We Four in Egypt

Now back in the US!

Who put the men in the women’s cars?

The Cairo metro dedicates two cars to women only. The rest are integrated. If I’m with Mr. Four, we ride the integrated cars. If I’m by myself (or with only the boys), I ride the women’s car.

Until, that is, this past week. One morning, as the train pulled into the station, I noticed men on the women’s cars, the first two cars of the train. And it wasn’t just one or two men, but many, on both cars. I boarded the first car, which was about half men and half women. My courtesy Arabic (“good morning,” “thank you,” “tea with milk”) didn’t give me the vocabulary to ask anyone why men were on the women’s car, but at each stop more men boarded. No one else seemed confused. And no women chased off the men (which apparently does happen on the women’s cars).

This wasn’t a problem per se, but incredibly confusing.

No one at work had an explanation (let me re-phrase that: the three people, including one Egyptian, I asked at work didn’t have an explanation) other than that sometimes men go onto the women’s cars when the integrated cars are crowded. I didn’t buy this.

That afternoon, on the way home, I went to platform and saw some other women who seemed confused that men were waiting in the area formerly reserved for women. They chattered away in Arabic and then started walking, purposefully, elsewhere. I followed them and arrived at a new spot with primarily women.

So, that’s how I figured out the women’s cars were moved to the middle of the train. These cars now have huge red and green stickers over the doors. The stickers are mostly meaningless to me as they are in Arabic, but they do have the apparently universal stick figure for women, usually seen on bathroom doors: a woman in a skirt that ends at her knees. Of course, no women in Cairo wear skirts this short, but the sign is clear enough.

I missed the right car again yesterday morning (I hadn’t walked to the proper spot on the platform), but I experienced no harassment on the integrated car I rode, which seemed to have about one hundred men and three women, and the men even tried to give me a little space, which I appreciated. The harassment is a big deal here–I’ll write soon about a woman I know who left Cairo more than a year early because of it–but wasn’t a problem for me.

(A colleague of mine hypothesized that I don’t get harassed because I look old and married: thanks friend!)

For the most part, I enjoy the metro. I like being surrounded by Egyptian women and seeing their clothes, especially the colorful designs and intricate folds of their headscarves. I like the kindness extended to strangers, such as when a woman gave me her prime spot because I carried a large package, or as when a woman gave me a cough drop when I was coughing.

And from my part of town, the metro is faster and much cheaper than a taxi (20 minutes versus 30-45 minutes; 1 LE as compared to 20-25 LE), and more convenient than my employer’s shuttle.

All the same, very few of my colleagues, American or Egyptian, ride the metro. I think perhaps it’s considered lower class but no one has actually said this. People do seem surprised that I ride the metro daily.

In any case, my experience on the car-formerly-known-as-the-women’s-car reminded me of my cultural illiteracy. I really don’t understand a lot of what I see around me here in Cairo. I can figure it out most of the time, but often I am just very confused.


14 January 2008 - Posted by | our life in egypt, transportation

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