An Internship in Egypt!
Two years ago, I was a keen Arabic learner. That summer, I landed an internship in Egypt. Without hesitation, I hopped on the plane to fly to the mysterious land I always learned about in history class. Back in school, Egypt had always been a place of fascination for me. Its long and rich history witnessed the rise and fall of many kingdoms.
It didn’t take long for me to notice things were awry. Soon after I landed, I started getting random pickups from men. At first, it was physically harmless as they would back off after getting a no.
My First Encounter With Ugly Sexism
One early morning, we booked a horse riding trip to the pyramids of Giza. To my surprise, instead of telling me the safety precautions, the owner jokingly asked me to marry his son. I smiled and said no. He seemed to think me smiling was not out of courtesy but out of interest, he began pursuing me on how many horses he can offer me to marry his boy. Till this day, I’m still not sure if he was just joking or not, but it was surely a weird ride to the pyramids when I was stuck with someone relentlessly looking to find a wife for his son.
When I returned home, I shared the story with an Egyptian friend of mine, a guy in the same internship program together. He was baffled by how uncomfortable I was and made a comment along the lines of, “why are you upset? He gave you a compliment because you are hot.”
That was the first time I questioned myself. Indeed, why was I upset? I was not physically assaulted and he did keep saying that I was beautiful. Perhaps I should have taken it as a compliment…This thought lingered on…
The days went on and we went to Alexandria one weekend. In the hotel, a guy living next door asked for a selfie with me. As he held up his phone for the selfie, he leaned in for a kiss on my cheek.
Overwhelmed with shock and disgust, I immediately took a huge step back before his lips touched my face. He laughed, and said with a smiley face, “you don’t want?”
Paralyzed with disbelief, I don’t remember if I ever answered him. I quickly ran back to my room and locked the door. Being in my room didn’t help overcome my fear as the guy was just next door.
I decided to call up the same Egyptian friend that came on the trip with me. Again, he laughed it off and said I should take that as a compliment as I was not physically hurt.
At that point, I don’t know if it was frustration or confusion, but it felt like I started questioning all the moral standards I upheld to be true. Was I physically hurt? No. Should I have taken it as a harmless joke? Perhaps?
I didn’t know what to believe anymore…
It only got worse.
Where Sexual Harassment Is normalized
My friends suggested going to the Hilton Hotel by the Egyptian museum in Cairo one evening. Words couldn’t begin to describe how excited they were. They kept wanting to check everything out. I was so exhausted that day I decided to sit on the sofa in the lobby to wait for my friends.
I was just minding my own business on the sofa when I noticed, from the corner of my eyes, that a man was staring at me from about 5 meters away. I turned around and looked at him.
Guess what I saw.
A man in his 40s publicly put his hand down under his pants and started rubbing it in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel as he was looking right at me. I can’t recall what emotions ran through my body but I was not scared. Maybe I was in too much shock to feel fear.
He wasn’t even bothered by the fact that I saw him. He just kept going at it gently. I looked around. No one seemed to be paying attention to him. I didn’t move at all, not sure why. After what felt like 3 years, my friends returned. I jumped up as soon as I saw them from afar. The guy stopped also when he saw me walking towards someone else.
I could barely recount what happened when the guy was still standing there. I used all my strength to mutter the words “the guy there was jerking off in front of me” to my friends. One of my friends, also an intern from overseas, blew up as soon as he heard that. He grabbed the guy and yelled for the Hilton manager. Finally, I thought justice would be served in this 5-star hotel.
Well, I was wrong.
How the exact conversation went down was unclear. I might have had a blackout from the shock. All I remembered was, no police were called, no one even held the guy accountable. The manager might have scolded the guy, but that was it. Just like how you scold your naughty kid to not do something again. And then he let him back to the playground. The manager ordered the guy to leave the hotel property, the most lenient treatment I had seen in my life to a sex offender.
Watching the guy’s shadow slowly fading away was one of the most complicated feelings I had. I was glad he was gone, but I was not glad he could just go away.
But it didn’t end there.
It took me a while to rally myself up to go back to our place. As soon as we left Hilton, my friend whispered, “is that the same guy standing at the corner?”
