I have grown accustomed to looking at my feet, the sight of ten toes wriggling in sandals, taking me quickly from point A to point B. I know the cracks in the sidewalk and the curves in the street. I know what it is to walk with head bowed and eyes lowered, keeping silent in a barrage of catcalls and lewd remarks.

Cairo is a city of men, sprawled in pairs, in groups, walking across the downtown square, working in the bank, lining the streets outside of my dorm. They sit outside of their shops in the shade of a sweltering heat, smoking a line of cigarettes with a glass of tea in hand. And they remain so for hours, unmoving, watching as people pass – leering in the presence of a woman.

I walk down the street and the guards outside the embassies say any combination of “sukkar, sukkar” (sugar, sugar), “ya ishta” (cream), or “ya asal” (honey). They pucker their lips together to make kissing noises or press their tongues against their teeth in a hiss. And I am forced to keep my eyes low and my head bent. To catch their attention in any manner, no matter how innocent, simply incites more trouble.

It is an oppressive weight that sits on a woman’s shoulders in this city. My family tells me over and over again that I will become used to the way that women are treated. But three weeks in and I am still unnerved every time I need to walk to the grocery store. There are times I find myself the only woman walking on a street and I begin to question if I am even allowed to be there.

To be within the walls of the American University is as if I am not within Cairo itself. As many women as men are attending classes and they interact in the same manner as any American university student – congregating, talking, sharing ideas. It is deceptive, this illusion of equality, of progression – move one block off campus in any direction and these intimate relationships stop. The women have disappeared, shuttled home in a protective chauffer driven car, and the men continue their afternoon ritual of sitting in a coffee shop.

When I am asked if I would come back to Egypt to live, I am hesitant. There are parts of this country that I cannot tear myself away from – close family relations, the warmth of the people, the generosity of the community as a whole. But in the same turn I am reluctant to commit my life to the many restrictions imposed here, especially after having tasted all the freedoms from the United States. I wanted to go to Georgetown, I was sent to Georgetown, no questions asked.

But an Egyptian woman, if she wants to study abroad must be accompanied. All the Egyptian women I have encountered have asked me the same question: “why on earth did you choose to come to Egypt? We are trying to go to the United States.” A girl in my Islamic Civilizations class told me, “you are so lucky to be studying abroad. I wanted to go to Switzerland, but my father said no. Either we all go, or no one goes. He won’t let me travel alone.”

I was naive coming here, thinking that as an American I would not be subject to the same obligations or restrictions as an Egyptian. But the problems here have nothing to do with nationality. My sex alone determines how I will be treated. While sexism is vigilantly fought against in the United States, here it is a point of acceptance. Women are not equals. Men are superior. And if they want to call at me in the street, the more power to them.

Yasmine Noujaim is a junior in the College and is currently studying at the American University in Cairo. Salamat appears every other Friday.

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