I moved to Cairo from Colorado in 2003 to work as a teacher and journalist. I had recently converted to Islam and wanted to spend time close to the source of the language and culture that had given rise to my religion. The transition between life in red-state America and life in the Arab capital was at times overwhelming because of the traditional segregation of men and women in many public and private settings. Especially difficult to navigate at first was the Cairene metro, where choosing to ride in the wrong car could result in serious awkwardness.
Commuting women learn, however, to look on the first car -- jokingly referred to as the hareem, or women's quarters -- as a safe haven from the persistent scrutiny of men, who still dominate public life in Egypt. The first car, off limits to males above the age of 12 or so, is self-policing; should a man wander on, a quiet word is usually enough to send him out the door again. Few men risk so blatant a violation of a woman's first right in Egyptian society: privacy.
In my case, all it took was a single ride in a mixed car, where unescorted women are frequently targets of harassment and religious censure, to make me grateful for the decidedly un-Western amenity of the women's compartment.
One night a few months ago, I took the metro downtown to meet a friend. I rode in the women's car, as usual. The evening was balmy, and two little boys -- sons of a young mother sitting next to me -- were opening and closing the shutters over the car windows, to their great delight. Their mother called to them, but they were too engrossed in their project to pay attention. At the next stop, a woman in a niqab -- the face veil -- came and sat across from us. Noticing the commotion, she reached into her purse for a handful of hard candies and offered them to the boys in return for their good behavior.
"Take the candies from Auntie and say thank you," their mother said.
The boys turned away shyly.
"Take the candies and say, 'Thank you, Aunt,' or don't take them and say, 'No thank you, Aunt,' and then come sit here next to me and Auntie,'' their mother repeated. I was the second ''Auntie''; in the women's car, children become the communal responsibility of all present. Even so, I was a little surprised to be referred to in such a familiar way. Being a khawagga, or white Westerner, I was often kept at arm's length by other women in public. But I held out my hand to the little boy who was inching across the aisle toward us.
When the boys were settled and the train clattered along toward Tahrir Square, I noticed that my head scarf had begun to slip. I reached up to unpin it. As the layers of cotton gauze fell away, I felt air on my neck. The mother of the boys, noticing, perhaps, my comparatively light-colored hair, asked me where I was from. The United States, I told her.
"And you are a Muslim?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered.
She praised God, and I dutifully repeated her words, smiling; I understood that a convert in a head scarf was unusual.
As I rewrapped my scarf, however, I heard a chorus of hisses. I looked up in alarm. A boy of 16 or 17 was making his way through the car, selling boxes of tissues. I blushed, feeling certain that the other women were reprimanding me for taking off my scarf in the presence of a man. After two years in Egypt, I had developed a sense of humor about my inevitable social gaffes, but they were still embarrassing. Looking around, however, I realized that the scolding wasn't for me after all. The tissue seller was the target of the women's censure.
''What are you thinking? Don't you have shame?''
''You're too old to be in the women's car, Son.''
''Look away, for God's sake.''
The tissue seller went red, muttered something in response and turned into the doorway, trying to appear casual. I hastily repinned my scarf. The boy was probably just trying to do better business: he would get more sympathy in the women's compartment than in the mixed cars. Nevertheless, he retreated down the train at the next stop.
At that moment, I was grateful to be part of the floating world of the women's car. In that small corner of a culture so different from my own, culture itself ceased to matter. For a few station stops I carried no baggage -- no problematic nationality, no suspect political agenda. I was simply a woman among other women and worth defending because we shared that much. Regardless of the many factors that might separate us on the street, in the women's car my fellow passengers felt I had the same right to privacy as they did. I left the metro feeling secure in much more than the arrangement of my head scarf.
2011-01-13 11:32 编辑：kuaileyingyu
It was 8:00 AM. I took the same route to work each day, seeing the same places and familiar faces. I walked by the bus terminal and saw the busload of business people coming from t