CAIRO — Two months ago I set out to reserve a hotel room in the Egyptian city of Minya for a work trip. A quick and easy task, I thought. I called more than 10 hotels but they all told me they were fully booked. I was surprised because Minya is not exactly Egypt's prime tourist destination. Moreover, there was an ongoing heat wave.
From hostels to luxury five-star hotels, I got the same answer, even when I inquired about a later date. I got a clue that these rejections were not due to a sudden boom in local tourism when one of the receptionists asked first about the identity of the person staying in the room before giving me the standard refusal.
I had faced the same problem a few weeks earlier when I was trying to book a hotel for another work trip to the Egyptian city of Mansoura. After several failed attempts, I managed to get a room. But I promptly gave it up when a colleague from Mansoura recounted a story from two years ago. Apparently, a manager at the hotel had then insisted on locking up a female guest who was alone in her room from 9 p.m. onwards. He kept the key.
No chaperone, no service
Conservative customs mean that women wanting to travel alone face resistance from families who consider it a breach of tradition and a dangerous endeavor. Now, women have to convince not only their families but also hotel managers of their right to travel without chaperones.
Mada Masr spoke to women who were turned away from hotels across the country — from capital Cairo to the city of Alexandria and upper Egypt.
Most of the cases that Mada Masr encountered occurred in mid-range hotels, suggesting that cheaper hotels are less selective while five-star hotels are obliged to abide by higher standards of hospitality. The international affiliations of the top-end hotels may prevent them from refusing service due to social tradition, although some still do.
Mona al-Bazz, 32, who was traveling with her eight-year-old daughter, struggled to get a room on a recent trip to Alexandria. Several hotels, including Cleopatra and Al-Haram, told Bazz that the management had a policy against accommodating women traveling without a male companion. She tried to explain that it's impossible for her to bring a male family member with her because she's divorced, her father is deceased and she has no brothers.
Bazz was forced to try every hotel she could, with her daughter fighting off sleep, until about 10 p.m. when a hotel finally agreed to provide her a room. "I was really offended. There's no reason to humiliate someone this way," says Bazz.
Through many interviews, Mada Masr found that this problem was faced by women traveling alone, in female groups, in groups of both men and women, and even by women accompanied by male relatives who were not in the woman's immediate family.
Dina Amr, a 29-year-old teacher, says she found it difficult to find a hotel when traveling with her mother and sister in Cairo and Port Said. The family usually stays at military-owned hotels where they receive discounts as Amr's father served in the military. The husband of Amr's aunt — her closest male relative since her father died — has to book the reservation and be present when they check in.
"Now I save myself the feelings of inferiority and just stay at a hostel," Amr says.
Hager al-Sayed, 32, was told by one hotel in Alexandria that she wasn't allowed to stay alone because she's less than 45 years old.
"I'm a university teaching assistant. I'm 32, I'm not a teenager," Sayed says. "The situation made me feel very humiliated."
One hotel owner explained why he could not offer her a room: "I'm a respectable man and have a reputation to preserve."
Tahra, a manager at Ikhnatoun Hotel in Minya, says that the main concern is sexual affairs between hotel guests. The hotel is legally liable for charges such as prostitution if the police catch an unmarried couple in a room, she says.
"Girls tell their parents they're traveling for work and then they set everything up and their boyfriends stay in another room and they do anything they want, and that can't happen," says Tahra.
For this reason, the hotel asks women to present a letter from a family member or place of work or study to be her "sponsor."
Several women recount being asked for such a letter as hotels attempt to make clear they are not liable for any illicit activity. Tahra says that these rules do not apply to foreign female guests. "For them, out-of-marriage relationships are normal," she says. "They can even stay in the same room. They don't care and we don't care either."
When Ahmed Ragab wanted to book a room for his female colleagues for a conference they were organizing in Minya in 2012, he made up an imaginary company to take responsibility for the women.
One woman, Mayar Abaza, wrote about her problems getting a room in a post that circulated on Facebook in July. She complained that Rixos hotel in Alamein, a five-star franchise of an international chain, denied her and her sister a room despite their reservation. The hotel apparently had a policy of accommodating only married couples and families, denying service to both male and female guests who wish to stay alone.
A receptionist at the hotel, speaking to Mada Masr on the condition of anonymity, explains the reasoning: "There's no difference between girls and boys now. Imagine what would happen if a girl is staying on her own and the devil plays with her head?"
"Imagine a guy staying on his own, sees a family with a pretty girl and whistles at her, or a girl staying on her own, sees a family with a cute boy and does the same," the receptionist says. "We decided to avoid these situations completely and just accommodate families and married couples."
Nagy Eryan, a member of Egypt's tourism chambers union, says there's no legal basis for this practice by hotels. He says that women denied service because of their gender have the right to file a report at the nearest police station.
Eryan says he's surprised this is happening in Egypt, a country in the midst of a tourism crisis. Hotels are, after all, increasingly dependent on local customers for survival.