Marginalized throughout history despite their instrumental roles in the world today, women's journey has been long and hard and this year on International Women's Day we celebrate the women who have inspired us with their strength, their determination, and their courage against fierce adversity. It's no secret that women's lives in Egypt and the MENA region can be more difficult than the lives of women elsewhere, especially if they have chosen paths for themselves that society doesn't always agree with. Whether it is social norms, gender roles, or a conservative family, women in the Arab world struggle to be heard.
A woman chooses to become an athlete and she is instantly bombarded with a million discouraging questions and judgments. "Sports are for boys." "I wish you wore more dresses." "What will people say?" are just some of the sentiments that impede female athletes in Egypt.
Below is our list of 6 Egyptian female athletes whose journeys have inspired us because of their success despite going up against odds that would discourage even the toughest among us:
Nour El Sherbini, Squash Player
“I think I need to be under pressure all the time. However, sometimes, you have to take a break from everything, but then you think to yourself, ‘I need to go back’,” says Nour El-Sherbini, squash prodigy and living proof that being a female and an incredible athlete are not mutually exclusive.
Sherbini, the Great Bambina has been playing squash since the age of six; in 2007 she won the first of many British Junior Open Squash Championships, breaking the record for youngest player ever to win the World Junior Squash Championship, of either genders, and becoming the youngest winner of the International Women's Squash Association tournament. She has broken a number of squash records, becoming the youngest person to win the JP Morgan Tournament of Champions, constantly showing her determination to never let obstacles deter her from the goals she sets. “Everybody worries about the future, but I’m just not one of those people who can plan their entire lives ahead. I approach life as something that cannot go wrong because if it does you can always fix it,” says Sherbini, who was ranked number one in the world in 2016. Sherbini’s success is living, breathing proof that being a woman is not an impediment in the athletic field, and that at any age, they can compete and come out triumphant.
I had a few problems with people not liking the fact that I wear skirts when I play, which is completely unrelated to the sport.
"They don't take us [women] seriously - they try and bring us down and that's the way the society is structured. I was fortunate to have supportive parents who helped shield me from a lot of it. But in sports in general, like when I am at training, there are way more boys than there are girls and society's opinions deter a lot of women from pursuing a career in sports. I had a few problems with people not liking the fact that I wear skirts when I play, which is completely unrelated to the sport, yet it seemed to upset a lot of people who made their opinions clear. The trick is to surround yourself with positive people and to purge negativity from your life. Despite everything, I have achieved so much and that's all because, I have a goal, I have a dream and I won't let anyone stand in my way!"
Manal Rostom, Mountaineer
Gearing up to become the first hijabi woman to climb Mount Everest, Manal Rostom’s career as a mountaineer has had her breaking barriers left and right. Like most women who embark on careers that society frowns upon, Rostom found herself not just going up against the physical challenges of mountaineering, but going against social norms set by society and her family as well. Rostom grew up in a conservative family where her choice to become a mountaineer was not welcomed, especially by her father, who took a while to get on board with her dreams.
In the beginning it was hard for my father to accept that his only daughter would follow a path that he saw as improper. After a while he started to like the idea of his daughter being the first hijabi woman to climb Everest.
“It took a lot of sit-downs with my father to get him to understand that my dreams are valid. From 2007 to 2012, it took 5 years to get him to understand. In the beginning it was hard for him to accept that his only daughter would follow a path that he saw as improper. It was a matter of having a mature adult conversation with him to make him understand that I was not going to give up on my dreams," Rostom tells us, "After a while he started to like the idea of his daughter being the first hijabi woman to climb Everest. I want to tell girls and women everywhere not to give up on what they want, to fight and make the world understand that their paths are valid and important and to not let themselves be brought down by society. I am 37 now, and I was 32 when I put my foot down. I wasn’t hurting anybody, I was a mature woman whose choices needed to be respected. I want women everywhere to know that they don’t have to be 37 to attempt Everest; they don’t have to be 32 to peak their first mountain.”
Rostom explains that it’s especially difficult for Egyptian girls, who are bombarded with society’s lack of support. “They were always asking me, ‘When are we going to congratulate you on your marriage?’ ‘Why are you acting or dressing like a boy?’ If it was me, I would support my daughter and help her reach her dreams.
