Women of Egypt – Smashing Stereotypes (Part 1 of 2)

Lina El-Menshawy wearing Spiderman's mask

A Tale of Two Cousins

My 21-year-old cousin recently contacted me, asking for advice. She’d been hoping to travel to Egypt for a couple weeks over the winter holidays, and wanted some ideas of things to do and places to stay in Cairo. It had always been her dream to visit Egypt she said, but she didn’t want to get too excited about the trip just yet. See, she still wasn’t sure she’d be able to travel, since before she could really start putting together her travel plans, she still had to convince her parents that travelling to Egypt would be safe…

I have another cousin, same age, same side of the family, who just returned to the US after spending six months abroad in Europe. I haven’t had the chance to talk to him yet, but at least the photo albums on Facebook suggest he enjoyed himself! While looking at the pictures, I  also scrolled through some of the comments friends and family members left as well, all variants of “Wow, looks amazing!” and “Hope you’re having a great time!”  … In fact, not a single post was marred by mention of anyone’s crippling anxiety or overwhelming concern for his safety in the six months while he was away. 🙄🤔

Same family. Similar kinds of trips. Two very different types of reactions. So what gives?

Women in travel by Suhyeon Choi via UnsplashWomen in travel by Suhyeon Choi via Unsplash

Travelling While Female: Gender Stereotypes in Egypt

Let’s be honest. According to the conventional “wisdom” of some, Egypt is not a female-friendly place. Supposedly, women who live here have no rights, and women who want to travel here are out of their minds … especially the women who would dare to (GASP!) travel alone.

All joking aside, the idea that Egypt isn’t safe or friendly towards women certainly exits, and it just-as-certainly isn’t true. For the record, anyone who travels here – regardless of gender – should be able to feel confident, safe, and genuinely welcomed.

To further set the record straight on any lingering or cultural stereotypes, we’ve reached out to ten talented, driven, and adventurous women. We have asked them to share their stories, in hopes they may inspire travel, or inspire in general!

Five of these stories are highlighted here in part one, with five more stories coming soon.

Lina El-Menshawy wearing Spiderman's maskIs that Spiderman?! No, it’s Lina El-Menshawy rock climbing in Sinai.

Part One: Women of Adventure Travel – Visionaries, Entreprenuers, and Athletes

Lina El-Menshawy, co-founder of Clifftop Adventures

Lina El-Menshawy

Adventure travel is a relatively new field here in Egypt. How did you get started in this field?

As a kid growing up in the Gulf, adventure travel was an alien topic – something you only see individuals doing on TV. It was only after I moved to Egypt in 2010 that I got introduced to adventure travel as an alternate means of exploration. In the beginning it served the purpose of learning about Egypt, my home country that I’ve never lived in while helping me meet like-minded individuals who were also on a quest to explore what Egypt has to offer.

At the time, I had a 9-5 job with a blooming career and as an ex-consultant with a high determination to balance my career with my newly-found love to discover my birthplace, I was able to balance between both with weekdays spent in office meetings and weekends reserved for exploration trips. Discovering Egypt quickly transformed into a passion of treading new paths around the globe and not before long I said goodbye to my office desk and started working in adventure travel.

After joining a pre-existing adventure travel company for a few years, my business partner, Omar Badr, and I decided to launch Clifftop Adventures last October. With more than 6 years of combined adventure travel experience under our belt, Clifftop Adventures was born in October 2017 offering group adventure travel as well as adventure honeymoons and other milestone adventures tailor-made for individual tastes. It’s the happiness I feel when I make new travel companions and be able to share new experiences with others that keeps me going.

What kind of challenges did you face by making this kind of change?

At first there was definitely resistance and a lot of advice from my family about staying within the society’s norm and maintaining my career. Venturing into the unknown and later launching Clifftop Adventures was a battle against social order – from beliefs that Arab traditions don’t allow for a female to work in adventure travel let alone launch an adventure travel company to tactics attempting to convince me that ‘this is just a phase’ and as a graduate of a global top 10 university, my family couldn’t understand why I would throw my education and 7 year career out the window.

It was only after they saw how happy and positive I have become that they realized I’ve proven them wrong! Women can definitely do adventure travel, and do it better!

What do you enjoy most about what you do? What makes your work stand out from the rest, and what makes you passionate about your new career?

The adventure tourism industry is quickly growing in Egypt and travel enthusiasts are more educated on the different activities, experiences and destinations that Egypt has to offer. With dozens of established adventure travel companies in operation in Egypt and a handful offering group adventure travel around the world, the industry is in full bloom- however, it still has oodles of potential – backpacker tented camps are popping up all over Egypt, domestic sports travel such as kitesurfing trips, diving camps and back-to-basics yoga retreats are becoming abundant. As an example, aside from the traditional group adventures offered in the market, Clifftop Adventures also tailor makes bespoke milestone adventures such as adventure honeymoons, bachelorette/bachelor adventures, adventure date weekends and birthday adventures customized for each client based on the travelers’ needs and budget to strike the right balance between adventure and relaxation for every milestone.

What makes me so passionate the happiness I feel when I make new travel companions and be able to share new experiences with others that keeps me going. It’s exhilarating to see the look on travelers’ eyes when they find themselves surrounded by panoramic views of limestone formations or the smiles of accomplishment when they raft through thunderous white waters that they previously didn’t think they could conquer.

