Peter Schwartzstein is an Athens-based environment journalist, who covers water, food security, and climate-conflict issues across the Middle East and Africa.
"Women who have the possibility to choose take taxis."
CAIRO—Just as Londoners obsess about the weather, so too Cairenes are transfixed by their city’s nightmarish traffic jams, which snarl up the bridges spanning the Nile and obscure the distant Pyramids in a haze of exhaust. Those seeking to apportion blame typically single out the usual suspects: careless drivers cutting across lanes, stop-start bus services, hapless traffic police, and a perplexing road system that requires frequent U-turns.
Seldom mentioned, however, among the congestion-causing culprits is the sexual harassment endemic across Egypt.
Upwards of 97 percent of Egyptian women report having been harassed on the street at least once, according to a 2013 study by UN Women, and it’s all having a direct effect on the number of cars on Cairo’s already overloaded roads.
“Women who have the possibility to choose take taxis,” says Noora Flinkman of Harassmap, which tracks attacks across the country. She, like many others, has grown tired of running the street-side gauntlet of catcalls and unwelcome attention, and consequently never walks to work.
“It’s a big hassle. You’re always having to be on guard,” she says.
In Cairo’s case, this is a tragedy in more ways than one. Seventy-five percent of its roughly 20 million inhabitants live within 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) of the city center, which is why such a large proportion of daily trips here—up to 40 percent—are conducted on foot. As the city’s population has ballooned upwards, these densely packed inner districts with their commuting pedestrians have assumed a key role in the city’s functional chaos.
“The compactness has mitigated and offset that horrible day when the cost of congestion is just insurmountable,” says David Sims, an economist and authority on Cairo’s urban plan.
But with harassment driving more and more women off the sidewalks and into private vehicles, this delicate balancing act is looking increasingly precarious. Already, Egypt loses an estimated 4 percent of its annual GDP to Cairo’s traffic—up from 1.8 percent prior to the revolution in 2011, according to the World Bank—and with the country’s recovery proceeding unevenly after three years of flux, its economy can ill-afford the additional strain.
The few alternative means of navigating the city aren’t much of an improvement on walking. Ninety-two percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment on Cairo’s swamped mass transit networks, and measures taken to protect them on the bustling subterranean Metro have provided limited relief. The two dedicated ladies-only carriages on every train are often so crammed that faintings are common in the stiflingly hot summer months. The admittance of men to all carriages after 9 p.m. has led to a rash of late evening incidents.
To make matters worse, Cairo women are grappling with yet another new challenge: a pain-relieving drug called Tramadol. At roughly 20 Egyptian pounds for a strip of 12 (a little under $3), it’s an effective and affordable buzz for many of the bored young microbus operators who serve the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
The energy boost it brings to drivers working long shifts is no bad thing in a country with an alarmingly high death rate on the roads, but the accompanying elevated sex drive is problematic.
English teacher Amira El-Masry blames the drug, much of which is smuggled across the desert from Libya, for her recent run-in with a driver who made several aggressive passes at her.
“He was definitely on something. I don’t think he would have treated me as he did if he’d been normal,” she says.
Money is tight in her family, but her father was spooked by her experience, and he’s scrimping and saving to buy her a car and keep her away from public transportation once and for all.
“He thinks it’s the only real way for me to get around,” she says.
Nearly 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars a day, and for almost all of them owning a car is a distant pipedream. But as in El-Masry’s case, those with any means will pull out all the stops to steer clear of public transportation and become a car-owning household.
A 2008 Japanese study forecast that the number of private cars in Cairo will grow at a rate of almost six percent a year until 2022. To judge from a recent visit to the used car market in the Eastern district of Nasr City, where a number of fathers were checking out cars on their daughters’ behalf, a disproportionate number of these new drivers will be women.
The effect is obvious across Cairo, where private cars’ share of all vehicles on the road rose from 43 percent in 2005 to 70 percent in 2010, according to Egypt’s statistics body.
Government officials concede that there’s no easy solution to their traffic woes. “Places like Cairo are big beasts. They are known to be unsustainable,” says Khaled Abbas, the head of the Egyptian National Institute for Transport.
The 2011 revolution that overthrew longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak offered the promise of a fresh start, but since then some things have only got worse. Upwards of 48 percent of women say they’ve experienced more harassment after the revolution, according to the UN study, as opposed to just 7 percent who say they’ve had fewer issues.
The authorities insist they’re taking the problem seriously. Egyptian lawmakers have proposed the first law explicitly targeting sexual harassment. But there’s still little recognition of harassment’s contribution to Cairo’s traffic.
In the meantime, the gridlock gets worse and worse, and some experts believe the government will only take serious action when the situation reaches rock bottom.
“The impending doom is actually the solution in the long run. Only when traffic congestion reaches paralytic, doomsday levels and everyone suffers will solutions be possible,” says David Sims.
Top image: Cars stuck in a traffic jam in downtown Cairo in September, 2013. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)