As a young, single, white female, travelling through the patriarchal countries of Tunisia and Egypt, there were certain reactions that I was prepared for. I was an alien, immersed in a culture that was strongly dominated by its traditions and religious beliefs; so much so that a ‘foreigner’ would be instantly detected. However, what shocked me, and notably, gave me hope, weren’t the assumptions of my gender, but the fact that I experienced mixed reactions to my life-story.
Egypt was my first taste of such a culture clash. Despite staying in a lavish hotel on the River Nile, I was determined to enjoy the country itself. The traditional reaction was first revealed from a saleswoman from a market in Luxor. Despite my ankle length skirt and head-scarf, it became evident that the ‘shame’ I brought on my family was unbearable when asked about my age and marital status. I wasn’t surprised by her opinion but seeing it in such raw form was definitely uncomfortable.
The same hostile behaviour also plagued part of my time in Tunisia. The owner of a food stall shooed me away when I tried to approach him without my male guide tailing behind me. I don’t like to admit that I almost became accustomed to men shouting at my guide, ‘how many camels for your lady?’ when I’d walk by. I wasn’t dressed provocatively or drawing attention to myself, but my status as an unmarried young woman made me a victim of childish bullying. Regardless of my external tolerance, I was slowly growing more frustrated of how I was being treated.
My fading optimism was salvaged however, when hailing a pony and trap en route to the Valley of the Kings. Amongst the jeers and clacking tongues of other drivers, I managed to get the attention of one, who threw what I assume to be profanities at the other men and, he uttered whilst shaking his head, ‘Men see women as…lower here. But no, they are people’. I was stunned; in the middle of a traditionally aged city in broken English, was a modern opinion. I wasn’t naive to assume that everyone would see me as inferior but the Egyptian equivalent of the white-van driver had stepped outside the stereotype and saw me differently and I welcomed his opinion with (covered) open arms.
I was thankful to find that he wasn’t alone in his ideas. Whilst browsing Tunisia’s rug market, my guide led me to the workshop and sat me next to the only worker who spoke decent English, to show me how they were made. When discussing my home life once again, my jaw slackened when she nodded enthusiastically and clapped in praise for my future plans of university and a career. Respect back at my hotel was one thing but praise and admiration from a modest member of society was the perfect rebound to my unwilling role as a victim. When I left, she told me to “not think of the silly people”, referring to her scowling team of workers.
Whilst both trips were filled with historical treasures, the conflicting views of my life will always be significant. I still hold the optimist I left with and in light of the recent political upheaval; it seems that even more change may be on the horizon for these countries and the women within them.