Undressed in Egypt | The View From My Soapbox

First things first – this post is about what to wear in Egypt, and is mostly for (cue: Beyonce) all the Western ladies. (reprise: All the Western ladies)

Having recently returned from two almost perfect weeks in Egypt, I can confirm that this is one destination where there’s an obvious difference in treatment of men vs. women.

If I were a boy (Beyonce, get out of my head today, gees!), my experience would’ve been different and I probably wouldn’t have gotten groped in a gas station bathroom at 4 a.m. (More about that story later.) For now, bear with me, fellas.

Like anyone who watched the news last spring, I was pretty concerned about traveling to post-revolution Egypt.

The protests had seriously just died down and a very precarious peace was in place, so I was extra careful in my planning. As a result, I took two big steps based on my pre-trip research.

Step 1

Y’all know I mostly travel solo, and that’s worked for me so far. For Egypt, I went a different route, booked flights with Travel Republic and traveled with On the Go Tours in a large group. It’s one of the best decisions I made all year. Regardless of what we were wearing, the touts, taxi drivers and beggars shouted at us from the moment we left the hotel until the moment we got on the bus.

Going off for lunch with a group of five girls was quite funny at times - you won’t believe some of the things that locals said to us. However, had I attempted to grab lunch by myself, I’d have been intimidated by the attention and the men following me down the street singing songs about my glorious behind (their words, not mine!), and would probably have spent much of my holiday hiding out in my hotel room. 

Step 2

Egypt is predominantly Muslim, so conservative dress is the standard. I wanted to blend in… as much as a short, curvy, green-eyed white girl can blend in, in Egypt, so I did some research on what to wear in Egypt before I arrived. I packed a very specific wardrobe consisting of dark sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, long skirts, gauzy tops and linen pants.

Being modestly dressed didn’t stop the all hassling, not by a long shot, but it did keep some of the attention off of me.

There were plenty of girls parading around in outfits that shouldn’t be seen outside Atlantic City that helped as well.

Did she read about what to wear in Egypt before arrival? Probably not.

Listen – I get it. It feels like the surface of the sun when you’re tutting around Giza, and no one wants to wear head-to-toe garb while camel-riding through the sweltering desert. I also get that Western women are powerful, and equal, we do whatever we want, we don’t need a husband, and no one’s the boss of us. That’s pretty much my current life motto. But here’s what’s up… we’re not in Kansas anymore.

It’s Egypt, and the same rules we’re used to just don’t apply.

In many Middle Eastern countries, to varying degrees, an uncovered woman signals to men that she is open to attention and flirtation, if not full-on open for business, if you get my drift. Consider for a moment what a flash of careless side boob does to a man who mostly comes into contact with women who don’t even show their faces? It’s like porn came to life and is walking around their historic sites. WALKING PORNOGRAPHY.

You can’t be that mad at them for chasing you down, passionately hollering, “Oh, baby, it hurts me so bad when you walk away! How many camels?! I love you! SHAKIRA, come back to me!”

Here’s some more context. A lot of these guys have experience with three Western women – Britney Spears, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. So if we’re rocking up to the Valley of the Kings with lacy hot pink underpants peeking out of booty shorts, just like a certain princess of pop we all know,

that’s part of the reason they expect us to drop it like it’s hot and pole dance at the first ever-so-charming comment they hurl our way.

Thanks, MTV.

You’ll pass through a long line of touts on the way to any major attraction. These dudes are waiting for me to start singing “Hips Don’t Lie”

If you don’t follow the established cultural clothing cues, you’re going to be hassled like never before. I’m not saying their culture is wrong and ours is right. There once was a time in the Western world when women could bend over in a dress and not treat the whole room to a trip to London and France, now I can’t go to church in the US without seeing bras and cleavage all over the place. Regardless, when deciding what to wear in Egypt, just remember this phrase, “This ain’t a KFC.” (So leave your breasts & thighs at home.)

I heard several girls say, “Well, I don’t care if it offends them, I’m wearing what I want.”

If you insist on dressing your way, either Western-style where no imagination is required or Egypt-style with your uber-sexy forearms and suggestive clavicles out and proud, just be prepared. You can play the feminist card and not play by those rules, and that’s your own choice, but at least know what you’re getting into.

And don’t be offended when you get treated like a prostitute. It’s their country and their rules.

