All Women Matter: What It's Like For A Foreign Female Living In Egypt

by Sina Stieding

The past 10 months of my life have been the most challenging ones so far. I know, I know, the quarter-life crisis is never easy!

But it’s not the reality of being a 20-something in search for a purpose in life, or the horrific dating landscape, that dominates my life.

It’s the reality of being a woman in Egypt, the country I’ve called home for the past 10 months.

As a blonde, visibly foreign individual, my life as a woman in Egypt has been challenging in a way no other country could be.

The blatant sexual harassment and a lack of equality opened my eyes to the work that still needs to be done in Egypt to become a comfortable living space for women.

In no part of the world has society been able to eradicate discrimination against women, but Egypt has largely failed to even make attempts to create gender equality.

The gruesome reality women face in Egypt, however, doesn’t stop within their own homes.

With men being the superior gender in all aspects of life, Egyptian women often face suppression, violence and injustice.

This is a country in which 92 percent of females have had to endure female genital mutilation and is considered to be "the worst Arab state for women."

As a foreign visitor in this country, I am spared from family pressures to marry a man I’ve never met and feeling the need to hide my hair underneath a head scarf.

Most Egyptian women around me, however, deal with these issues on a daily basis.

Different social circles have different customs; that’s no different in Egypt.

The upper-class females are dressed in brand clothes, style their hair for everyone to see and party every weekend — casual encounters with men included.

The upper class, however, is a tiny fraction of the population. The rest of Egyptians live differently.

Another social class is exposed on the Cairo metro, where two “female-only” compartments protect already heavily dressed women with head scarfs from the stares of men.

All other eight compartments are crowded with men.

Nobody in Egypt is required to wear a head scarf, yet the number circulating in society is that 90 percent do so.

On the Cairo metro, the daily mode of transportation for over 4 million Egyptians, the number is much higher. In other parts of the city, close to no females cover up.

My lack of veil is an eye-catcher on the metro, even on the women’s compartment.

Despite me knowing that most of these women choose to cover up and are in no way forced to, some reasons women give me for wearing head scarves shed light on the environments they live in.

Many Egyptian women have told me that protection from lustful stares are a factor for their desire to hide a part of their physical beauty, next to the self-evident reasons of obedience toward the religion and their families.

With perpetual sexual harassment and abundant stares by men in every public space possible, even I have developed the desire to become invisible at times.

Here's an unbelievable number: 99 percent of women in Egypt have been sexually harassed.

Living in Egypt, I have no doubt this number is accurate.

Women wearing head scarves has never been a problem. Women wearing head scarves because they feel a necessity to protect themselves from unruly male behavior is a problem.

Family pressure adds to the mix, and not only when it comes to a female appearance.

Arranged marriages still happen frequently, and once united in holy matrimony, women in Egypt face yet another kind of inferiority.

Although respected and praised for their female qualities in the Quran and by most members of society, women are not required, but are expected, to keep the household intact and take care of the children.

Although reform is happening to favor women in family law more and more, a lot is missing from making Egyptian marriages equal.

There are few to no females in Egyptian leadership roles. Whether it’s the Quran or society itself, Egyptian women either don’t have the chance to be ambitious or simply don’t want to.

A high school teacher from the rural Bahariya desert tells me all of his efforts to encourage his female students to dream big were shot down.

His students’ ambition revolved around finishing basic education, then finding husbands.

Evidently, society is as impeding on the fight for female equality more than the law, if not more so.

At the same time, chivalry is definitely not dead in Egypt.

I have encountered the deepest respect from men and the greatest displays of courtesy among the two dozen countries I’ve visited before.

Boyfriend or acquaintance, all men open my door, carry my bags and offer to pay.

Most men look forward to marriage because they want wives to love and families to take care of. Western men could learn a thing or two about that.

In my relationship with an Egyptian man, I have never been compromised for being a woman. Yes, random men can’t control their stares or weird antics to catch my foreign attention, but most men follow a strong morale to appreciate women, although their definitions of such behavior may vary from our Western understandings.

I never feel threatened or unsafe as a blonde woman in Cairo, and my culture might be scrutinized, but it is accepted.

If I get harassed, I am free to shout, make a scene and call these guys out, and I’ve handed out a few slaps here or there for men who hold different definitions of the term “personal space.”

If these guys get caught, they go to jail.

My favorite story about an empowered woman in Egypt comes from a girl whose butt was groped by a man on a bicycle.

Quickly, she turned around and pushed him off the bike, took it to her house and waited for him to pick it up with a police officer.

If I want to drink, smoke or invite a foreign man to my chamber, law and society allow me to do that.

A problem only arises if I want to involve an Egyptian man in that behavior. That cannot be done, at least not without some witty tricks.

The Egyptian woman gets attention, love and respect from society, but also has to deal with a large dose of inequality and discrimination.

I've had to accept that cultural differences exist in the strong obedience to the religion, in which women are worshiped but are definitely not equal.

Hence, the behavior from some members of society will hopefully show progress soon.

With more and more women finding the courage to speak up, pursue careers, break free from religious or domestic pressure and even abstain from marriage, equality will manifest in legislation hopefully sooner than later.

Egypt is just taking a few more years. At least, I hope so.