Ever since I was a child, I have always been drawn to everything that was subliminally marked as ‘off-limits,’ especially if it was the ‘boys-only’ kind of off-limits. Up until today, I am usually fiercely driven by challenge to prove society wrong whenever they deem certain activities ‘unfit for girls.’
Many girls and ladies of different ages have often voiced their discomfort of leading a life of independence and success among the Egyptian society due to the many shackles it unrightfully enforces on them. But from where I stand, those shackles have largely been the reason behind where I stand today; an independent, self-driven and mostly proud Egyptian young woman.
For 24 years, all I have known about life has been shaped by Egyptian society for I have never lived elsewhere. Although I greatly consider myself lucky to have grown up to amazing parents who have always been supportive and nourishing, I also believe that whatever respect or little success that I have reached is of my making as well. The tides I swam against may not be as soul-crushing as others’, but I have had my share of tiresome swimming.
During my early years, I grew up with many boys, between my brother, his friends and my cousins. Tough was rarely an attitude that was alien to my lifestyle. Although it was usually a turn off for my girlfriends who were all sweet and nice, it was always my character’s undertone which pushed me to prove that boys weren’t any better than I was.
My first recollection of defying the ‘boys-only’ zone was when I was a 10-year-old fifth grader. For some reason, there was a norm that the morning flag salutation at school was a task solely reserved for boys. Until one day, I convinced my teachers I was up for it.
I led two other students, and with all the confidence I could muster, I shouted “Long live the Arab Republic of Egypt” three times in a row, with the entire school resonating my salutation.
It wasn’t long before another girl’s attempted trial at flag salutation ended up in laughter, naturally leading to going back to the only-boys-can-salute-the-flag norm, but I remember how I joined my class’s line that day filled with pride having proved that a girl can do it.
However, it wasn’t until I was 17 that I really got my first taste of Cairo, and later, bits and pieces of Egypt.
I can’t really describe my parents as anything close to overprotective, but until I graduated school, my life has been largely centered on the same neighborhood, the same school, and mostly people whose lifestyles are alike to a great extent.
And it literally was an overnight change when I had to hop on my first public bus in order to cross Cairo on a daily basis and get to university. It was only then that I burst a bubble I never knew existed, and I saw a whole new level of Cairo, beautiful and ugly.
The first time I was harassed, I couldn’t tell anyone about it for years, and the incident haunted me for many consecutive days, bearing its weight on my own. I’ve been catcalled, witnessed my private space and myself harassed, but one incident after the other, I learned how not to bottle anything up. I learned how to protect myself, or fight back if needed.
But on the other hand, I was no longer distant from the society I am allegedly part of. After hours of observing people on the street, and finding myself stuck with them on underground trains, I started seeing them for who they are; humans who mostly carry the weight of the world on their shoulders just to make it till the end of the day.
As time passed by, I started getting the rhythm of the street, and I soon learned how to dance to it. In the meantime, I was making my way through journalism school. The duality was perfect, because my studies and my early steps in journalism pushed me to step beyond the spectator’s role, and pick strangers’ brains whenever I could.
Through my different internships, I got the chance to travel through Egypt and see for myself a different spectrum of human and natural beauty. I was out there on my own constructing my personal views on my country. As obvious as it may sound, I was taken aback by all that there is to Egypt beyond the hideous energy and visage of Cairo.
In 2011, it was fifth grade all over again for me when I walked into the male dominated photojournalism room of AMAY to do a four-month-long internship. I knew that if I wanted grow and prove myself worthy, I had to take on every bit of the job with a solid backbone.
I raced other photojournalists for good spots to take pictures, climbed fences and trees for a good shot, and made it through angry mobs who protested injustice at Tahrir square. I have been hosed down head to toe and I learned how to dodge angry military police.
I may not particularly be a clever photojournalist, but I know what it’s like to push your own limits and conquer a new territory within.
Today, I cycle across Cairo, I travel alone through Egypt and abroad, and I have come to the solid conclusion that no societal code can dictate what I can or cannot do. If I truly want something, I will pursue it, earn it, and leave no room for people but to accept it as a reality.
I understand that many girls and young women probably face living conditions a lot tougher than mine, but for what it’s worth, it’s worth the try.