Man handling in Cairo

Expecting harassment, Belinda Jackson instead feels only welcomed.

The taxi driver taking me to the airport was Egyptian and after going misty-eyed about his homeland, where I was bound, started dispensing advice. "You? Just you?" he asked incredulously in mid-flow about traffic, scams and where to get the best local food. He shook his head sadly and told me to take care.

For tourists, Egypt definitely is a male-dominated culture. Contact with other women can be limited and foreigners are, by and large, viewed as walking meal tickets. But let's face it: Cairo men get a bad rap.

Google "Egyptian men" and the internet's full of rants by women of leering men, the staring, the indecent propositions.

Like every country, sexual harassment and catcalls are common - think Australian building sites circa 1985. Many of the city's cafes are clearly men-only zones and solo women are often treated as objects of pity or curiosity - Egypt obviously hasn't heard about Sydney's man drought.

But from a quick straw poll of girlfriends who have been in Cairo either on their own or with a girlfriend (as opposed to a protective male presence), all felt safe at any time of the day or night in the city. "I just wandered around with no hassle at all," said one girlfriend who loved the city's 24-hour mindset.

Mind you, she said, there was a marked absence of crop tops, hot pants and spangly boob tubes in her luggage - so no bare arms or thighs and the cleavage was kept under wraps. Picture the Australian equivalent: what would the reaction be if you walked topless down Pitt Street mall at peak hour. They'd be staring, all right. And - the horror! - someone would probably yell something out.

The Egyptian masses are fed a diet of predominantly Western films featuring women wandering around naked, up for it at the drop of a hat. So it stands to reason they're going to translate that back to any scantily clad foreigners they see on the street.

As my well-thumbed Lonely Planet puts it: "Egyptians simply have a higher level of modesty and it's clear you haven't been here long if you don't feel embarrassed to show your knees in public."


Really, the biggest threat to foreign women in Cairo is to fall into a giant pothole and be crushed by the weight of your own shopping after a day in the tat supremo market of Khan al-Khalili.

Oh, and crossing the street. However, the streets are patrolled by plenty of tourist and regular police, distinctive in their crisp uniforms (white for summer, black for winter), completed with berets and long, black boots. With one look at the cowering foreign woman on the side of the road, they will, with a commanding wave of a glove, halt the traffic while you scuttle across. Otherwise, someone will be there to shield you, take your elbow or grasp your hand, depositing you safely on the other side of the road. Truly, any lofty notions of gender equality will quickly dissolve in the face of a barrage of rabid, oncoming taxis.

If you're nervous about getting around after dark, said taxis are cheap and plentiful (ladies, take a seat in the back like the princesses you are) and the cheap but squishy metro has women-only carriages until 9pm each day. The slightest hint of trouble, from dragging heavy bags to tripping over, and someone will be at hand to assist, a courtesy that appears to be fading from Australian streets.

Mind you, visit the city's chic expat enclaves - such as Zamalek and Maadi - and you could be forgiven for thinking you were back in Australia with its sweaty joggers, bold teens and nightclubs where skimp is in - though no one's catching the metro in their slinky clubbing get-up. Even here, there are limits. Other havens include the Western hotels, with their anything-goes pools, bars and cafes.

There's no need for women to cover their hair, except in mosques, and many now waive that rule for ignorant foreigners or have scarves and gowns at the door. And the good news for the Western world is that Egyptian men and women alike find plump and pale attractive. Viva sun-shy tubsters! It does mean, however, you should expect plenty of people peering openly into your face and plenty of comments on the street and in cafes, ranging from a battalion of hellos and marriage proposals to such pearls as: "You don't need sugar because ... " (you can finish the sentence) and "Hello, my future wife!"

Finally, it's a credit to Egyptian hospitality that the first word most people learn in English is not "hello" or "whatisyourname" but "welcome". It's a refrain to which Cairo dances, along with the call to prayer and the roar of a million hardworking car horns. You might blow black soot from your nose, boggle at the toilets and hate the haggle but you could never accuse Cairenes of being inhospitable. See