Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Harassment Of Women On Cairo Streets

Warning: While most of my posts are General Audience, this post has some material that you may not want young children reading.

Sexual Harassment on the streets of Cairo is a common topic that comes up whenever a couple of women here in Egypt meet up, online or in someone's home.

There are those that say that it isnt really bad, incidents of rape are so low compared to the US, what's the harm in a little cat calling? The problem is that if you ignore the cat calling, it then turns to men masturbating at the sight of a women (I've had friends who said they saw their taxi drivers masturbating with one hand while driving with the other, simply because a foreign looking woman got into the back seat of their car), groping (which happens in a lot of cases) and could eventually by progression lead to rape if this malaise is not stopped in its tracks.

I've posted before, about Sexual Harassment but its mostly been newspaper articles or other people's experiences. Few women choose to detail their own humiliation for dissection to the world (its a different matter between close friends who understand and have gone through the same - that is in a way, slightly therapeautic)

When I last traveled to Dubai in March, most papers were filled with the news of 2 construction worker immigrants who were facing court proceedings for cat calling/ whistling at a South East Asian maid.

Points to be noted about Dubai.
1. Women (foreigners/expats) here cover far less than the majority of women in Egypt. (think tank tops and shorts to the maximum, but off shoulder, backless, low necklines are pretty common too)
2. This is a muslim majority country and local Emirati women are predominantly dressed in the black abaya type hijab. Fully covered black robes and heads/hair covered.
3. There is a high number of single men - men who have left their wives behind in home countries because they cannot afford to bring them over when they are here on long work contracts/ unmarried men.
4. There is a large population of hired labour living in what would be considered as Below Poverty Line status in the rest of the world.

All of these have been used as excuses to brush away sexual harassment in Egypt, yet Sexual harassment in Dubai overall is not even 0.1% of what "I" face in Egypt on a daily basis.

Why? Mainly because authorities take action about any such complaint. The law is tough and it is applied without fail. No excuses.

I'm not saying that everything about Dubai culture is perfect or everything about Egypt is imperfect (I've lived in Egypt for 3 years) but harassment on the roads makes me tend to avoid going out unless absolutely necessary or in a large group of friends. I know a lot of expat women in Egypt who are here on husbands postings, who do not visit anywhere that is not an expat dominated location for fear of being assaulted. While such fears may not be justified, it is a real feeling that these women live with daily.

A closer look at my wardrobe, shows me much higher necks and back lines than 3 years ago. Sleeves below the elbows, loose fitting semi-shapeless clothes. Visiting Lebanon and Dubai makes me realise how much I have changed my own style of dressing to suit this country. (Not that I ever wore plunging necklines to work in India, but they didnt all end above my collar bone either) Changing the way I dress, was just one of the adaptations to blend into the culture and surroundings in Egypt.

My husband and I both love traveling around the country/city and discovering hidden gems of cultural, architectural and historical interest which takes us into sometimes weird areas. Our driver/translator despairs when 'Madame' wants to visit Souk al Gumma (The second-hand Friday market) and other such areas, which he tells me even his mother and sister who have lived in Cairo all their lives, avoid.

But a part of the charm and beauty of living in another country is to explore its nooks and crannies. Unfortunately in Egypt, exploration into some of these nooks and crannies brings a lot of unwanted attention and in many cases, especially if my husband isnt with me, harassment both verbal and sometimes physical. So one has to be extra careful about where one goes, with whom one goes and what kind of clothes one is wearing.

Fortunately, not being cursed with blond hair, white skin and blue eyes, the harassment that I face is less than those who look "foreign" even if they are conservatively dressed.

Yes, making a scene helps and you don't need to speak in Arabic. I remember generally strolling around the pyramids alone when my husband went inside one of them (I'm claustrophobic and chose to not go in) one of those camel ride guys was persistently trying to get my attention. As is the case with most touts in the pyramids area (I have visited over 25 times in the last 3 years) I continued to ignore him, as though I couldn't understand him and refused to make eye contact. (this may seem rude, but works in most cases of persistent touts) Usually after 3-4 tries they leave me alone. This guy actually touched my hand and attempted to give me the riding whip/stick for the camel. While his gesture was not sexual, he was still "touching" me without my permission and when I had given him absolutely no reason to believe I was interested.