Egyptian gals cover almost everything up to signify that they’re not here to party

In my opinion, someone (dear Egyptian Tourism – it’s ME!) needs to conduct a seminar for all the men in Egypt on how to interact with Western tourists. I guarantee I would’ve spent many more Egyptian pounds at souvenir stands if I hadn’t been so intimidated by the catcalls and the too-close-for-comfort touts. As a result of the harassment, I bought one, yes, ONE, souvenir in Egypt, and that was a necklace I got for about $5 from a 10-year-old boy on a boat.

What Not To Wear On Holiday In Egypt

Shorts | You might not look like a lady of the night if you’re barely showing ankle in some sexy capri pants, but even that’s a stretch. Shorts should probably be left at home – especially if your butt peeks out the back end of your favorite pair. Booty shorts-wearers may as well have a “For Rent by the Hour” sign around their neck. Exception: if you’re planning on a few days sailing the Nile on a felucca, or heading to Dahab to dive or for seaside adventures in Sharm el Sheikh, then modest shorts should be fine. Swimsuits and God forbid, theme park casual attire, are best saved for trips to Orlando.

Visible undergarments | I mean thongs and bra straps, people! If your underjunk pops out when you bend over to retrieve your suitcase from the carousel, you are dressed poorly for the environment you’re about to enter.

Low-cut tops | Leave some room for the imagination, and keep the twins sequestered. You can usually get away with short-sleeved shirts and even modest tank tops in the most tourist-heavy spots, but bring a scarf or shawl to cover up in markets, restaurants and on public streets.

Maxi-dress with shawl to cover up post-tourist site

What to Wear on Holiday in Egypt

  • Long flowing skirts & maxi dresses
  • Long sleeve or 3/4 length shirts in gauzy fabrics
  • Tops that cover the collar bones and arms
  • Loose linen pants
  • Bring a shawl or scarf to cover up

It’s important to note a few things.

1. Not ALL Egyptian men are going to harass you. I made some ADORABLE, polite male friends while I was there and I didn’t have any discomfort as a Western woman in their company.

2. Just because you’re dressed appropriately doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hassled. Keep your head down and avoid making eye contact with touts, as that can be seen as encouragement. Don’t get sucked into the trap of chatting or accepting a gift someone tries to place in your hand. That happened to me and I had to be smuggled out of Queen Hatshepsut’s tomb secret-service style. (By two handsome Australian guys… so it wasn’t all bad!)

And as I mentioned, I did have an unfortunate groping incident at a gas station in the middle of the night somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula. We were in the midst of an 18 hour bus ride, just stopping for a potty break. It took me a second to really wake up so I was not with the rest of the group when I entered the restroom. Despite being appropriately dressed, I guess the bathroom attendant just thought I need a good middle of the night groping, so he obliged. Lucky for him, I was still too groggy to beat the sense back into him, and an international incident was narrowly averted.

3. Western women just passing through Egypt only get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in a culture where women are oppressed. Check out these articles for some insight on what’s been going on since the revolution.

Egypt Unrest: Women Protest Against Army Violence – BBC

Attack on Egyptian Women Protesters Spark Uproar

Enough, Egypt’s Women Say

Coming soon… a post on the crazy things I heard while walking around in Egypt.

 

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52 thoughts on “Undressed in Egypt | The View From My Soapbox

  1. Naomi

    That hot pink outfit is CRAZY…I wonder if she dressed like that for the rest of the trip!! I remember so much of this from when I travelled in Morocco alone. I dressed in clothes that made me look like an asexual paper sack which helped cut down on the attention, but didn’t kill it entirely. I think that, when entering a largely homogeneous society that mostly interacts with foreigners through media, there’s only so much foreign women can do to deflect attention, because they’ll always get attention simply for being foreign. Some of it will be negative, some will be positive, some will be neutral. Though, I remember walking through the old market in Fes behind a young Moroccan woman that was wearing something I’d be surprised to see in the West – a skin-tight catsuit covered by a couple of loose threads (or rather, a very loose-knit dress). She was a complete knock-out, with every curve visible and long, wavy brown hair down to her back – and yet I was the one getting hollared at!! I couldn’t tell if the situation was hilarious or absurdly frustrating, haha!

    Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      It’s so true – you can’t completely nix the comments direct at you, because you’re Western regardless of what you’re wearing, but at least with some modest clothing you can cut down on it. Funny about the catsuit – I can only imagine!

      Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      Egypt is a good excuse for me to wear maxi-dresses… I’m so short that usually they are too long and they just swallow me up! Anyhow, I got this one from Target a few years ago, but it definitely travels well.

      Reply
  2. Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    As a single guy in Egypt I used to get “I can provide any service” accompanied by a nudge, nudge, wink, wink…

    I’ll leave it to your imagination what that means, but the dudes weren’t lookin’ to provide me with hookers.

