I peer up from behind my camera to find yet another pair of eyes on me, dark brown ones that feel no obligation to look away when I catch them staring. I lose the unspoken game after a few seconds, unable to compete with this unwavering gaze and awkwardly turning away to the maze-like city that sprawls before me.
Even from this height, the energy of the city below can be felt. Cairo: yet another city I have fallen for, that has pulled me headfirst into a whirlwind of blaring horns, colour, dust, and spices that mingle with sweet sheesa smoke in the charged air. A labyrinth of narrow streets run into the horizon and turrets spiral out of the haze. They intersperse the skyline of skyscrapers and apartment blocks that shadow the older parts of the city. A mix of old and new that paints a picture of the contrasting elements holding Egypt together, developmentally, politically and socially.
I feel the eyes still on me. They watch me every step of the way here; when I pull on my cigarette, when I sip my coffee, when I hide behind my viewfinder and turn the lens on them in return. There is never a discreet moment here, to pick up something I dropped or to trip over the uneven ground.
Some days it is too much. The staring feels intimidating, the curiosity becomes intrusive and the questions seem invasive. I am yet to experience home sickness but I occasionally find myself missing the anonymity of London life, a sea of people in which I can be unseen. My paler complexion is enough to give me away here; my green eyes and light hair brand me as a stranger before I open my mouth. There is nowhere to hide and sometimes I long for that cloak of invisibility.
But more than that, more than my European features, there lies the fact that I wander through a landscape that is mainly dominated by men. It has never caught my attention in my home country. Maybe that’s due to a more balanced gender ratio within public space, but more simply it could be due to my lack of observation, the familiarity of the land causing me to pay more attention to my phone screen than my surroundings. Here however, as I soak up every detail, it is startlingly obvious. And in response, I find myself unconsciously veering towards the few other women in the streets, on the metro, in cafes and bars.
I’ve always felt more comfortable in male-dominated groups. My childhood was spent scabbing my knees whilst hauling myself up trees, and then blaming the “disgusting dresses school makes me wear” for my appearance come nightfall. And although I’ve shed the majority of that boyish nature, either through choice or societal pressure, I still spent my school, college, university years mostly in male company. Never an intentional choice, nor a consideration until moving here.
However, as I familiarise myself with this new city, I find myself gravitating towards these older women wherever I go. I speak ten words of Arabic at best, my jeans and loose hair clash against their traditional attire, yet they welcome me to their side without hesitation. No words are spoken, but their eyes, their body, their gestures are accepting. This generation of women radiate such strength, such fierce determination that could only result from years of fighting their corner in the public space, that I cannot help but be drawn to them as I feel my way around this new culture.
The streets of Cairo are notorious for their derogatory attitude towards women and for good reason. However, I have already been shown more kindness whilst exploring these streets than I ever experienced in London. Often without needing to ask I am pointed in the right direction, shown the queue I need, told the local price, with a smile that crinkles warm eyes.
In the ‘western world’ there is a distorted perception that women in the Middle East are submissive, victims that need outsiders’ assistance in advancing their rights. We group women from this part of the world together in a way we would never do in our own countries. When do you hear people talk of British women or American women as a collective? Yet too many of us do this when discussing women’s rights within the Middle Eastern region. And in doing so, we take something from these individual women with individual needs and a burning strength to fulfil those needs themselves.
These individual women that gleam a bold spirit, captivate me and I cannot help but be drawn to female company here in a way in which I am yet to feel in my home country. These women are not afraid to take up space in this male-dominated arena, in fact they intentionally take up room.
It is an assertive, bold stance that is done with a firm kindness, and I find myself thinking that, even if I take nothing else from this beautiful country, I wish to soak up this strength and take a fragment with me when I take flight.
Image credit Emilie Cousins
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