Now that orientation week is past and classes are starting, we are moved in and we are settling into our studies, the nitty-gritty about being abroad for this amount of time starts becoming clearer. What was initially awe at a culture so different than our own becomes a sense of purpose: how do we find our places here, at least, how will we fit in for the next three months? Now, things like how much we actually know of the language become issues of practicality, not just classroom concerns.
One thing I have been struggling with is my facial expression. It’s true that in conversation Egyptians are often expressive and emotive, but walking down the street people tend to have this blank expression that I can’t seem to master. The reason this is important is that my stock expression is a little too positive to work on the street. People, especially men, think I am smiling at them and so I draw too much attention to myself.
Therefore I have been trying out some new faces:
We have been warned sufficiently of the issue of sexual harassment in this country. It is important to note that this happens all over the world and I have personally experiences sexual harassment in the States and elsewhere. I don’t mind the calls of “Welcome to Egypt!” or even “Ya amar!”(Literally, “oh, moon!”—in context it translates to “What beauty!”) which I’ve gotten just walking around, but when men make lewd noises, say anything more aggressive, or stare it is uncomfortable.
That’s been a very interesting thing to think about: almost all Egyptian women go through this at some point. In any situation, I am not happy making myself any more of a target, but I know that most, if not all of it is out of my hands. Most of the hassling and harassment is not physical, but every type of woman and girl—tall, short, fat, skinny, foreign, local, veiled, not veiled, made-up, au-naturale, conservatively-dressed, scantily-dressed, those wearing a niqab, those with their hair blowing free in the wind—everyone could experience this phenomenon here. I haven’t been wearing a headscarf because I have not yet felt the need to do so regularly and it doesn’t always end the problem. During and after the revolution especially there has been a backlash against this misogynistic behavior, but it remains a part of life for women here and all over the Arab world. Riding with my female classmates on the women’s car of the tram, I feel a sense of solidarity with these women I do not know. This is just one of those things that helps you realize just how far this country and our own have to come yet.
Please don’t think I am surrounded by discomfort, though. Sexual harassment happens perhaps more frequently here, and without as much prosecution as in the States, but it is better to be aware and continue to live my life as normally as possible. I am thoroughly enjoying my time here. The hospitality and kindness the Egyptian people are known for have been part and parcel of my experience so far. Even with the base behavior of a select few, I am constantly reminded of basic goodness: the central Buddhist tenet that says everyone, deep down, is a good at heart. So when a boy tapped my hand on the tram today, my first reaction could have been anger at his touch, but I would have missed the fact that he was offering me his seat. Because he knew I probably didn’t speak (much) Arabic, this was his way of communicating a very kind and gentle gesture.
If he can be such a sweetheart, I hope other men here can accept my smiling face as part of the scenery and not think it for them alone. There are a lot of good men and good people out here, too. I can’t afford to forget that.