Monday, June 8, 2009

You've never heard cat-calls like these

by Shannon Togawa Mercer

If you ever find yourself walking the streets of downtown Cairo (caveat: you are a pretty woman, - scratch that – you’re a woman), prepare for the most obnoxious series of hissing noises and cat calls that any city on the planet could hope to produce. I’ll say this: As I strolled down the Sharia Talaat Al-Harb I had never before been more thankful that I didn’t understand a language.

Egyptian society encompasses a number of different, and often conflicting, beliefs about relations between the sexes. I see young un-wed women wearing hijab walking down the streets and flirting, hanging on to young man. These types of “public displays of affection” are discouraged in ex-pat circles but they seem perfectly acceptable in normal urban society (as long as you don’t push it). On the other hand, EVERYONE dresses conservatively. With so much as an lower thigh showing (or even upper knee cap) I would probably be prevented from leaving my dorm building. Even with conservative dress (which, in my opinion, is comprised of my loosest pair of jeans and a decent t-shirt) I have been hit on more here than anywhere. I mean anywhere. Even The Street. Even more than at Terrace around 3 am. Just think about it.

Harassment is such an issue here that the American University required us to attend a lecture on it. During the lecture we were taught how to say – in colloquial Egyptian naturally – “Mind your own business”, “Don’t touch me” and “Act like a man”. Just a few weeks ago I would have thought that this was a joke. I assure you, it is not. The attention that foreign girls get (especially girls with light hair) is quite overwhelming, and the thought of us complaining of objectification in America seems a bit ridiculous from my vantage point (although I know it won’t the moment some New York construction worker yells down at me from his flimsy scaffolding).

For the most part I take it lightly, but there is a certain element of fear that is introduced when two men are staring so intently at you that they stop in the middle of a five-lane street crossing. Fear for them, yes, but also a profound amount of fear for your own safety. I don’t usually feel helpless. That’s just not who I am, but I have found that here, in Egypt, I have begun to discover the healthy amount of fear that I’m sure a lot of women feel on a daily basis.

It is terrifying. It is the awareness that, at any moment, these men could decide to act on their thoughts. No amount of women’s liberation rhetoric would save you then. The years of women’s rights activism wouldn’t mean anything. It’d just be you, and them. Despite how horrible this sounds, I’m glad that I’ve reached the point in my life where I can accept that I am not immune to disaster. I’m growing up.

I’m sitting in my dorm room just about ready to unpack my things and prepare for the next two months of classes. I think that I’m ready to take what Cairo has to throw at me, but I can’t be sure. This lesson is one of many that I have to learn before I leave and I know that I’ll come back to Princeton a better person for the entirety of this experience.

With that, I will conclude by saying: Thank you Cairo for the amazing things that you’ve taught me so far, and thank you for all the things that the next two months have in store for me. Thank you to the group boys who screamed “I love America” at me earlier today and an extra special shout-out to that particularly good looking fellow who asked me to kiss him this evening. I’m sorry I told you to act like a man. I didn’t mean it.


At June 8, 2009 at 6:17 AM , Blogger TommyD said...

Welcome to the world outside your dorm room! I've been in Sierra Leone for over nine months, and I still can't get twenty meters out my door without mad hissing, whistles, and shouts of "White Boy! Psst friend! WHITE BOY!" (And if I were a white girl, these would be accompanied by marriage proposals and calls of "I love you.")

What you learn quickly, though, is how to differentiate the truly threatening from the merely obnoxious. In my experience, the latter is far more prevalent than the former. (I've never been to Egypt, but I'm sure your friends there can help you with this.)

I also have female friends who have lived in Egypt who wear fake wedding rings and even headscarves. I don't know if this would conflict with your principles, but it will probably reduce some of the cat-calling.

At June 13, 2009 at 11:52 AM , Anonymous Angela said...

True. Those Muslims, and most contemporary nonwhite cultures, for that matter, are hopelessly behind the times when it comes to respecting women. As Tommy said, Africans are just as bad, and Asians are little better. Middle Easterners? Forget about it!

As much as we rail against the Patriarchy in the West, we should remember that Europe and white America are still the best places for women in the world.

At September 24, 2009 at 10:35 AM , Anonymous La BellaDonna said...

Tommy D: Sierre Leone is terra incognita to me, so please bear with me: I understand that you are the recipient of unwanted and unsolicited attention (and believe me, I understand THAT); I just don't understand what the outcome is supposed to be. I mean, I understand the sexual subtext to the catcalls to the white girls, but what is the point of shouting, "White Boy! WHITE BOY!" Were they ... reminding you? Because maybe you'd forgotten what colour you were since the last time you looked in a mirror? Or at your watch? What is it supposed to accomplish? (And also? They can shut up about it already.)

As for Angela, and other white women who are tired of the unwanted attention, I may have a possible solution: rather than wearing a headscarf, get someone from home to send you a woman's wig in grey. I'm not guaranteeing that it will help, but in the experiments I've done, it was like wearing a Cloak of Invisibility: even though I was wearing the same clothes and makeup, once I had that grey hair, no guy was looking. Or commenting.


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