These Women-run Tours of Cairo Prove 'It's Not Just About Checking Off Stops'
In Historic Cairo, you don't just see the sights — you feel them. Between the whoosh of cyclists and the wafting scent of piping-hot flatbread, my senses couldn't keep up.
"Ready for a snack?" asked my guide, Asmaa Khattab. I obviously wasn't the first of her clients to be both dazzled and disoriented by this corner of the city. The cobblestoned maze of mosques and monuments dates back to the 10th century — the largest collection of medieval architecture in the Islamic world. But such relics were only half of the story.
Our walking tour was also an introduction to a cultural shift that's reshaping the visitor experience in Egypt. Expanding beyond the classic Pyramids-and-Sphinx tourism model, young guides are bringing travelers to lesser-visited locales like this UNESCO-protected neighborhood, pairing the country's millennia of history with a crash course in contemporary culture. And Egyptian women are helping lead this movement toward experiential tourism — paving a long-overdue path for future female entrepreneurs.
In Egypt, women have historically lacked a seat at the business table. The country ranked near the bottom in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Gender Gap report from 2015, and 2019 figures indicate that women make up less than a quarter of the labor force. Slowly, though, the landscape is changing — and tourism, which makes up a significant portion of Egypt's economy, is among the most promising industries.
Last year, the government announced the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator, a WEF collaboration aimed at increasing women's participation in the workforce and helping more of them reach leadership positions. Egypt also became the first country to launch the United Nations Development Program's Gender Equality Seal for tourism: a pledge to bring more women into the sector.
Khattab (pictured above) dreamed up her company, Walk Like an Egyptian, to showcase a side of her country not found on a tour bus. "It's not just about checking off stops one, two, and three," she told me, recalling her early days at a travel agency where cookie-cutter trips were the standard. She quit in 2010, tired of hollow, highlights-only travel, then launched her Historic Cairo walking tours in 2015.
"What makes Egypt special is not only the history and the sights but also the warmth and hospitality," Khattab explained. We shared a bowl of foul, a dish of fava beans, tomatoes, and garlic, just outside the tentmakers' market, where artisans sell khayamiya, the colorful Fatimid-era appliquéd textiles. As Khattab put it, "I'm trying to have tours with soul."
She's far from the only one. In 2016, Laila Hassaballa and Mariam Nezar introduced Bellies En-Route, the city's first business specializing in food tours. The duo hosts multi-meal jaunts between hip and hidden spots in Downtown Cairo. These include Hassaballa's favorite woman-owned restaurant, Fasahet Somaya, whose founder, Somaya El-Adiouty, rose to culinary fame after helping feed protesters during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
"I was shocked no one was doing food tours in Cairo," Hassaballa told me as we ambled between kahwa (coffee shops) and hole-in-the-wall diners. The idea struck her during a pizza-and-gelato cooking class with Italian chefs in Florence in 2014. For her, "it felt like we were peeling back another layer of the culture." Business quickly took off, and last year, she and Nezar released a cookbook, Table to Table.
Female entrepreneurship is shaping Egypt's culture well beyond travel. Entreprenelle, a grassroots business incubator and education initiative, has helped thousands of Egyptian women bring their ideas to life. Program graduate Shorouk Abdelaal showcases the work of emerging Egyptian fashion designers at Châteaux Chic, in New Cairo. Another alumna, designer Omnia Raouf Noly, sells her handmade purses through Noly Bags. And artisan Shorouk Mohammed founded Al-Ghoria, an online store for her colorful handcrafted home goods.
These female founders aren't waiting for an even playing field. Khattab, for one, is already thinking about her next big plan: making her Historic Cairo tours wheelchair-accessible. With tight cobblestoned alleyways and heavy foot traffic, this will be no small feat. But it's part of her goal to treat every guest with the Egyptian hospitality she loves. "We should welcome people in our country as we welcome them in our home."
A version of this story first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Women About Town.
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