    Reply
  3. Jan Ross

    Very, very helpful article that I will be Stumbling and Tweeting. I love the “Sex and the City” series and movies but was really bothered by the most recent one where they seemed to have no consideration of the local culture and how to dress. Very disrespectful. I hope travelers will take your advice!

    Reply
  4. Bret @ Green GlobalTravel

    Great, great story! It always surprises me when people go to a foreign country, clearly have not done any research on the local customs, and clearly expect that every place they visit should be exactly like what they’re used to back home. I just think to myself, “Why the hell do you even bother traveling?” That girl in the hot pink outfit looks like a “People of Wal-Mart” post waiting to happen. You, on the other hand, look lovely. Glad to hear you got out with only minor groping…

    Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      Hey! Yes, it’s amazing how few people actually care about the culture they’re visiting. I actually may do a People of WalMart post since I’m at home in Jacksonville… my local WalMart has some of the best candidates =)

      Reply
  5. cailin

    This reminds me of when I went to Morocco. I took the ferry with a friend from Spain and we were covered head to toe but there was a group of girls in skimpy tank tops and short shorts. I’m not sure how they made out but I was hassled enough looking the way I was. It makes you wonder what goes through people’s heads sometimes haha

    Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      Seriously. There’s no explanation for people showing up in skimpy clothes in these countries. It’s bad enough we have to see it at Disney World and the mall and Walmart, haha.

      Reply
  6. Abby

    When I was in Turkey, I really wished I had a maxi dress. My below-the-knee skirt didn’t feel long enough. I’m definitely not a girl who would flippantly say, “I don’t care if they’re offended!”

    Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      I felt the same way in Turkey! It wasn’t quite as conservative, so the below-the-knee was ok, but I definitely wish I had a few more inches on the bottom.

      Reply
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  8. Laura

    Ok, that first outfit is an example of what not to wear ANYWHERE, not just in Egypt haha! I remember seeing lots of girls in Cairo dressed very inappropriately at the sights. Of course I tried to dress modestly and still got hit on but I would have never felt comfortable being so blatantly disrespectful of the culture. Your maxi dress looks super cute!

    Reply
  9. Shell

    Brilliant, love it!

    In Luxor, it’s not so bad and you can get away with walking around in reasonable length shorts and vest tops in the daytime.

    But there are some places you just don’t do that!

    A forum I visit has holidaymakers who go to Sharm el Sheikh and there’s always controversy over whether topless sunbathing should be allowed or not.

    I’ll let you comment on that one another time…

    Reply
  10. Stephanie - The Travel Chica

    Great to heard about your experience there. While traveling in Central America, I had the dilemma of choosing to either cover myself up and risk dying from the heat or wear normal summery clothes and risk potential harassment from idiots. I went with the latter, especially once I realized they yelled at all the foreign women walking alone regardless of their clothing choices.

    Reply
  11. Alex at Alex in Wanderland

    Sigh. This is something I rant about often here in Thailand. People seem to think that because “anything goes” on the beaches (by the way, it doesn’t: Thai people are usually offended by people’s clueless topless sunbathing) they can walk shirtless through the streets of Bangkok or waltz into a temple in booty shorts. No no no!

    I frequently find myself wishing I had dressed more conservatively; never have I found myself wishing I had worn less.

    Reply
  12. Deb

    I’m a little confused on this post. You talk about covering up, but your photo shows you in spaghetti straps which is exactly inappropriate. A shawl doesn’t do the trick to cover up that dress.
    I don’t think spaghetti straps are appropriate for walking around tourist sites as you show in your photograph. Are you saying is fine to wear this at the site as long as you put a shawl on over after you leave the tourist area? If so, I think that is why you were getting harassed. Just because your at a tourist site doesn’t make it right.
    A wide brim hat, big sunglasses and maxi dresses scream “look at me” not “I am trying to blend in”
    I don’t normally judge people on how they dress, but I think that you are sending mixed messages here.
    As a blond and someone who has travelled extensively in Egypt and cycled through the country on a bicycle, it is very easy to not call attention to yourself and to not be harassed. I don’t think that you made a fair claim to how men interact with Western tourists. Sure touts are agressive, but I think that if that is the way you were dressing at tourist sites, you have to accept more responsibility as to why you were harassed.

    Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      It’s funny, because that was the only tourist site where there were no touts and no harassment at all. We were there very late and the site was empty, which was the only reason the shawl came off for a photo. And by shawl, I mean long, solid pashmina akin to a small blanket. That covers pretty well in my book?

