Women traveling alone in Egypt face some challenges, and it's important to get the cultural cues correct in order to minimize the hassle and potential problems.
First, recognize that simply by being an unaccompanied woman, you are perceived as potentially available. Second, realize that though Egypt is a highly controlled and repressive society, the West is viewed as free and easy, particularly with regard to matters of sexual relations. Western women are frequently portrayed in the media as promiscuous, and they figure large in the Egyptian-male imagination as the answer to their stifled dreams.
The result is that you will be on the receiving end of a range of comments and invitations in the street, and you may find yourself being crowded and groped in markets and other tight spots. Reports of taxi drivers exposing themselves are not uncommon. Following some simple guidelines can help reduce the problem, if not eliminate it entirely.
Most important, dress conservatively. Bare arms and legs will indicate that you are the loose Westerner of their imagination, and you will find the level of harassment increasing commensurately. Tight jeans and tops are better than shorts and a tank top, but not by much. Best to stick to loose pants or sensible, ankle- or mid-calf-length skirts and frumpy long-sleeved tops.
Avoid eye contact. As much as revealing clothing, this is seen as another signal that you are interested. Unfortunately, so is laughing. Allowing a man to put his hand on you, a liberty that an uninterested Egyptian woman would never allow -- whether on your hand, forearm, or shoulder -- will also indicate to him that you are open to further advances.
Turn the conversation, any conversation, to your family or his family. Ask questions about his children, and invent a husband and several children if you want to avoid being propositioned.
Finally, don't accept food or drink from strangers when alone. Cases of women being drugged and assaulted are not common, but they certainly happen. The most common place for them to happen is on the train and in taxis.
Check out the award-winning website Journeywoman (www.journeywoman.com), a "real life" women's travel-information network where you can sign up for a free e-mail newsletter and get advice on everything from etiquette and dress to safety. The travel guide Safety and Security for Women Who Travel by Sheila Swan and Peter Laufer (Travelers' Tales Guides), offering common-sense tips on safe travel, was updated in 2004.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.