Sex & Relationships

In Egypt, "Prostitute" Is a Slippery Term

In Egypt the label "prostitute" is often applied to women who defy traditional social and sexual codes of conduct.
It was 2000 and I was at a dinner party in Cairo. I was sitting with *Malak, a belly dancer, and we were eyeing up a young woman who had large oval eyes thickly lined with black kohl and a wide mouth painted salmon. It was the first time Malak and I had seen her at Haroun's house. After she'd been introduced around to the group of friends -- dancers, actresses, businessmen, and me, an American anthropologist -- that met every Thursday night for drinks and dinner, Malak looked her up and down skeptically, and then she said to me in a low voice, "She's a prostitute. Look, obviously that vulgar man thinks so too, because he wouldn't dare put his hands all over her like that unless he was sure she was a prostitute."

I shrugged. "You know, Malak, my dear, under the broad definition of 'prostitute' used in Egypt, all of the women here are prostitutes, including you and me." Malak smiled wryly.

It took me a long time to understand what Egyptians meant when they said "prostitute," and during the first year of my anthropological fieldwork, I was plenty confused. Every time the word "prostitute" came up in conversation, I listened carefully to try to understand the context and how it was being used. It seemed to have to do with behavior, dress, social class, and sexual experience. But it wasn't until I could finally shed my own cultural preconceptions about prostitution fundamentally being tied up with money and sex that I finally understood what my Egyptian friends meant.

When 'Sex' Tourism Doesn't Necessarily Involve Sex

I didn't come to Egypt intending to study prostitution. I was studying tourism and the way people interact across cultures. To that end, I had decided to compare Western tourism and Gulf Arab tourism in Egypt (the countries considered part of the Arab Gulf include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).

Gulf Arab tourists mostly come to Cairo in the summer months to escape the heat in their own countries, and I documented lots of family vacations and dating between Gulf men and women. I had good access to Gulf tourists: I had previously lived in Saudi Arabia, and I met up with my Saudi friends when they came to Egypt on vacation. We would go to restaurants and movies and nightclubs. Some of my Saudi friends dated each other, while others were already married. One couple got engaged while they were on vacation in Cairo. Their vacation was one long party, and in many ways they transgressed Saudi cultural norms about male-female socializing, but it was all pretty chaste.

But that's not what my Egyptian friends thought. Instead of youthful dating, they imagined that Saudis came to Egypt to drink, visit prostitutes, and do everything else that was forbidden back in Saudi Arabia. It was in the context of talking with Egyptian friends about my research on Gulf tourism that the issue of prostitution first came up. If I said that I was going to such-and-such a nightclub to observe, and that nightclub was known to be a hangout for Gulf Arabs in the summer, my friends would all try to dissuade me: "Don't go there, men will harass you. They'll think you're a prostitute." Knowing, as I did, that my Saudi friends came to Egypt for fairly wholesome vacation fun, I thought this was an interesting allegation. I wondered: Why were these Egyptians (who never had any personal contact with Saudi tourists) convinced that Saudis were coming to Egypt to find prostitutes?

So I started paying close attention to Egyptian assertions about the link between Gulf tourism and prostitution as part of my research.

'Prostitution' and Social Class

But soon I noticed people talking about "prostitution" in contexts that had nothing to do with tourism. One night I was at a restaurant with a group of upper-middle class Egyptian friends. One of them, Ayman, was twirling his fork on the table when suddenly he said to me, "Look, Lisa, a case study." With the fork he pointed in the direction of two women with short hair who were sitting at a table in the corner.

"You really think they're prostitutes?" Case study had become our code word for a prostitute because of my academic interest in the subject.

Lina looked over and agreed with Ayman. "Definitely case studies."

"I just don't see it," I said with some frustration. "What is it about them that makes you identify them as prostitutes?"

The others couldn't point out anything specific. But they were positive that these women were indeed "prostitutes."