Fatma Omar, Weightlifter
With super impressive upper-body strength and a number of gold medals from a number of Paralympics under her belt, weightlifter Fatma Omar started her career in 1998 when she competed at the IPC Powerlifting World Championship. Omar has overcome disability and adversity to break through that glass ceiling, proving that women should not be messed with. A mother of two, Omar was diagnosed with polio when she was an infant and last year, at the age of 43 she competed in Rio last year and snatched a silver medal in the heavyweight. It’s also worth mentioning that she has four other golds to her name, as well as four gold IPC medals and several World Championship titles. Society is hard and unfair on women, and life is hard and unfair to the disabled; Omar has had to face both kinds of struggle, coming out in the end with a number of coveted accolades and a killer left-hook we bet!
Ingie El Mor, Kitesurfer
More of an extreme athlete than a football player or a triathlete, Ingie El Mor has garnered huge success as one of Egypt’s top kitesurfers. Her skills are astounding, considering she has only been kitesurfing for four years. She started at the age of 25 by taking a short course in Ras Sedr at the Soulkitesurfing Center. “I was a bit nervous to begin with, there were no other girls doing it and I am only 155cm tall. I was sure it was going to be difficult,” El Mor says.
Even though it took her longer to get the hang of it in the beginning, El Mor went on to win the King of the Lagoon competition with the highest jump, earning her the title of 'Queen of the Air'. Then in 2015, competed in the King of the Lagoon again and won 1st in the race and 3rd in the freestyle tricks. After that, she caught the attention of Coca-Cola, who asked her to be in their Ramadan 2015 prejudice campaign. Following the campaign, she was contacted by a large number of girls who were interested in trying out kitesurfing.
“After the commercial a lot of girls contacted me to give them details about kiting like where and how to start, and that made me very happy that finally a lot of girls are actually thinking to kite.”
Amany Khalil, Triathlete
Of all the female athletes in Egypt, Amany Khalil is true role model for all generations, with a number of impressive titles under her belt, she is an inspiration to women everywhere. You may know her as the 50-year-old mother who completed the 2016 Ironman Triathlon in Barcelona. What you may not know is her journey leading up to her success. She attempted the triathlon first in 2015, finishing 1-minute shy of the allotted time.
“Training with a team was easy, especially the cycling, because when you’re in a group cycling down Cairo’s streets, you are shielded. Training alone, however, was very difficult initially. I would get severely harassed if I was cycling alone even in the morning. I had to start training at 5:30 AM because there was nobody around to stare or ask me, ‘Are you a girl or a boy?’”
Training alone in Cairo was very difficult initially. I would get severely harassed if I was cycling alone even in the morning. I had to start training at 5:30 AM because there was nobody around to stare.
The 2015 triathlon in Barcelona proved to be challenging for Khalil because part of it was biking up and down a mountain, which she hadn’t trained for in Egypt. She returned to Egypt, and went training in Sinai so she could gain experience in biking through a mountainous terrain. In Sinai after concluding her training, she finished first in the Sa3aada race, that had her biking through the bumpy Sinai terrain. She finished in first place, and being that she was the only woman in the race, her victory went beyond that one event, it was a victory for women athletes and their potential.
“At first they didn’t take me seriously but I was determined and when they saw that, they started to respect me as a competitor.” Khalil then went on to finish the triathlon the following year, proving that through determination and hard work, a 50-year-old mother could succeed when everyone thought she wouldn’t.
Ranim El Welily, Squash player
Since we mentioned Nour El Sherbini, we have to mention Raneem El-Welily, considering the two Egyptian power players keep going head to head for the number 1 international squash player title. El Welily became the first Egyptian to be crowned world number 1 woman player worldwide. Last month, the two titans clashed in Chicago during the Windy City Open. Welily, who had fallen to third best player in the world, defeated Sherbini, world’s number 1, to make her third consecutive Windy City Victory, so she’s back on top for a year, keeping it fierce.
El Welily deserves a shout out this International Women’s Day because her career is an inspiration to Egyptian female athletes who may be held back by Egyptian society and the constrictions it places on women and their freedoms. Being an athlete is not a role that society assigns to women, and breaking away from that role like El Welily does is the first step towards changing the way Egyptian society perceives women.
"Egypt is a place where people never fail to tell you exactly what they think of your life and the way you're living it. It comes down to you in the end though, I won't say do it on your own, because I believe that having people in your life is of the utmost importance and if you have won everything in the world and you have no one to share it with, it is useless. I am very selective about who I allow access to my life, people can have a strong influence but ultimately it's you who allows them that influence. In order to achieve your goals you have to trust in your inner-voice and know who to listen to. I have a close circle of people who I trust and I listen to and even if I don't like their advice, I know it's right for me. No one is going to achieve your goals for you, especially when you're a woman in Egypt."