“I have never felt so lacking in agency as I do out in public here, because clearly my agency doesn’t matter to them.”

Last week I hit a teenage schoolboy in the face. Now, that’s a way to get your attention. Except what I was trying to do, at the point when this happened, was to not get any attention, to walk unnoticed through the streets of the city I live in. You wouldn’t think that’s too much to ask, but here in Cairo it is an impossibility.

Put your phone in your bag, grab your keys, one last check in the mirror to make sure you’ve not got toothpaste around your mouth again. As you walk out of the front door and lock it behind you, you feel your shoulders start to hunch, your eyes fix on the floor, lines and knots of tension spread down from your neck. Step out into the streets of Cairo; your body is no longer your own.

Harassment here is a well-documented phenomenon. There are even those who believe the increase in reports of harassment since the revolution is a positive sign, that it shows more openness and a willingness to talk about it. This means in theory that the problem might be one minuscule step along the way to being solved. Be that as it may (and for what it’s worth, from my three years of living here I don’t see any progress at all) – these reports and the articles and the discussions cannot cover what it feels like to walk down the street in this country.

Impossible to explain the effects of the staring, the nudging and pointing, the jeering, the honking of car horns. The way you shrink inside yourself. The depression or the incandescent rage, depending on your mood and how much sleep you’ve had. This overwhelming feeling of how DARE you. What makes these people think that my body is something to be commented on, shouted at, gawked at?

I have never felt so lacking in agency as I do out in public here, because clearly my agency doesn’t matter to them. It doesn’t matter that I am an actual person, with thoughts and feelings and a reason to be walking somewhere; all that is totally irrelevant. To them I am just a body. All-too visible while my ‘self’, for want of a better word, feels like it is fading. It wears you down, this assault on your sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

I cannot offer explanations, and to be honest by this point I can’t be bothered to. Unsympathetic as it might be to say it, I don’t care why it’s like this anymore. I just wish it wasn’t. I shout, when the effort isn’t too overwhelming, and give the finger a lot, just hoping that even among the laughter and jeers some part of the message that this behaviour is not OK goes in. I am not optimistic about attitudes so ingrained changing.

So this brings us back around to the teenage schoolboy, who I hit in the face because he grabbed me in the street. It was 8:30am and I was walking to the swimming pool, a half-hour walk in the early-morning cool which in another city would be a pleasant way to wake up. Not here, however. I always have to run the gauntlet of a group of 50 schoolboys hanging around on the street, and on this particular occasion one grabbed me. Pushed by a friend, dared, by accident, on purpose? Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit.

While writing this I was all too aware that it is perhaps not directly relevant to the message of this blog, but the experience of daily harassment has made me more aware than ever how our bodies can so often be viewed as detached from us as people, and how this treatment can affect how you see yourself, how you carry yourself, how you react in different situations. I never thought that my refrain would be ‘just leave me alone’, but now the ability to walk down the street, going peacefully about my dull daily life, seems a necessity to keep the relationship with my body secure.

“Never in my twenty-six years have I felt so self-conscious as a woman in public spaces as I did in almost every city I visited in the US.”

This summer, I spent three months travelling in the US and Canada. Although it was not my first time in the United States, having visited family and an American ex-boyfriend there several times throughout my life, it was my first time travelling extensively in the country, and my first time navigating America’s huge cities by myself. I had a marvellous time; I met amazing people whom I hope to see again in my life, and experienced so much kindness and generosity from strangers, both through using Couchsurfing, and through the people I met randomly. 

One thing stood out as a major cultural difference between the US and my home town of Edinburgh in Scotland, above the differences in language and snack foods: I consistently experienced a level of street harassment I had never faced in my life before. Of course, like most women, I have experienced whistles from building sites, shouts from the windows of vans, and drunk arseholes passing comment on my appearance as I walk home from work. I’ve been chatted up inappropriately by men while I was working in pubs and clubs. I’ve been groped while collecting glasses on the club floor. But never in my twenty-six years have I felt so self-conscious as a woman in public spaces as I did in almost every city I visited in the US. 

Some days I was catcalled by so many different men that I wished I didn’t have to walk down the streets. It would happen if I was in a jumper and trousers; it would happen if I was in a crop top and little shorts. I experienced more – far more – unsolicited comments on my appearance from strange men on the street in those three months than I had in my entire life. I couldn’t sit and have a cigarette on a public bench in the city centre without a man I didn’t know attempting to engage me in conversation. It was wearing and unpleasant, and I have the greatest admiration and respect for American women who deal with this all the time. I never truly felt unsafe, and thankfully I was never assaulted, but I felt uncomfortable and unable to just sit in happy solitude in public spaces populated by men. I would be aware when I sat down somewhere that a man would probably try and talk to me. I would start to feel wary every time a man was walking toward me on the pavement, bracing myself for a comment. 

I don’t know what it is about American culture that makes it this way for women. For what it’s worth, I did not experience anything like this level of harassment in the similarly large cities I visited in Canada. I didn’t know how to respond. For all the cultural similarities we share with the US, it is still a different country, thousands of miles from home, and it is not my culture. I was far from my family and friends. I didn’t know which men might be truly dangerous, which men might have knives or guns, which men might seriously wish me harm. And so, most of the time, I ignored the catcalls and walked on, feeling ashamed of my female body and my inaction. I made conversation with the men who approached me when I was sitting, and made excuses to leave once I felt it wouldn’t seem rude. I accommodated their harassment into my daily life, because I didn’t know what else to do. 

It was a revelation to me, even as a feminist woman, to really experience first-hand this kind of harassment. Obviously this is a problem for women everywhere, and it is far from absent in the UK. But I had never experienced it so relentlessly. Never. And I am speaking from the relatively privileged position of a straight, white, cisgender woman. It made me all the more aware of how important it is for us to fight to be allowed to walk through public spaces as women. My body is not yours to comment on, whether I’m in a bikini or a winter coat. My time is not yours to take just because you see I am an unaccompanied woman. I don’t care if you like my arse, or my tits. I don’t want to go for a drink with any man who would impose himself on me when I’m clearly uncomfortable with the interaction. I want to feel safe and comfortable walking down the street. I want to feel able to sit alone in public without being hassled.