A Culturally-Sensitive Egypt Packing List for Women

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

The sweat dripped slowly the length of my spine as I craned my neck toward the sky to peer against the sun toward the top of the Great Pyramid. Vertebra by vertebra, I felt the warm, salty drip traverse the length of my back and soak into the waist of my sand colored silk pants. My hair, damp, clung to my ears and the back of my neck beneath my headscarf and I prayed to what ancient gods may yet live in this country for a breath of a breeze. Only the sun glared down in reply.

Egypt is, at once, a wonder and a struggle. The entire time I was working my way the length of the country my mood swung from one extreme to the other; awestruck to be standing between stones that Cleopatra’s father stood on their ends and the great Ramses carved from the desert, to cursing under my breath and privately hash tagging photos to privileged friends, #effingegypt.

Egypt is an Adventure

On the one hand, there is the deep history and culture of the Egyptian Museum with more mummies in one room than I’d seen in all of the Ancient Egypt exhibits I’ve seen at every museum, on every continent, in my entire life. Yet, right outside is the bustle and chaos of Cairo, where it is impossible walk a block without being harassed by half a dozen helpful friends while weaving between traffic that truly has to be seen to be believed. I am motivated to a mindful life solely by the fear of being reincarnated as a Cairo cab driver. Or worse, a garbage man; but I digress.

The beauty of the Nile is breathtaking. Wending it’s way north from the Sudanese border and the great High Dam, towards the delta of legend and mythological proportions. Camels sip quietly on the banks, children swim, families picnic, and dhyabias straight out of Victorian era adventure stories still bear the intrepid between villages and ruins that whisper out of a past deeper than almost anywhere else on the planet.

And then, there are the policemen who lay in wait to steal a traveler’s car and driver when she’s in looking at one of the less traveled and rarely toured temples, necessitating the obligatory three cups of tea, negotiation, and bald faced bribery. Let’s not forget the military escort, the armed ruffians or the dubious paperwork, all of which must be bought in order to secure “safe” passage back onto the beaten path. These things happen. We adjust our hijab, plant our western female feet, and adopt a “take no prisoners” tone in our negotiation. The car, and driver, are eventually returned.

Traveling to Egypt as a Woman

There are two ways to visit Egypt as a solo woman traveler. One is supervised, usually by men, in an organized tour. This is a good way to go. It’s safe. It’s easier. You’ll still have plenty of an adventure, I promise you. I met a couple of women traveling this way, having hired a private tour, and they were enjoying themselves immensely. I recommend this.

The other way, is to truly go it alone, organize your own itinerary and throw yourself into the fray. I also recommend this as well, with a caveat:

Egypt is not, in my opinion, a great place to begin your solo travels. You’ll enjoy it more if you’ve got some mud on your boots already, a sense of yourself and how to travel in difficult places. More experience navigating the particulars of the Muslim world as an unaccompanied woman is better than less. A little perspective on discomfort and cross cultural confusion will go a long way. You’ll still want to hire guides to the great monuments (they make wonderful teachers). Plan enough breathing room into your itinerary that you can hide out a bit when the onslaught of Egypt just becomes too much. Hire drivers. Plan for the diversity of the country, in what you pack and how you adventure.

What You Pack Matters

What you pack for Egypt could well determine how much you enjoy your trip and which doors are open to you.

My overall belief is that what we wear, as women, should not matter.

The reality, in much of the world, is that it matters greatly. I choose to take that into consideration when I travel; for the sake of my fellow women within a given culture, as well as that of my fellow female travelers and the perceptions of them that I may affect as they come after me.

Egypt is a Muslim country, with a strong conservative bent. The Coptic contingency of the nation is orthodox, and similarly conservative. It would be disrespectful of me to swan about the country in a crop top and booty shorts.

Wondering what to wear in Egypt?

First, consider where you are going. In Cairo, where many western women tour and live, you could easily get away with western dress, although you’ll still be likely to garner some unwanted attention if you go about uncovered. If you’re headed further south, or afield from the usual tourist hot spots, you’ll do yourself a favor to wear ankle length pants, wrist length and loose tunic tops, as well as a head scarf.

Think light weight and opaque fabrics, because you’ll be wearing more covering clothes than you might otherwise in 108F heat. Plan your footwear for adventure, and lots of walking, not fashion.

Solo Woman’s Packing List for Egypt

Notes on Fabric

Very light and quick drying fabrics are your friends. I wore faux silk pants and was so thankful for the blend of opaqueness and feather light touch. Egypt is hot, all the time. The further south you go, the hotter it gets, and the more conservative it gets.

The clothes I took to Egypt were purpose bought, as I’ll never wear those styles in my real life, so I chose them specifically for the heat, and ease of hand washing. Plan on washing. Re-wearing isn’t much fun when you’ve sweat through the day’s clothes by ten in the morning.

