I was walking down Gameat El-Dowal El-Arabiya, one of the main streets in Cairo, feigning self-confidence. And I was trying so hard to pretend I was relaxed, I even lit a cigarette. Wrong move. It was my fourth time in Egypt, but the first time on my own – no tour operators, no guides, nothing. And I thought I knew enough about Egypt. How wrong I was!
I wish I had the chance to read something like what I’m about to write before departure, but I didn’t – so I just had to learn everything at my expense. Which is fun, when you look back at it afterwards. There are many misconceptions about Egypt, especially when it comes to women and safety. I’ll try to make everything very clear for you – Egypt is safe. Just try to follow these few guidelines and you’ll be perfectly fine. Many good times are to come!
1. Don’t worry – Cairo is overall a safe place for women. I don’t know why many people are so scared. What do they think is going to happen to them? Simply nothing. You’re very likely to be verbally harassed on the streets, especially if you are blonde – yes, it’s not nice and yes it’s annoying, but nothing more will happen. Streets are always crowded at any time of day and night and overall the place feels and is so much safer than anywhere else in Europe or in the US.
2. Try not to smoke in the streets – Again, nothing will happen if you do, but it’s going to focus the attention on you, which means more harassment. Smoking in the streets is not seen as a good thing to do for a woman, so just wait until you are in the next cafe or restaurant and you’ll be able to smoke, as many other women – even Egyptian – around you.
3. Dress appropriately – as a matter of respect for local culture, your clothes should be appropriate. Cover at least your shoulders and make sure your shirt is long enough not to reveal your belly or back skin. Shorts and skirts below the knees will be just perfect. And if you don’t care about respecting local culture and still feel like wearing a short sleeveless top and shirts, well… try to think that long sleeves and pants will prevent you from a lot of dirt. Persuaded yet?
4. Buy personal items once you arrive – Don’t bother about stuffing your suitcase/backpack with skin care and bathroom accessories such as shampoos, creams, repellent, files, nail clippers etc – in Cairo you’ll find everything you need and it’s super cheap. The same thing is for medicines– you can get everything you need in any pharmacy; they sell single tablets if you don’t need more, and everything is so cheap. To give you an idea, an acne treatment cream will cost less than $1. So just leave everything home!
5. Cover your hair – It might be a good idea to cover your hair, not for religious reasons or anything like that, but just because there’s a lot of sand in the air and your hair will get dirty very quickly. On the other hand, Cairo’s water properties are a bit aggressive to your hair if washed too often. So especially if you have long hair, always bring a scarf with you to cover your head, especially when it’s windy and in dusty areas such as at the Giza Pyramids.
6. Patronize local beauty centers – when you need a manicure, pedicure, facial or wax, just go to one of the many beauty centers in the city. They are generally very clean and the prices are very good. Local specialties are the eyebrow threading with twisted cotton threads and the Halawa wax, also known as “Sweet”, made of water, sugar and lemon –it almost doesn’t hurt and it’s so delicate that it won’t leave any redness even on the most sensitive skin.
7. Bring tampons – You’ll find pads very easily but not tampons. Usually they are not available, even in the main supermarkets. You can buy tampons in pharmacies. Prices are generally high, but… sometimes you’ve just got to!
8. Take the ladies’ only coach on the Metro – The metro in Cairo is really impressive – clean, efficient and fast. Sometimes just a little bit too crowded, as any metro of the world! On every train there are 2 coaches for ladies only. While waiting on the platform look for the sign “Ladies” and wait for the train there. Of course you can ride the metro on the other coaches too, but the “ladies only coach” will make you feel much more comfortable especially during rush hours.
9. Don’t go anywhere with someone you don’t know – When you don’t know someone, don’t follow him to a place you don’t know, especially if nobody can see you there. Don’t accept traveling and sharing your room with Egyptian guys if you don’t know and trust them. Again, probably you’ll be just fine but sometimes they misunderstand your willingness to spend your time with them… with embarrassing and annoying consequences. You’ll meet many, many people in Cairo, and in Egypt in general. Unfortunately some of them still think about Western women as sexually more available and will try to take advantage of it. Be nice, but don’t give too much confidence until you’re really sure about who you have to do with. Try not to be too annoyed by this prejudice they have – when all is said and done, Western people still have too many prejudices about Arab people too. So just take care and have fun!
10. Relax – You’ll find that being a woman in Egypt is generally not that bad! Everyone will be there to help you anytime. There is no way you’ll be left alone in the street when you show you’re in trouble. Just ask for information on the streets and if the guy you ask doesn’t know the answer, he’ll call his friend… until probably there will be 6 people around you trying to help you out. So even if you are a solo traveler don’t be afraid and enjoy your time in Cairo! You’ll never feel lonely, this is for sure. Egyptian people are awesome, friendly and welcoming.
An “extra tip” is to try and learn some Arabic – just a few words will be enough – this will help a lot making new friends but especially avoiding scams and being charged extra money especially in markets and on taxis.