Skinny Jeans and Fava Beans: Transit danger

Deborah Levinson

This week I’m feeling super awesome and proud of myself. Normally I would just make my friends listen to me rant about how great I am, but since I have a larger audience, I’ve decided to simultaneously address one of my least favorite parts of Cairo and why I’m so pleased with myself.

I took a taxi alone at night to a destination that I had not previously visited and whose location I was not entirely sure of. I also took the Cairo Metro alone at night. I even changed trains. Basically, I spent my weekend being awesome.

You’re probably wondering why taking a taxi or the metro is such an accomplishment. The answer is Cairo. I live in Cairo.

In Cairo, I wear long sleeves so that fewer men will whistle or hiss or yell vulgar stuff at me from across the street. In Cairo, I travel to conservative areas of the city with a male friend so that I get fewer comments and looks.

In Cairo, I listen attentively as business owners and strangers address my male companions rather than me. In Cairo, I have learned to defer to men.

Liberal, feminist, independent Deborah hates this. Never before in my life have I felt so reliant upon men and such a lack of true independence as a woman. But I knew that this was a part of life in Egypt before I came here, and it’s part of a culture that I wanted to experience. Experiencing the culture includes the shitty parts, too.

Street harassment in Egypt has become such a serious problem that it has made international news. I’m certainly subjected to it in part because I’m pasty white and unveiled, but Egyptian women in niqabs are by no means exempt. Being female is the only requirement to get hissed or whistled at.

The Metro is basically where you can find all of the misogynistic men from the streets in one cramped space. And even though street harassment tends to be only verbal, apparently a woman’s presence on the Metro means that anything, including inappropriate touching, is fair game.

This is enough to discourage many of the female Egyptian students I’ve met from taking the Metro, and has scared most of the international students to the point of avoidance. I, however, refuse to live in this city and not use public transit.

So I have. I even took it alone at night. And you know what? It was totally fine.

On Saturday evening I had to attend an event for class, so I took a taxi. Taking a taxi alone at night in Cairo is one of the first things we were instructed not to do. When you’re alone in a taxi, there are an unlimited number of terrible things that can happen to you.

This spring, an AUC student was raped in the back of a cab. A student I know was in a cab two weeks ago when the driver pulled over. A group of his friends appeared from nowhere, so the girl kicked one of them and ran. These stories are abundant, but women also take taxis alone all the time without a problem.

I had to be somewhere, so I took a risk. I took a taxi alone at night, and somehow I muddled through the Arabic and ended up at my destination. It was terrifying, but it was also quite freeing.

I’ve figured out how to balance my fear with my wants. I’d been struggling with juggling gender roles and safety and fear with my desire for freedom. But being here and being culturally sensitive doesn’t mean I have to give up my independence.

It means I have to think twice before I head out on my own. Sometimes I think twice, and it’s still a good idea.