Life Stories, Life

Catcalling in Cairo

Taking back public spaces one step at a time.

Walking is my favorite de-stressing activity, but walking in Cairo has the opposite effect, particularly for women. In 2017, Reuters revealed that Cairo is the most dangerous megacity for women. Nation-wide, 99% of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed. Street harassment is part of women’s everyday life and every woman in my life has at least one story to tell on this issue.

Earlier this month, my mom and I were walking towards each other from opposite ends of the street. We were going to take a walk around the neighborhood and run some errands. When we reached each other, my mother remarked, “You’re walking like you’re going into a fight, is everything OK?” I was having a good day and didn’t notice that I was walking in a way that indicated otherwise.

In Cairo and around the world, women begin to adopt defensive characteristics when they are regularly exposed to street harassment. You begin assuming a no-nonsense look, ranging from the way you dress to the way you walk. God forbid, you smile on the streets, lurkers will take that as an invitation to catcall, follow you or worse. Appearing unapproachable is one of the tools that I have learned to deter men.

Before my mom mentioned it, I didn’t realize how I was walking. Later, I talked to my friends and they too admitted adopting a more aggressive stance when they walk in the street by themselves. There is a constant threat of harassment that we feel we need to guard ourselves against.

It sucks that we have to take so many protective measures to try to stay safe in our everyday lives. On a particularly disappointing fifteen minute walk, men yelled degrading words at me from cars on five separate occasions… within fifteen minutes. Even when we perform all the precautionary steps there is no guarantee that we are going to come out from a walk unscathed.

Catcalls and intense staring are used, consciously or not, to make women uncomfortable in public. We have to act tough and unfuckwithable. I used to avert eye contact when men used to stare blatantly, now I stare back. I have been called many things, and at first, I took the words to heart but now can brush them off effortlessly. The change happened gradually as I grew more and more fed up with this kind of behavior. It has become very hard to be docile in the face of such aggression. 

Many Egyptian men are uncomfortable seeing a woman outside of the house and turn to street harassment to dissuade them from leaving their homes. They cannot fathom that a woman can be anything but a housewife. They are not ready to comprehend anything beyond their patriarchal scope of “shoulds” and “should nots”. These men are insecure and afraid of women taking what little power that they have by simply existing somewhere other than in the kitchen.

I used to be scared but now I am not. I realized that I have a right to feel safe in the streets and I could no longer be passive to these experiences.  Recently, I ran after a man who touched me while I was bending down to pick something up. He did not speak any of the languages I spoke, and so he did not understand I word I was saying, but it still felt really great to yell at him.

I know for a fact that I am not the only person in the world to have had experienced harassment while walking in the street. Street harassment is an international problem, but we have the power to unabashedly claim our place in public places, starting from the streets.

Today, in Egypt, street harassment is recognized as a problem. People are talking about how to deal with harassment. Organizations such as Tahrir Bodyguard offer women protection during protests and mass gatherings, while apps like Harassmap physically map out street harassment and educates people about violence against women.

The street is my space as much as it is any man’s. I will keep walking like I’m going into a fight and will continue to rebel in the ways I know how.