"Look, there must be something that makes you say 'that's a prostitute.' There must be something that you all see with your cultural knowledge that I don't see. Try to analyze it. Try to explain it to me so I can see through your eyes."

Ayman just shrugged, but Lina made an attempt. "It's a lot of things -- they way they look, the way they dress, their makeup, their attitude, the expressions on their face, their body language ... "

Lina's boyfriend, Zeid, added, "And it's a combination of these things and not one alone -- for example, you couldn't say that someone is a prostitute just from the way she's dressed because someone else could expose just as much skin and people would think she looks like a decent, respectable girl."

I was skeptical. "So we're making up a story about them for ourselves, but we don't know for sure. Probably lots of people look at us and say the same things about me too."

"No, you don't look like a prostitute. First of all, you're always with the same people, in a mixed group of men and women. The worst they might think is that you're the girlfriend of one of the guys in the group, but we don't sit close together or touch, so they probably wouldn't even think that. Second of all, your makeup isn't like those women. They're wearing thick black kohl all around their eyes, top and bottom. Third of all, your clothes are more decent -- you cover up more than they do."

"Okay, maybe tonight I'm covered up, but sometimes I show more skin."

"Still, not like the way they're dressed. And you never wear short skirts." Zeid furrowed his brow as he watched the two women walk towards the bathroom. "Okay, look, I found one thing that I can point out about those women. You see that one that's wearing the short sleeveless dress? Look, you can see her bra underneath the arm-holes. And the hem keeps turning up and showing her slip. Put the two things together and you can see that they aren't used to dressing up and looking comfortable in elegant clothes."

Aha! I thought. These women didn't look like the upper class elite, who were the only kind of women who could be from "respectable" families and still stay out that late and dress in such clothing. Most women from the lower and middle classes would not be allowed by their families to stay out so late, dress skimpily, and go to a restaurant with a bar like the one we were at; if they were doing so, it must mean that their families weren't enforcing their daughters' respectability through curfews and close monitoring of their behavior.

More than Money

So I had another clue: The label "prostitute" wasn't just associated with Gulf tourism. It had something to do with social class, and the way that class intersected with taste, dress, makeup, and appearance.

But the next time the word came up, I was confused all over again. It was a couple of weeks later, and I was back at the same restaurant with the same group of friends. Ayman leaned over to me and said, "You see that woman with the long wavy black hair sitting at the end of the bar?"

"The one wearing the skirt with the long slit up to her thigh?"

"Right. This woman is well known for being very wealthy and loose. Her father died and she inherited a lot of money and she has her own apartment and she has sexual relationships with men just for pleasure. She's a prostitute."

Ayman had been speaking in Arabic, but as usual, he used the English word "prostitute." This linguistic code-shifting was used whenever Egyptians wanted to talk about a socially risqué subject without sounding vulgar. No man could politely use the Arabic word sharmouta in mixed company.

"How do you know?" I asked him. "And how do you know her, anyway?"

"I know some of the men who dated her. They told me. But apart from that, it's obvious by the fact that she has her own apartment. A respectable woman does not live alone."

"I live alone."

"You're a foreigner."

"So people will think that I'm not respectable?"

"No, of course not, everyone knows that you don't have a choice. You can't live with your family, and anyway, people here know that family ties aren't so strong in the West and people don't live with their families."

"I'm very close to my family."

He laughed. "Lisa, I'm not talking about you. Don't get so defensive."

"Well, maybe that woman just likes to spend her money and she wants to have her own place instead of living with her mother."

"Yes, and why does she like to have her own place instead of living with her mother? Because she wants to live in a way that she can't live if she's with her mother. Which means she wants to bring men home with her. A respectable woman doesn't live alone. She lives either in her parents' house or in her husband's house."

