Egypt is a Middle Eastern country and has Middle Eastern customs. Whether Muslim or Copt, the Egyptians are deeply religious, and religious principles govern their daily lives. Combined with religious belief is commitment to the extended family. Each family member is responsible for the integrity of the family and for the behavior of other members, creating an environment that would be envied by many people in the West. Certainly, the result is that the city of Cairo is safer than any western metropolis.
Yet when westerners visit Egypt they are often apprehensive. Their views of Egyptians and Arabs, formented by unkind and untrue media stories, often bear no relation to reality. Travelers are often surprised by their friendly, hospitable reception and take home with them good feelings about Egypt and its population.
Egyptians have been raised in a social environment steeped in Islam, a background that can colour their decision-making in a way difficult for foreigners to understand. Yet it is precisely this training that makes Egyptians some of the most charming and helpful of hosts. By understanding the culture and with consideration for your hosts, you can be a welcome guest in Egypt.
Devout Muslims do not drink alcohol though most do not object to others imbibing in reasonable amounts. If in doubt, ask. In addition to the prohibition on alcohol, the faithful do not use drugs or eat pork, which is considered unclean. Explicit sexual material–magazines, photos, tapes, or records–is illegal and subject to confiscation.
Keep in mind that proselytizing is illegal in Egypt. Foreigners actively working to convert Egyptians have been asked to leave. Remember, almost all the Egyptians are either conservative devoted Moslems or Coptics.
In Egypt there are hardly any restrictions on foreign women. Ticket lines, for example, are occasionally segregated. Women should line up with other women (especially since the lines are usually shorter). On buses, the driver may want you to be seated in the front with other women. On the metro lines, the first car is usually reserved for women.
For men, speaking to an unknown Egyptian woman is a breach of etiquette. Take care in any liaisons you form because some families still follow ancient traditions.
A man who expresses himself physically in public to a woman (it doesn’t matter if she is his wife) incurs the belief that she is, to put it politely, “loose”. Holding hands in public is becoming more socially acceptable, but beyond that, restrain yourself.
While it is inappropriate to touch a woman in public, don’t be surprised to see men holding hands, with arms wrapped around each other or kissing each other on the cheek in greeting. Friendships between men are an important part of the culture and, because the assumption is that homosexuality and bisexuality don’t exist, men are physical with each other.
Egyptians, if offered anything, will refuse the first invitation which is customary. Therefore (unless you’re dealing with Egyptians used to Western frankness) you should do the same. If the offer is from the heart and not just politeness, it will be repeated. If you’re invited into a home, especially in small villages, and have to refuse, the householder will often press for a promise from you to visit in the future, usually for a meal. If you make such a promise, keep it, for having foreign guests is often considered a social coup. If you fail to arrive, your would-be host will be humiliated. To repay invitations, you may host a dinner in a restaurant, a common practice.
Please do not offer tips to professionals, businessmen, or others who would consider themselves your equals. You may seriously offend them by your act.
Before the famous Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi deliberately removed hers in 1922, the veil was worn in public by all respectable middle-class and upper-class women, Muslim, Jew, or Christian. By 1935, however, veils were a comparative rarity in Egypt, though they continued to be worn as an item of fashion in neighbouring countries like Syria and Jordan for 30 more years and have remained obligatory in the Arabian Peninsula to this day.
Nowadays in Egypt, some women still wear the veil demonstrating either modesty or Muslim piety. One reason this is favoured by many young professional women, is that it tends to discourage male advances, physical or verbal.
From the 1930s onwards, Egyptian women began to enter into business and the professions. Thus by 1965, thanks in part to social changes affected in the course of the July Revolution, Egypt could boast a far higher proportion of women working as doctors, dentists, lawyers, professors, diplomats, or high officials than might have been found in the US or in any European country outside of Scandinavia.
While women are not required to wear a higab (headscarf) or a robe, be sensible and conservative in your wardrobe choices in public (and when at home if a workman is expected). At a minimum, keep your legs, breasts and stomachs covered. Put something over your exercise clothes to wear to and from the gym. Its okay to wear a bathing suit at the pool or on a beach, but please don’t go topless like some tourists do. The inappropriate attire of female tourists and the stuff that comes over local satellite dishes and the Internet gives many Egyptian men the impression that Western women are more sexually available than Egyptian women. When you’re respectful of the culture you make life easier not only for yourself, but for every foreign woman.
Woman Traveling Alone
In Egypt, a woman traveling alone is generally safe, but she will be noticed, less in large cities than in the country. However, if problems do occur, seek help from the police or any shop nearby.
Although you probably will never be accosted, take simple precautions as you would anywhere: don’t walk in deserted areas alone. Although most invitations are innocent, don’t accept them from strangers.
Major tourism mosques are open to the public unless services are in progress (the main service is on Friday at noon). Other mosques are not. Keep in mind that a mosque differs from a western church in that Christian churches are considered houses of God, while mosques are more a gathering place for the faithful of Islam. All visitors to mosques, mausoleums, and madrasas must remove their shoes. Most Muslims walk around in their stockings but those mosques that are major tourist attractions have canvas overshoes available. Women must cover bare arms and should also have a hat.