If you're a dark-skinned black woman in Egypt, you're likely to be sexually propositioned by men and slighted by women there. At least, that's what African-American journalist Sunni Khalid observed during his three years in the North African country with his Kenyan Somali wife. Although Khalid is light enough to pass for an Egyptian Arab, his wife, Zeinab, cannot and experienced race-based sexism there as a result.
"Whenever my wife would come to the airport to pick me up, she'd often have to fend off several Arab men, who assumed that, as a black woman, she was somehow immediately 'available' to their desires, whether she was married or not," recalled Khalid in a thoughtful piece called "Egypt's Race Problem."
I've never been to Egypt, but as a black woman who's traveled to countries such as Mexico, Italy and Spain, I've experienced similar treatment. Particularly in Italy and Mexico, I endured men leering at me, catcalling me and insisting that I meet them for dates. On many of these occasions I was with non-black American women who were stunned at the attention I attracted. But this attention had little to do with me personally and much to do with lasting negative perceptions about people of African descent.
"For too many Egyptians, sub-Saharan Africa is a stereotypical exotic land of thick jungles and masses of poor, starving and black-skinned savages," Khalid explains. But I'd argue that this is a global perception of "black Africa" and not just an Egyptian one. Along with this perception is, of course, the idea that black women are sexually promiscuous and insatiable, which is why non-black men around the world don't hesitate to proposition black women. In Egypt, though, Khalid's wife didn't just attract sexual attention, but rude behavior from Egyptian women.
In high-end shops, for example, Egyptian women would cut in front of her in line. Once while Khalid and his wife dined at an upscale restaurant, an Egyptian woman scolded him for bringing "a woman like that into a place like this." She assumed Zeinab was a prostitute. When Khalid tried to explain that the woman in question was his wife, the Egyptian woman wouldn't hear it.
But it's not only dark-skinned women who face bigotry in Egypt. Khalid says that before leaving Egypt, he met with sub-Saharan African students who told him they faced racial harassment just strolling down Cairo streets. Moreover, Khalid writes that male and female refugees from sub-Saharan African nations such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea routinely face security roundups in Cairo. He notes that in December 2005, Egyptian riot police killed as many as 100 Sudanese refugees who were protesting mistreatment, but that the tragedy hardly garnered any outcry.
What's stunning about Khalid's remembrance of his time in Egypt is that many African Americans—most of whom originate, of course, from sub-Saharan Africa—not only romanticize Egypt but have claimed it as their own. Some name their children after Egyptian Queen Nefertiti or Egyptian gods and goddesses such as Osiris and Isis. To boot, whenever a white actress plays the role of Cleopatra, the black community loudly objects. Perhaps it's time for African Americans to learn more about how many people in the country they've romanticized hold them in such low regard.