Driven by economic necessity or pushed into prostitution after traumatic abuse, sex workers in Egypt lay bare grim realities in a conservative country with little empathy for their plight.
CAIRO — Samia is a civil servant by morning, a sex worker by night. "I don't feel guilty," she says. "What I do is devoid of emotion."
While she wasn't asked whether she feels guilty, Samia's thought addresses an imaginary question from a less than empathetic Egyptian society.
At 39, Samia is married to a government employee and has five kids, the eldest of whom is a university student. Her familiy maintains a family order on a strict budget. They manage to cover all the family's expenses, although they can't afford private lessons for their children, an unavoidable expense even if public education is free.
And this is where it all started.
"My colleague and I started to have sex for money," Samia recalls. "I have a work phone that I switch on during certain times to close deals with clients. I work four times a month, and every Thursday night I get between 200 and 400 Egyptian pounds $28-$56."
Samia works just to cover the private lesson fees, and when she reaches her target budget, she declines offers for the rest of the month, or tries to postpone them until the next month.
"I leave my day job every Thursday, go home to change and take a bag with other clothes for the night job, then I come back home by dawn," she says. "My husband knows but has never spoken to me about it. Often I come back to find out he's not home himself."
During the interview, Samia alternately smokes, sips her tea and repositions her headscarf. "I'm not even sure if I am an adulteress," she says. "I don't recall a moment when I was sleeping with a client and ever felt anything. Sometimes when I am in the middle of intercourse, I think about matters of my home and kids. I didn't even feel anything when I had sex with my own husband,” she adds, which she notes hasn't happened for five years.
Samia's greatest fear stems from an incident in which her friend received a call from a client. Upon meeting him, she was ambushed by the police and spent three years in jail. For Samia, the job is ultimately a source of income and, by extension, stability.
While there is arguably an element of choice for her, albeit under the coercing force of economic hardship, other sex workers find themselves dragged into the trade.
When it's not a choice
At 24 years old, Sally has been a sex worker since she was 16. Her story began when she was eight and her mother left without saying where she was going. Instead, she lived with her five siblings, her father and her stepmother, who was only 10 years older than her.
"My elder brother used to sexually harass me," she remembers with striking calmness. "Then he began to touch my body and strip me naked. We developed a full sexual relationship bit by bit. Back then, I didn't understand that what he was doing was abnormal. He was doing the same with my youngest sister," she says.
“My father saw us many times, and changed his attitude toward me and my sister. Instead of calling us by our names, he used cuss words, and sometimes he touched our private parts while walking past us."
The sexual relationship between Sally, her sister and their brother extended to his friends. "They used to come to our house while my father was away," she recalls. "They would take drugs and then take me into a microbus on agricultural roads and have sex with me. In the beginning, I didn't know they were paying my brother, but later I saw them. When his friend once asked me to have sex with four of them at once and I refused, he told me they had a deal with my brother and that they'd already paid him in advance."
Sally says she never felt coerced into what she was doing, but she recollects with difficulty what happened four years ago.
"I just couldn't take it anymore, and I resolved to run away from home," she explains. "I told my sister and I left home at dawn. I had nowhere to go, so I stayed on the streets for a long time. At night, a guy stopped his car and offered for me to go home with him, so I went and spent the whole night with him."
The man's offer was appealing. After she got into the car, he offered her 200 Egyptian pounds ($28) to have sex with him at his house. "I went with him and found two more friends. I didn't mind, however. I haggled for 300 instead." The men agreed and all had sex with her. According to their agreement, the guy drove her back to where he'd met her, but he took another route, stripped her of most of her clothes and dumped her on the road.
Sally tried to find another ride to the city, but no one agreed except a truck driver. She got in and had sex with him in exchange for a lift home.
At home, worse was waiting for her. She was met with a beating party instigated by her father and brother that lasted for days before she got back to work again.
She became popular within the neighborhood and started receiving offers from clients over the phone. At some point, she started to use drugs to help her endure "the pain of her job," as she puts it.
For other sex workers, the choice is more deliberate and less connected to a particular socio-economic urgency. But even then, it's influenced by the prevalence of harassment and abuse in society.
A slippery slope
"My story began when I moved to Cairo to go to college," says 19-year-old Mai. "Through a friend of mine, I got to know a Kuwaiti guy. We used to go out with him and his friends. He spent money lavishly, so I lived a lifestyle that I wasn't used to."
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Cairo by night — Photo: Neil Cummings
Gradually, she says, he started to sexually harass her. "When I told my friend about it, she advised me to go with the flow so we could let them spend good money on us. The harassment went further when he'd buy me clothes or when we'd go out together. He proposed we get married informally for what I should consider as pocket money."
Mai accepted the offer, especially after they agreed she'd keep her virginity. They were married for six months, after which her partner finished his studies in Egypt and went back to Kuwait. After a few weeks, Mai received a message from him saying that his cousin was planning a trip to Egypt. He asked her to take care of him if he needed anything and told her that he'd send her a present. The cousin arrived and gave her the $200 gift. He then asked her to join him on a trip to the beach outside Cairo. She went along for a few days and eventually had sex with him for money.
"I gradually began to take in the whole thing," she says. "I started to meet more of their acquaintances, with two main thoughts in mind: to get as much money as possible, and to keep my virginity."
Societal attitudes towards sex workers can be demonstrated by the ways some clients treat them.
Emad is an accountant and a regular client for sex workers. He says that it's his way of dealing with sexual deprivation. "I'm 29 years old and I haven't had a normal relationship with a girl," he says. "My salary doesn't cover half the month, and I have no prospects for marriage in the near future."
Sometimes Emad feels sorry for the girls he picks up and wonders whether they might not want to do this work. But, he quickly adds, "They get paid for the time they spend with the client. What's wrong with that?"
He says he sometimes feels an overpowering desire to hit prostitutes. "I feel as though she forced me into committing sin," he explains.
The government never blames the client
The government does very little to protect sex workers, although the industry was legally recognized and taxed before the 1950s. Prostitution is currently illegal, and when sex workers are prosecuted, their clients are considered witnesses to "moral depravity."
The state's threat aside, there are also personal costs to this line of work.
Psychiatrist Mohamed Mostafa says dissociation and denial are common psychological modes to suppress memories of abuse and the act of living multiple hidden lives.
"This causes psychological struggle that may lead to depression and anxiety," Mostafa says, adding that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is also a possible outcome.
Lack of awareness also increases the risk of sexually transmitted diseases among sex workers. While HIV/AIDS is commonly associated with such work, Ahmad Khamis, director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, says drug users are the most at risk of contracting the virus. But sex workers often fall prey to addiction, he adds.
He says many organizations seek to offer medical support away from the stigma and discrimination that patients often experience. Some of them try to identify alternative employment, but the approach presupposes that the work is the result of economic pressure rather than a choice.
"Ninety percent of the sex workers I've been working with on awareness and training show an interest in the idea of changing careers should the opportunity arise," says one social worker who asked not to be named. "They are victims of social conditions and don't choose their work."
But for others concerned with the rights of sex workers, this kind of approach leaves those who do this work by choice unprotected amid a mix of discriminating legislation, neglectful government and an antagonistic society.