Two weeks earlier I had thought that I'd put my finger on what my Egyptian friends thought a prostitute looked like. If a woman was out alone late at night and didn't look wealthy enough, inferred through a mixture of her clothes and style of makeup, then she must be a prostitute. The link between prostitution and class was, I thought, obvious: a middle- or upper-class woman didn't need money, so she didn't need to sell her body like a poorer woman might. That also, I thought, explained the association made by many Egyptians between Gulf tourism and prostitution: Gulf Arabs were thought to be fabulously wealthy with oil money. By comparison, most Egyptians were poor. Thus, my friends assumed that Egyptian women who associated with Gulf tourists must be prostitutes.

But this latest revelation by Ayman threw my interpretation into doubt. This woman he was labeling a "prostitute" was independently wealthy. She had no need to sell her sexuality. So what was it that made her a prostitute?

'Respectable' Women Get Paid, Too

Eventually I realized that the reason I was struggling to understand the concept of a prostitute had everything to do with my own preconceptions about sex and money. I thought of prostitutes as women who had sex for money. But as I reflected on my friends' relationships and the role that money played in them, I remembered that all of my Egyptian female friends took money from the men they were dating or married to. It didn't matter whether they were rich or poor, or even whether the men could afford it. No matter what, their boyfriends, fiancés, or husbands paid for evenings out, for doctor visits, and often for luxury items such as jewelry and designer sunglasses. When they married, men paid women a large bride price, a sum of money up to $10,000 that was hers to spend as she liked. Married men usually gave their wives stipends, even if the wives had their own jobs.

In short, it was not the injection of money into a sexual relationship that defined it as prostitution. While everyone agreed that "prostitutes" probably did accept money in exchange for sexual acts, the exchange wasn't seen as fundamentally different from that of an unmarried woman who had sexual relationships with boyfriends who supported her financially. Both were seen as existing on a continuum of immoral sexuality, but that didn't necessarily mean the women were "prostitutes."

Nor was "prostitution" even necessarily about sex, since a woman could be labeled a prostitute when there was no proof that she was sexually active at all. For example, sometimes Zeid and Lina would have disputes over whether a particular friend of Lina's was a "prostitute" or not. Zeid, for example, claimed that one of Lina's childhood friends was a prostitute because she drove around alone after midnight. Lina argued, "She's just bored! She's so innocent, you can't believe it -- she's never even been kissed!"

"I don't care. She's still a prostitute if she's driving around alone after midnight!" Zeid said stubbornly.

What is involved in defining a prostitute in Egypt, then, is a complex moral judgment about a woman's social behavior, the number of her sexual partners, the extent to which she submits to familial controls over her social life, and her loyalty to her current romantic partner. Nationality comes into play in the examples above because of the way it overlaps with class and power in the Middle East: Egyptian women who socialize with Gulf Arab tourists might be thought prostitutes, not necessarily because there's a sex-for-cash exchange taking place (remember: wherever there's a romantic relationship, there's money changing hands), but because the financial-power differential between wealthy men and poorer women suggests to Egyptians that these women's sociability and sexuality -- and thus their respectability -- is no longer controlled by their families. (And all of this explains why, at the dinner party in the home of a wealthy Egyptian man, the belly dancer Malak agreed with me that as long as businessmen were mingling with unattached women, any one of us could be labeled a prostitute.)

Sharmouta, the term that my Egyptian friends from all different classes tended to translate as "prostitute" (but which might be better rendered as "whore"), is a highly pejorative term, and sharply contested. Egyptian women tend to resist the term, like Lina, because they understand how easily it can be used to criticize any woman who defies social codes of female respectability in one way or another. It operates at the intersection of female sexuality and independence. As such, prostitution in Egypt is only partly about sex and money.

* All names have been changed to protect the privacy of informants.
Lisa L. Wynn is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She spent over three years living in Egypt doing research for her 2007 book, Pyramids and Nightclubs: A Travel Ethnography of Arab and Western Imaginations of Egypt, from King Tut and a Colony of Atlantis to Rumors of Sex Orgies, Urban Legends about a Marauding Prince, and Blonde Belly Dancers.