A subway car apart
by Shannon Mercer
Earlier in the summer I wrote a post about my experiences as a woman in Cairo. Equal Writes readers will remember my less than favorable description of constant cat calls and ardent stares of affection. I feel like it’s time to rehash my Egyptian experiences and talk about something else that we take for granted here in America: sexually integrated subway cars.
The Egyptian Metro has recently undergone a facelift but the majority of its cars still sport their own unique brand of third world charm. During rush hour the non-air-conditioned cars are crowded with city dwellers cramped into spaces too small for comfort and too sweat soaked for hygiene. Tacked onto the end of these cars filled with sweaty men are a set of women’s only cars designated by a pink stripe above their sliding doors.
This was the scenery that I was thrust into on my way back downtown from a tutoring job in Heliopolis. I was walked to the metro station by a particularly chivalrous representative from the teaching NGO, and then promptly instructed to ride the woman’s car – for my safety. I located the pink stripe and rushed into the car expecting the Manhattan –every-man-for-yourself iPod impersonality. Instead I was greeted with stares from all corners of the car.; from the veiled and unveiled. Even with my sunglasses on I couldn’t pass for an Egyptian and I, a foreigner, had just trespassed into their sanctuary. A good look around me revealed several women fully covered, numerous women sporting various styles of hijab and many uncovered Muslims and Copts. The car was silent and everyone maintained their personal space with surprising vigilance.
The doors closed, shutting me in for the duration of the 30 minute ride, and I remember thinking, “Ah, this’ll be ok. I’m not being shoved around! This is the way subway rides SHOULD be” when out from the front of the car came deep grunts and laughter. The windows between cars were left open and several young men were taking full advantage of that, staring and teasing.
From this point on I find it hard to articulate just how acutely painful the sensation of separation was: separation from the western world; separation from my personal reality; separation from the environment I’d gotten so used to and the cultural norms that I was raised with. The subway car wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way but symbolic strength of these men, fighting for positions near this open window to gawk at and harass us, hit me with such force. Here it was, something truly foreign.