      I can’t think of anything more appropriate than a floor length, loose, solid colored cotton maxi dress… that’s basically what women wear in the Middle East. And I don’t know what other kind of hat one would wear in the desert besides a wide-brimmed, sun-deflecting one. If that’s asking for attention, I guess tourists are just out of luck when it comes to blending in.

      If there are other hats and dresses that are less attention getting, I’m not aware of them. I did say not every man in Egypt participates in the harassment, but a great way to try and avoid it is to cover up. Which I think is your point, too.

      Obviously this post and future Egypt posts are about MY experience, which was amazing even considering the harassment that was prevalent and obnoxious (to me and all those with me) almost everywhere I went. It’s great that you didn’t get harassed, but I’m not planning to whitewash my experience here. It happened and it wasn’t a result of my clothing.

      Reply
  13. Eric @ Trans-Americas Journey

    It’s a shame many (often young) travelers disregard local customs and norms when traveling. We’ve seen it so many times, most glaringly in some of the more conservative Islamic countries we’ve traveled to — Egypt as you discuss here and Pakistan. I don’t understand what would inspire someone to wear SHORT shorts and a halter top in a country like Pakistan where even the men are covered from head to toe, not to mention the fact that women are rarely even seen outside of the house. What confuses me even more is the fact that they don’t seem to respond to or learn from the negative treatment and contempt they receive.
    From our experience, it’s their loss. When one does abide by local customs it is usually appreciated and commented on by locals. For example, for the 2 months I was in Pakistan I wore a shalwar kemise (local men’s attire) and grew my beard while Karen didn’t wear the head to toe covering typically seen she also wore a woman’s shaliwar. Daily we had people approach us, talk to us, and of course, invite us for tea or food stating that they thought it was wonderful that we wore local dress.

    Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      It boggles the mind that there are folks who travel with no regard to local customs and dress. I actually like to wear the local attire – it makes for such fun, authentic photos and you’re right, folks really appreciate the effort.

      Reply
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  15. Lauren

    I think it is great that you posted this- it is true that not a lot of people do as much research before traveling to different countries where the cultural norms are completely different and it is best simply to respect them! I love to play the independent western woman role but when it comes down to it- I will cover up to respect norms and avoid harassment! There are some cultures where men simply do not understand that women have a lot more freedom elsewhere.

    Reply
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  19. Shell

    Well, we’re all booked up for our next trip to Egypt! We arrive in Luxor late summer and will be taking a 7 day cruise down the Nile.

    We’re off with 2 friends who have been to Luxor before with us in 2010 and 2 more friends who have never been to Egypt at all.

    Can you tell I’m all excited about it? http://wp.me/p1uja5-1iJ

    Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      That’s Luxor temple! It was really cool to go there at night since we saw all the other temples during the day. Just a nice change of pace!

      Reply
          1. ch33k33.m0nk33

            HOT! Haha! But coming from NZ, everywhere is warm for us. :P It’s still a bit cool in the morning and evening, but around noon is scorching – I’m sunburnt. Still, better than going during summer.

  20. Cherie Roe Dirksen

    This was a really great, interesting and hilariously funny blog — thanks for sharing. I am off to Egypt on Friday, it’s my first time, so this was really informative as I was packing loads of shorts…I will be rethinking my wardrobe! I will definitely sequester the ‘girls’ and pack my shawl :)

    Reply
  21. Joanna

    Hi I was thinking of heading to Egypt soon and your advice has been great,but did you find that in your hotel it was “safe” to wear the normal western summer clothes?and that just when traveling around outside of that is when to make sure to be conservative in your attire?

    Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      While it’s certainly more acceptable to wear Western attire at the resort, it’s still staffed by local folks who are accustomed to a different style of clothing for women. I tried to stay as covered up as possible no matter where I was – except in Dahab, where it’s much more liberal.

      Reply
    1. Angie Away Post author

      I mostly wore sandals – flips flips and gladiators, to be specific. Once in a while I wore Toms. But I think sandals should be a.o.k. as long as they’re comfy to walk in.

      Reply
  22. MIchelle

    I am leaving for Egypt in a few weeks…Im getting married there and am now shopping for clothing to wear…My soon to be husband told me what I should get but what if these guys do this to me when Im with him? I worry about this…I will do my best to dress accordingly and I will try not to speak haha…Im excited to go but a bit nervous being that I dont speak Arabic…My soon to be husband does I dont want to see a fight break out in front of me…I know him and Im sure he would go crazy on them haha …Thank you for the information I am buying new clothes now for this trip..I will be there for over a month…Hope its a good one O.o

    Reply

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