Veiled rapper the new face of Egyptian feminism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 10:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 4:28am


Since she first performed on television in October, Mayam Mahmoud's new fans have been posting up to 50 supportive messages a day on Facebook. But there have also been a few unwelcome messages.

"Some say I'm creating a bad name for Islam, or even that I'm an infidel," she says.

A hijab-wearing rapper, Mahmoud has challenged some Egyptians' expectations of how women, and hijab wearers in particular, are meant to behave.

Mahmoud, 18, is not Egypt's first veiled rapper, or even its most experienced. But through her appearances on Arabs Got Talent, which has become a hit across the Middle East, she is one of the few to attract something approaching mainstream attention.

"It's got a lot of people talking about whether it's possible for a veiled girl, or even a girl, to do this," says Mahmoud, who says her veil is a personal choice and has little relevance to her music. "If a girl has a dream to work in a field where many girls don't work, or to do post-graduate study, or to work in a position higher than her husband, all these things often can't be done." Rapping is a case in point, she says. It is by no means a conventional path for Egyptian men, but for women it is twice the battle.

"The girls in this field are thought to have bad morals," Mahmoud says. "It's known that when a girl tries to record a track, she will just be one girl in the studio with a lot of guys. So it's hard to find someone to work with her, to master the track."

Mahmoud, an economics undergraduate from Cairo, says she tries not to listen to Western hip-hop. Her biggest influence is her mother, who introduced her to poetry aged 12 and encouraged her to write her own work.

When her poetry turned into rap, her parents were sceptical because they felt it was not feminine. But eventually they allowed her to record a track in Alexandria while they waited in a cafe around the corner.

Her first public appearances were on television. Interest grew quickly, and she has since played five concerts to enthusiastic university audiences who say they find her empowering.

"The other day a woman came up to me and said she'd been watching me on TV with her friends," Mahmoud recalls. "She said: keep on talking about all the things that we don't have the courage to talk about. You've become the hope."

Mahmoud's fans find her inspiring, not just because she is a woman but because her work centres on sexual harassment, a local taboo. Harassment is an endemic problem in Egypt: 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed, with 91 per cent saying they felt insecure in the street as a result, according to a UN survey.

"I won't be the shamed one," she says in one of her raps. "You flirt, you harass and you see nothing wrong with it. But even if it's just words, these are not flirts, these are stones."