In Egypt, Egyptian women will never permit a strange man to ever touch them, so why do they think it is ok with tourists/foreigners? Anyhow I screamed at him in English "How dare you touch me, what do you think of yourself, what gives you the right to even touch me?" Nothing abusive, nothing indecent. In English and loudly. It was enough to make the people around stop and look and stare at the man. There was nothing confrontational about my attitude. I just made a noise to attract the attention of other people around to what was clearly something this camel guy should not have been doing. He immediately apologised and slunk away. The incident shocked him (I train people in NLP and Body language, so I KNOW he was shocked) and I doubt he will be touching any women any time soon.

But why do foreign women coming to/visiting Egypt allow these men to touch them, hand on shoulders, holding hands (not shaking hands) People whom they have just met in a shop, not people they know. They would not allow men in their home country to impose on their personal space this way, but yet some of them are perceivably ok when it happens to them in a new country. Any theories?

Point to be noted. Most of the harassment, my friends & I have faced, has been in Cairo. Men in Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria (unless during the Cairene summer invasion), Dahab, Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada, Abu Simbel, Bahariyya, Siwa, Sinai have been way more respectful of women.

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Monday, 15 June 2009

Monday, 8 June 2009

Obama in Cairo

I wanted to write about it the moment I started to hear him speak, but life has an irritating habit of getting in the way. What is normal after such intereference by life, is that I shelve the idea. But this particular event is just too important to be lightly tossed aside in my "expired" folder.

The fact that a US President would be visiting a "Muslim Majority" Country before Israel, was in itself a huge departure in recent practice. There was speculation as to where he would speak from. Options ranged from Al Azhar Mosque (which I personally think would have been an excellent, yet impractical location) to Sharm el Sheikh. He settled on Cairo University.

The whole city of Cairo virtually came to a standstill on June 4th. Rumors abounded of 10,000+ snipers, 20,000 troops coming in on their own helicopters from the US and other such fantastic numbers were bandied about.

Passes to the event were carefully distributed by the American Embassy from what I gathered, to ensure an appropriate balance of profiles. 15 students from each major university were invited.

The Government declared a holiday for all its offices. A lot of Universities postponed exams to cope with this extra holiday. A number of private companies too decided to give employees the day off, fearing that they may be stuck in one of the road clearance drives. People who had parked their cars in certain areas along the route, were told to remove them the day before the President was due to arrive. (Now if we can only get similar celebrities to visit different parts of Cairo each day, we may be able to get those broken down heaps that masquerade as cars, that take up precious parking space to get towed away - How's that as a long term solution to Cairo's parking woes?)

But I digress. Coming back to the speech.

It was absolutely brilliant. There was no fault that an unvested interest could find in that speech except perhaps for him mis-pronouncing hijab and Al Azhar. But given the content and message, those are errors that can be easily overlooked.

The greatest strength of his speech was that he identified with his audience on a personal level. Compared to his predecessor whose speech writers made assume a superior and supercillious tone, Obama came across as "one of us". He drew attention to his Indonesian and Chicago life experiences amongst muslim communities.

He gave them praise where it was due, for their innovations in printing, algebra, architecture and then came to his main point. That he would fight negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they may appear. A statement that was greeted with loud applause, that almost died down with his following sentence "But the same principle should apply to Muslim stereotypes of America" This did not seem to be what the crowd wanted to hear. Until then, Obama had seemed to be a cheerleader for the Muslim world, but this statement showed that he wasn't going to unilaterally support the Muslim world. There was going to have to be some give and take.

Once the audience reconciled themselves to this idea, things improved again.

I will not get into the rest of the content of his speech, as it has been discussed ad nauseum on multiple fora.

It was a wonderful bit of speech writing to include references from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran. When he said "Jerusalem - is a place for all the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully", I had goosebumps and I know many Americans who have made Egypt their home, who were moved to tears by this sentence.

His body language was firm yet conveyed his openness to change. He came across as determined while engaging the public through eye contact and clear speech. Again, notable when compared with the last guy to hold his post.

He changed the terminology from the aggressive posturing of the previous government to one based on mutual understanding and dialogue. Instead of general nonsensical terms like "War on terror", he firmly stated that "America is not at War with Islam"

Another firm departure from previous policy was when he clearly stated "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone" If he can follow through on this and not have American Foreign policy and their idea of Democracy being stuffed down the throats of unwilling citizens of countries that aren't ready for the American idea of Democracy, it will go a long way in building bridges that had seemed burned and irrepairable a year ago.