There he was, standing in the corner of a bush, following us right as we came out…Oh my…Can this all be a nightmare? I might have blackout again because it was mentally too much.
The incident ended with my friend going up to him, literally threatening to beat him up if he came any closer. He left and we ran back to our place.
If that wasn’t enough of mental torture, what happened next surely did the trick.
I had only one week left in Cairo. How could things get worse? They did.
It’s Always The Woman’s Fault
The hostel we stayed at was near Talaat Harb Square. A week before my departure, on one hot afternoon, I was taking a shower in the hostel. It’s not the fanciest hostel ever and all showers and facilities were gender-neutral. Before I walked in, the cleaner guy smiled at me and I politely smiled back. I enjoyed a lovely cold shower when it’s nearly 40 degrees outside.
Literally the moment I finished showering, the moment I opened the shower stall door, I saw another scene I will never forget. There he was, the same guy that greeted me, still smiling, except this time he was holding his phone right at me. I never felt so ambushed. Being alone in the shower, I didn’t know what options I had.
He said, “selfie?”
With water still dripping down my hair and him standing right outside of the shower stall, blocking my way out, I stuttered, “I…I guess…”
He was even happier now. I should’ve known what that selfie accompanied, an unwarranted attempted kiss and he tried to grab my hand to caress his private part.
This time, it was no longer fear I felt, only rage was left. I pushed him away and ran to my friends in the same hostel and told them everything. One friend made a huge scene in front of the hostel manager.
I thought things were taking a better turn when the manager was involved. It only got worse.
The manager went to the guy, and said something I never thought anyone would just casually say to someone that literally tried to pull their penis out.
“Just put it back. Don’t do it again.”
What? What did you just say?
Just put it back?
Right when my reality and sense of morality crumbled, the manager turned around and said with an expression that resembled indifference.
“He thinks you are pretty. And you know, it’s probably the way you dress. You shouldn’t be walking around in t-shirt and shorts. Sorry, it happened, but there’s no need to overreact. You are not physically hurt, are you?”
Could someone tell me the proper dress code for when you come out of the shower? I was not even out of the bathroom yet.
I was not aware that I needed to shower with a down jacket on…especially in the comfort of my hostel.
A long Lasting Trauma, and cycles of Self-Blaming and Self-Doubt
For the longest time, I did blame myself. If my story feels long, would you be surprised if that’s not even everything that happened to me during my 7-week stay? So many other things that happened that made me question my worth as a woman. Probably too many to list. These were the few major ones that I could remember.
It took me a year after leaving to accept that what happened was not normal, nor was it my fault. Once I posted on the internet travel group to share my experience because I simply could not cope with it. Much to my dismay, several people so hyped up on breaking stereotypes gaslighted me and said what I experienced did not happen, some even went as far as saying, “it’s not their fault. You shouldn’t have been wearing a t-shirt and shorts.”
But, if anyone actually thinks that’s an insult to me, it’s not. It’s one of the most common things women get after they’re sexually harassed/assaulted.
“It’s not the men’s fault. It’s your fault for what you wear.”
To this statement, I can say that it’s not an insult to the woman, but to all the men out there. If you think wearing a t-shirt, or anything else for that matter, makes it “okay” for a woman to get assaulted, you are really insulting the man, rather than the woman here.
Till this day, there’s still rage and frustration inside of me whenever I talk about this. I never got the justice I believe I deserve. Instead, I got the idea that I was in the wrong, that I somehow triggered those men to jerk it in front of me and got them to try and kiss me.
If I have to be honest, I don’t think I’m fully over what happened, perhaps I will never be. Since then, I read up on more stories of what other people experienced and how victims are often gaslighted. It is very important to speak up, because you know somewhere out there, there’s a woman getting attacked, believing it’s her own fault.
Sexual harassment should never be disguised as a compliment, nor should it be normalized because no one is “physically hurt”. The mental turmoil can destroy a person. When the majority of people in society understand the severity of this, victims will be more willing to speak up, knowing they will get the help and support needed. It takes education and the willingness to change. The first thing people have to accept is that nothing justifies a sex crime.
Sexual harassment is never a compliment.
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