My life in Cairo is remembered in sights, sounds and smells but mostly in the deep Arab emotion that soaks daily life like a syrup, the emotion that is ruled by an ornate network of social customs. Of all the experiences I had during my time in Egypt, the Cairo Metro was one of the few peeks into the life behind the headscarf, into the intricate and intimate world of Egyptian womanhood.
Cairo is a city of contradictions, balanced perilously between the new and old. It stands at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East. As the biggest city in Africa it has a thriving train system moving around 4 million people per day and the women’s carriage on the Cairo metro is a world within a world.
At first I rebelled against the idea of riding in the women only carnages but like many of the well-established sexist practices in Cairo, you quickly learn that in combating the constant stream of polite innuendos, the only course of action is to not respond. A concept hard learnt by this very independent, modern, western woman. The thought of segregated carnages filled with hijabed and burqaed women may sound oppressive to many women but it is a rear glimpse into another world, a chance to attempt to understand a set of social practices seeped in the sands of time.
Despite the often chaotic appearance of the Metro stations, with vendors lining the entry ways, displaying their mega wears on tarps and gabled Arabic loudspeakers sending people of every description scurrying like ants. The trains run on time and the ticket agents are surprisingly helpful. The trains themselves remind me of the ones used for the school run back home, older and slightly battered but plenty serviceable. Packed and hot at peak time, the windows show fleeting views of urban sprawl and harried shoppers interspersed with open desert and laden bullock carts. In Cairo many do not own cars and young, old, rich and poor alike, walk the Metro’s booming tiled underground stations and attempt to lift all manner of goods over the turnstiles.
I came to love my daily train trips, the subtle victory of being accepted, of performing the correct customs flawlessly- ticket, platform, just the right spot for the women’s carriage to stop right in front of you, slipping in without getting too much attention, familiar faces, lowered eyes, a rare glimpse into the female world that is so hard to see as a western traveller.
The last train out of down town Cairo runs at 12:30am, all the young people lounging in cafes, drinking tea so sweet that many have a line of decay across their front teeth and smoking shisha in endless sidewalk cafes need to be on that last train. At 12:15 the streets come alive in a mad scramble to make it to the platform on time.
Occasionally on these late night rides I would brave the men’s carriages, evading the silent condemnation of the Egyptian women to have stilted discussions with young men about their evenings and plans for the future. I couldn’t understand what the few women travelling with their husbands in the men’s carriage, found in these harmless discussions worth their desertion, except of course that they broke the rule of no contact. If you don’t acknowledge someone’s presence then they can’t have power over you and power is very important in a society that has not yet truly embraced women lib.
I did learn however that the phrase “my friend wants to practice his English” is actually equivalent “hey baby how you doing” in English and that these brief and entirely innocent conversations would end with professing of undying love and requests for marriage as sudden suitors reached their station. With such an established set of social guideline even the smallest of encouragement can get a girl in trouble. Reproach was always silent but I soon learned that if I wanted to avoid other women’s distaste I would need to embrace a very Egyptian version of feminism.
The women’s carriage is one of the few places I could observe Arab women in their own environment, from the subtle fracture between Christian and Muslim, young girls with too much make up and perfectly coordinated scarves, serious college students with dreams of modern futures, young wives wearing their engulfing burqas and elbow length gloves as a sign of high style, families with young girls begging for new hairclips from the carriage venders and old bent women who glanced openly at my obvious foreignness.
Stepping into the women’s carriage was like stepping into another world, a sea of intricately wound scarves of every color, like wild flowers in the desert, carefully matched with skirts and purses. Of bags and packages, the taste of hot dust in the air and the smell of shisha apple scented smoke in the folds of abayas. Women who never addressed us but accepted us into their world of womanhood.
Women in the Arab world close rank in a way I had never experienced before. Their version of girl power, is at first glance opposite to my own, they respect decorum and following the intricate rules, turning a silent face away from harassment but will stand firm together in support and defend their tightly guarded territory fiercely from all who overstep.
Once ridding home in a car full of women and children on the way home from the market, the scratched windows propped open releasing a stream of crisp, dust laden air to glint in the dry desert light. A young boy burst into our carriage, scrabbling down the aisle between billowing burqas and well-padded behinds, looking franticly side to side. A group of older boys were in hot pursuit barging into the women’s domain.
Without a single world or change in facial expression a dignified middle aged women lifted a corner of her long skirt and the skinny urchin flattened himself behind her, another women shifted slightly so their abayas completely covered him and they continued to converse softly to a companion. The older boys looked around confused, the train pulled into a station and the boys piled out. No one had said a word, no yelling, nothing but the slightest frown of disapproval from the women but the boys were well aware they were unwelcome. At the last minute the younger boy hopped out and slipped through the closing doors. No one said a word, no looks were exchanged everyone understood that in this carriage women were united.
The women’s carriage is often the last two carriages marked with a pink sign. On one occasion a group of men in their early twenty’s, loud and full of bluster from some exploit, running to catch the train slipped into our packed carriage in desperation to be abruptly ejected by a group of elderly women armored in black hijab. Their forlorn looks as the train pulled away leaving them abandoned on the platform couldn’t be quite covered by youthful bluster. You are not welcome here, this is not your place.
I spoke to very few women during my time in Egypt, most women my age where at home with their children and the few I met away from their husbands, were often shy or disapproving. The few conversations I did have were on one type of public transport or another, where usually an older women, would overcome her shyness and the bounds of decorum enough to ask what I was doing in Cairo and how I was enjoying it. Despite my lack of interaction, I will always remember the feeling of acceptance in those women’s carriages as a glimpse into the strength and kindness behind the intricate web of social courtesies that dominate Arab culture. The flashes of brightly coloured scarves and the desert air rushing past the window, the blearing sharabi music from someone’s phone is like a moment frozen in time, the window into a different flavor of womanhood.