The speech was transmitted live on Facebook and was texted as sms in English, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu. Thus upholding his campaign strategies of involving the younger generations by utilising media more familiar and accessible to them. It has also been uploaded onto Youtube.

The reaction to his speech by most locals that I know, has been "Let's wait and watch" "We want to see actions, not words" This guy is talking about change in policy, so maybe we can stop suspcecting the littlest sneeze. But to start trusting the Americans, we need to see concrete proof. We need to see steps being taken in the right direction. Words will not be enough.

It is undeniable that the US has a large role to play in World Politics. We can only hope and pray that instead of mindless wars and Nuclear arms races, we can at least have dialogue and hope for a future of peace.

In Obama's Words "All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings"

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Wednesday, 3 June 2009

FlyDubai, Dubai's First Low Cost Carrier Starts Operations

Flydubai, Dubai’s first low-cost airline began its commercial operations on June 1st.

The inaugural flight took off from Dubai International’s Terminal 2 at 10:30 bound for Beirut.

FlyDubai is currently flying to Beirut and Amman. They will start flights to Damascus and Alexandria next week and plan to expand rapidly to countries in the Middle East, GCC and India. The evenutal plan as stated on their website is to extend to Iran, Eastern Europe and North & East Africa.

Fares are really low. For eg there is currently a flight from Alexandria to Dubai for 825(LE) Egyptian pounds. When I checked a week ago. A return flight between Cairo and Dubai was roughly costing about 3000LE on Emirates airlines and 2100LE on Egypt Air.

How does flydubai keep its fares low?
1. The tickets are one way tickets for one person, priced on a system based on availability, demand, time of day etc etc. Quoted prices include all applicable taxes. Prices will be quoted in the currency of the country of departure of the flight
2. You pay to change: If for some reason, you need to change your flight, you pay 100dhs per ticket plus the price difference from your original ticket if upwards and get a voucher refunded to you if the price moves downwards. You do have to pay the 100dhs charge per ticket, no matter what the scenario. (There are "free to change" tickets too, but these are normally priced higher than "pay to change")
3. Changes or cancellations can only be carried out 24 hours prior to the flight. Any later than that, you lose the whole amount.
4. Children above the age of 2, pay full fare.
5. If traveling with a child below the age of 2, there is a service charge of 50dhs plus taxes.
6. Fares are lower if you book from the website. A service charge is levied if you book via their dedicated call center (35dhs) or through an agent.
7. The quoted fare allows you upto 10kilos of hand baggage. You have to pay higher for more luggage. If you pre book your extra luggage on the website, it will be cheaper than just arriving at the airport and then paying for the luggage.
For eg: Your 1st piece of checked in baggage (upto 32 kilos) if pre booked online will cost 40dhs, but if you do it at the airport, it will cost you 150 dhs. The 2nd piece will cost 100 and 150 respectively.
8. If you want to select your seat, you pay 5dhs.
9. If you want a seat with extra legroom, it is 50 dhs.
10. A boarding pass is issued as soon as you book your ticket.

In these times of Recession, this airline could really take off, if they find a large enough market segment.

As I see it, business and holiday travelers without much luggage could find this airline cheaper than its competitors.

For those people I have often seen in the Dubai airport ahead of me, trying to check in 5-7 suitcases each on Egypt Air flights back to Cairo while trying to semi-conceal another 4-6 pieces of hand luggage, this would not be an economical choice.

Nor would it work for people who travel to Dubai with the primary purpose of shopping. I have seen so many piles of new clothes and childrens toys unceremoniously dumped in heaps at Dubai's airport, because paying the excess baggage fee on Emirates airlines does not make those clothes and toys worth it. People seem to find it cheaper to just dump the stuff (some with tags not yet removed) than pay the excess baggae fee. These people aren't going to be travely FlyDubai any time soon.

This will work for people who just carry their laptop and a change of clothes or two. Its also just 40dhs more for 1 piece of checked in baggae provided you book it online at the time of booking your ticket. So this option will work for a weeks long travel.

I wonder if the airline allows toiletries in hand luggage with the above restrictions that they have placed. If they dont, it would be cheaper to buy and discard toiletries on arrival than pay 100dhs to check it in.

They must have researched their pricing before coming out with this strategy. It will be interesting to see how full their flights go. There is a large market, given that it is still impossible to get a ticket on a Thursday evening Emirates flight from Dubai to Cairo, if you haven't booked well in advance.

You can book tickets directly on their site:

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