We Four in Egypt

Now back in the US!

I’m the tall, aloof blond.

In the US, I’m not particularly tall. But here, on the women’s car of the metro, I can see over the heads of most women (it’s a sea of veils).

And in the US, I’m not particularly blond. Here my hair contrasts dramatically with the average Egyptian’s brunette hair.

And in the US, I certainly don’t feel aloof. I make eye contact with strangers and smile at men and women.

Not here. I smile at women if they make eye contact with me, but I avoid looking directly at Egyptian men. I don’t get close enough to touch them. And I certainly don’t talk to them. Why? Because if I did, it might reinforce the notion that they already have of western women: that we’re all whores. Strong language, but so true! This is a country where a woman can get accused of whoredom because her hair is showing. And people here see American women in the movies all the time, and isn’t that how we all are?

Now, none of this is true at work, where I interact comfortably with men and women, veiled and unveiled, Christian and Muslim, but it’s a western dominated environment, where western norms prevail. And at least some of the Egyptian staff seem to appreciate that environment as well.

But when I’m by myself in public, which is a daily experience as I take the metro to and from work, I act differently than I would in the US. I behave more like an Egyptian woman in that I avoid men I don’t know (which is all but about ten people in the entire city).

On the metro, the front two cars are usually reserved for women, who pack in. But one night last week, the second car also had men, who mostly sat at the back of the car, and women, who were mostly at the front. There were constant negotiations on the bench seats. If a man stood up, a woman might sit down, but only if doing so would mean she wasn’t touching another man. And the men and women all scooched to avoid this contact, meaning men were scrunched together and women were scrunched together. A subtle but important dynamic.

Earlier the same day, I got on a crowded elevator that happened to be filled with women. There was still space for one, but the man who was waiting did not get on, perhaps because then he might have touched a woman. There was a veiled woman waiting, and the other women encouraged her to take the free spot. “It’s all girls here,” one said, meaning, we’re crowded, but you won’t touch any men in here.

That night on the metro, on the mixed sex car, I realized I had hardly seen Egyptian men beyond our bowwab (the doorman) and some men at work. And then (perhaps immersed in observation), I missed my stop. Actually, I missed the next few stops too!

I finally got off the train, crossed over, and waited for the next one. I couldn’t get up to the women’s car at the front, so I walked onto a car with several men and one woman, who was fully covered (meaning only her eyes were showing; she was even wearing gloves). So of course I sat down next to hear. And endured the stares. And hoped my seatmate didn’t get off before me, which she didn’t.

I am very conspicuous here. And I’m okay with that. But the women’s car is much more comfortable than the mixed sex cars.


1 October 2007 - Posted by | our life in egypt, transportation

1 Comment

  1. Interesting observations that you make. I assume you were the one who commented about our Al-Ahram article; thanks for the comment! You’re right: the gender dynamics DO suck, but until they change, sex segregation is still a safe bet.

    Comment by Zeynab | 9 October 2007

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