Mayam Mahmoud started making headlines last October, as she took to the Arabs Got Talent stage dressed in a light pink outfit and a matching hijab. Performing in front of an audience for the first time, the 18-year-old from Cairo started rapping vigorously about the challenges women they face in the Arab world.
Although she insists “it was never about going on stage in a scarf,” it was her appearance that inevitably caught worldwide attention in the first place. You don’t come across a teenage girl in a hijab rapping every day in Egypt. Or ever.
Participating on Arabs got talent, Mayam told CNN, “was about going on stage and sharing a message.” Her feminist lyrics condemn sexual harassment of women in Egyptian society and stress the importance of girls’ education. In one of her denouncing raps, she goes: “I won’t be the shamed one. 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.”
Mayam’s mother introduced her to poetry at the age of 12 and encouraged her to start writing her own poems. Her dad persuaded her to always “talk about something with value”. While they were a bit reluctant when their teenage daughter turned to hip hop to voice her concerns, fearing it wasn’t feminine enough, Mayam says they eventually gave in and never stopped supporting her. When she recorded her first track in the city of Alexandria, they waited in a cafe round the corner.
The economics undergraduate from Cairo decided to speak out because “Egyptian women undergo harassment and bullying on a daily basis”. Last November, a poll of gender experts concluded that sexual harassment, soaring rates of female genital mutilation and a spike in violence made Egypt the worst Arab country to be a woman. And according to a 2008 survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s rights, 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women have been sexually harassed. Mayam refuses to accept this reality. She wants to get people talking and inspire others to advocate for civil rights, too.
With this in mind and as her audience grew, Mayam recently set up “Carnival of Freedom”, a Facebook event page where she challenges people to express themselves freely and post activities that are still considered off limits, such as “women playing football or going to a cafe.” What kind of reaction have her daring activities sparked? According to the Guardian, her fans tend to post up to 50 supportive messages a day on Facebook, but there are also unwelcome messages accusing her of “creating a bad name for Islam,” she said. “Or even that I’m an infidel.”
Last week, Mayam Mahmoud was honoured at the Index Freedom of Expression awards, winning this year’s Arts category. She received her award in a colourful floor-length dress adorned with women’s graffitis, explaining with a smile that each drawing stood for women’s rights – female street artists are a growing (and fascinating) breed in Egypt.
“One of the strongest messages I’d like to send is, ‘Freedom is an obligation on others before it becomes my right,” she said. Seeing someone stand up for human rights is always commendable. Seeing a veiled teenager from an oppressed country embarking on such a brave mission is pretty inspiring. Let’s just hope no one silences her.
For more Arab female rappers, check out Paradise, an Afghan singer who also advocates for women’s rights.