young Egyptians that approach me are just being friendly and looking for love. Perhaps they are lonely, being cheeky and hoping to brighten their day with some female company. Perhaps the taxi drivers simply didn’t know what to do when I fell at their feet. Perhaps it would be inappropriate amongst their peers for them to offer assistance to a foreign lady sprawled at their feet in lycra and covered in dust.
Put simply, perhaps I got it wrong.
Perhaps I just need to get a grip and stop being offended.
I suspect not.
I have spoken at length with a lovely Egyptian friend of mine (who is also a taxi driver and a very nice one at that) and he confirmed that actually what I have experienced is common here. The general consensus amongst the Egyptian men he knows is that women exist purely for their pleasure and well, that’s about it. Oh and that all visiting white westerners are clearly rich and marriage material. Brilliant.
Call me naive. Call me an optimist but I am going to choose to ignore this fact and focus on seeing the good in the people around me. I am going to smile at everyone and assume they mean well. And wear my iPod at all times when outdoors so I cannot hear a thing.