Notes on Scarves

Wrapping your head up, hijab style, is not required in Egypt. However, you will find, if you make an effort to cover your head, that the locals are appreciative.

One night, capering around Cairo in the dark I was walking with a guy who had commented, in appreciation, on my scarf; he asked why I wore it, since I wasn’t Egyptian. I smiled at him and mentioned that I’d lived quite a while in the Muslim world and that, while I knew it wasn’t strictly necessary, I also knew it was good manners. He beamed, “Yes Miss! It’s VERY good manners, thank you!” And off we went to visit his sister and her baby in their papyrus shop.

I always carry a scarf pin. No matter how much time I spend in the company of covered women, I can’t quite manage to learn that neat scarf tuck that they master early. My scarf is a constant frustration without a pin, and the only thing worse than wearing it in the heat is struggling with it all day.

A burqa is unnecessary. I packed mine, because I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I got way off the beaten track. Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to wrap up and hide when you’re tired of sticking out like a sore thumb. It didn’t come out of my bag, even once. My haphazard hijab was well received.

Notes on Swimsuits

When your guide says, while getting ready to take a dip in the Nile, “You should SEE what the Russian women wear!” this is not a statement of admiration and you shouldn’t try to one up them. Even if you are traveling with a one piece swimsuit, always swim in a cover up shirt. I had hoped that at the Ramses Hilton, in Cairo, at least, the t-shirt would prove unnecessary. Nope. I was still the only western woman (certainly the only solo one) and the other women around the pool were in hijab and not swimming.

Unless you happen to be in an all western environment in some resort somewhere, a t-shirt over your swimsuit is considerate.

Daypack Packing List

Once you’re on the ground in Egypt you’re going to be doing a lot of day trips to ruin sites, museums, cultural heritage sites, and bustling markets. Plan your daypack to support your adventures. Be sure to include:

Why Packing Carry On Only is Important

As a woman, I always travel carry on only. Not only is it more convenient, less expensive, lighter, and more freeing, traveling carry on is also safer.

This revelation came to me as I stood in the swirling heart of Ramses Central Station, shouldering my Outbreaker travel backpack trying to sort out which track the night train towards Aswan was leaving from. In my usual fashion, I was taking a deep breath, looking around for clues other than the Arabic signs, and leafing through my Watansia paperwork. I was also swatting off “helpful” friends like flies, most of whom were opening with, “Where’s your husband? I’ll take your bag….” “Like hell you will!” I thought, as I declined as politely as one can when dripping sweat, hungry, tired, and out of her element.

The moment someone takes your bag, you lose a piece of your freedom. You are forced to follow. Your options are fewer. And your stuff, if not you yourself, are at someone else’s mercy. This is not a good situation in the dark, in a city you don’t know, when the train waits for no man (or woman). With my Outbreaker, I can carry my own stuff, I don’t need help, and given enough time, I’m confident I’ll figure it out. On my own. Thank you very much. No, I am not waiting on my husband.

Is Egypt Safe?

By dressing respectfully you are more likely to be respected by men and women alike. You’re also more likely to be invited into homes and community events than you are if you’re not dressed appropriately for the culture. Your clothing can be the key to a very local experience that you might have otherwise missed, like tea and dates with your boat captain’s family home, or an invitation to wander through a Nubian house.

In spite of the fact that there has been some unrest since the revolution five years ago, Egypt is, in my experience, safe for travel. Particularly if you are sticking to the narrow corridor along the Nile, which most travelers do. Be sure to check recent travel alerts and warnings. More importantly, talk to local contacts on the ground if you have them. Some regions can be very safe, while others are less so. Do your homework.

As a woman, use the same caution you would in NYC, or Rome. You’re going to get harassed. Expect it. You’re going to make lots of “friends” who want to “help.” Develop a thick skin and help yourself. Remember that nothing, not one single thing, is “free” in Egypt, no matter what they tell you. Expect to pay baksheesh for every single kindness. Not to, is rude.

A fake wedding ring is good man repellent, on all continents, in all cultures.

Take your hotel business card, it’s a quick and easy way to get home when you wander until you’re lost in a warren of streets and your Arabic isn’t that good. Hand it to any cab driver and you’re home safe in a flash.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. I have a pretty long fuse where touts and culturally different men are concerned. I can let it go for a long time, and I do. However, I draw the line at touching my person without permission, at all, ever. Only once in Egypt did I have to draw that line aggressively. Don’t be afraid to.

TL;DR

Solo travel for women in Egypt is uncommon, but generally safe. Take the same precautions you would anywhere in the world. Dress in a culturally respectful way to reduce negative attention and increase the chances of being included in very local experiences.