Egypt was the first country where I felt like I stood out because I was a woman.
To be clear: I am NOT trying to criticize Egypt, but remarking on my naivety for not fully understanding how things work in different parts of the world.
I knew that I’d have to be more conservative in Egypt, so I packed long sleeves and Capri pants. Compared to my usual shorts and tank tops, I thought I was making the appropriate adjustments.
When we walked through the Pyramids at Giza, hawkers called out to us, their eyes slipping occasionally to my bare calf or overexposed collarbone. No one made me feel uncomfortable, but I realized that I hadn’t covered up as much as I should have.
But what I didn’t know is that being mindful of what you wear isn’t enough.
You need to check your attitude, too.
In Luxor, we walked into a transport office to buy bus tickets to Hurghada. Both of us entered with confidence, walking tall, eyes forward. The office was virtually empty except for a cluttered desk and three hefty men on folding chairs. A dirty clock hung crooked on the wall, ticking loudly in the concrete space.
“Hi,” I said. My chirpy American accent rang through the room. “Can we buy bus tickets to Hurghada?”
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The seconds crawled by as the three men shifted their stony gazes to Jared. Their faces said it all: You’d better sort your woman out, right now.
Both of us immediately realized the error, and I stepped back while Jared spoke.
“Can we buy bus tickets to Hurghada?”
“For tomorrow?” one of the men asked.
“Yes, tomorrow,” Jared said.
I didn’t so much as nod; I was too busy avoiding eye contact.
We completed the transaction (well, Jared did) and scampered out of there.
“I guess I should talk from now on,” Jared said.
What I Would Do Differently
At the very least, I would have packed a scarf. This way, my upper body would have been concealed. When I was packing, I thought I’d selected tops that provided ample coverage. When we arrived, I realized that scoop neck tops can be racy, even if they don’t reveal a glimpse of cleavage. And instead of pants, I would have gone with long skirts.
I learned from my mistakes and this year, when we traveled in India, I never felt conspicuous.
After years of being taught that women can be strong and independent, I realized that in Egypt, I needed to rein it in a little. I’m not suggesting that Egyptian women are demure or weak; rather that you don’t have to be loud and direct to be confident.
What I thought was a friendly, straightforward approach was actually brash and aggressive. I could have scaled back and spoken more softly. Actually, I shouldn’t have spoken at all. Because I was with a man, he should have been the first to speak. Initially, it was hard for me to keep quiet, but it made things much easier.
These days, I’m very conscious of my behavior when I travel. I don’t change who I am, but I do try to be aware of local customs so I don’t make too many glaring faux pas.
Traveling as a woman brings its own set of challenges, but it certainly shouldn’t stop you from hitting the road – exercising a little awareness is usually all it takes.
And when you’re not as aware as you thought? Packing a scarf doesn’t hurt, either.