What is it about Egypt you love most of all, and what do you wish more foreigners understood about Egypt?

Egypt has a lot of unique destinations to offer. From swimming alongside turtles and chasing dolphins in Wadi El Gemal, camping under the stars in Ras Mohammad, rock climbing in Wadi Gnai, dune bashing in the Great Sand Seas, floating in Siwa’s salt lakes, kayaking in Nubia, kitesurfing in Ras Sudr, hiking through forests in Ismailia and the list goes on! There’s so much to do in each season that foreigners would need to visit for at least a couple of month to experience its unrivaled beauty.

Tanis Newman, co-founder of Desert Divers Dahab & Sinai Rock Climbing Centre

Tanis Newman

Tanis Newman and Said Khedr own Desert Divers Dahab and Sinai Rock Climbing Centre. They are regarded as the home of the Camel Diving Safari, founders of Egypt’s Rock Climbing scene and have a 5-star rating on TripAdvisor. If you have any questions, just ask!

How did you get started in adventure travel?

I had been working in marketing in London for some time, and was getting bored of big city life. I grew up in Canada, doing a lot of sports and camping/hiking/swimming/skiing on holidays with my family. Big city lights called, but they dimmed fairly quickly for me.

I wanted to travel again, but not as a backpacker. I thought about working in travel, maybe for an adventure company to learn about the industry, then starting my own company in Canada. No concrete ideas though. And then I arrived in Dahab on a diving holiday.

Sustainable travel has always been important to me. I’d looked for a dive center working with local people, and I found Said Khedr. He already had the idea for Desert Divers. Three trips later, I was his partner and organizing the office and marketing.

From the start, the idea was to combine diving and desert adventure, and eventually this crystallized as “Dive Climb Trek Freedive”.

What initial challenges did you face starting out?

Cash flow. It takes time to build up enough of a cushion to ride out the low season. I remember going from a fairly easy single life, to a business owner (and eventually wife and mother) with 20 LE in my pocket waiting for the next booking so that I could pay the salaries.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

I love watching people fall in love with Dahab and the Sinai. It’s such an incredible mix of Bedouin hospitality and adventure. You can do as much or as little as you like here, but the more you do, the more you love the place and its people.

Helping people do their first dives, make their first climb, trek the desert or even freedive on a single breath of air – these are ways to not only discover Dahab and the Sinai, but to discover yourself. Also seeing the staff, guides and instructors grow and develop. We have an incredible mix of people here, so many cultures, it’s a wonderful place to be.

How have you seen things change since you first started?

We like to say that Dahab has “grown up a bit”, but I worry sometimes about the place losing its soul. People love Dahab because it’s totally different from where they live, but sometimes they inadvertently push for Dahab to become more urban. They want tables and chairs not carpets and cushions; they want cement and ceramic tiles that are easy to clean instead of a sandy beach that needs to be raked; they want fast food and fast days whereas the culture is quiet and slow. It’s easy to give people what they want and know, but it is more rewarding for everyone if you have the confidence to give people a unique experience.

And Dahab is genuinely unique. It’s a world-class adventure destination, with people traveling here from all over the world for its mix of adventure sports and lifestyle, we just need the confidence to develop in our own unique way: protect our beautiful natural environment and always remember that the most important thing in the Bedouin culture is the guest.

What is it about Egypt you love most of all, and what do you wish more foreigners understood about Egypt?

I love how totally mixed and open-minded this place is. And I really love how family-friendly it is. A creche is an advanced concept in many western workplaces, but taking your baby to work is completely normal here – as is working from home. Combining family life and work life might get a bit chaotic at times, but ultimately it makes both so much more enjoyable.

What do you say to those who tell you you can’t be successful in Egypt?

I would say, there is so much opportunity here. But be unique. Copying is a disease – see someone’s supermarket is doing well, open another next door but cheaper. See someone’s resort is doing well, build your own but do a cheaper deal with a big tour operator. You know exactly how this happens here, and it’s a race to the bottom. Take an idea and have the confidence to see it through. Also never forget that you are part of a community. I hate when people say “that’s business”. No, a business is made of people, and we can all help build our community.

Who inspires you … and why?

My mother-in-law, Om Saad, because she welcomed me into her family, and even though we have shared many laughs over how our traditions differ, she has a totally open mind. My mother and grandmother for the same reasons. And so many other strong women like them who happily go about making a difference in their community.

Passante Adel, record-setting free-diver and first female Arab freediving instructor

Passante Adel

How did you get started as a freediver, and how have you seen your sport change?

I started freediving in 2015 when I moved to Dahab. At the time I got introduced to freediving through friends, one of which was already an instructor and convinced me to learn to freedive! In the beginning, I had a fear of being submerged and drowning, so I had to kind of get over it first before I started freediving. My friends and family have always been supportive, and I’ve never had to deal with someone telling me that I cannot succeed. I didn’t know anyone thinks freediving isn’t for women as the sport is just as popular amongst women as men. I love that freediving gets me closer to the element of water, and is a great tool for self-discovery.

Freediving is starting to become more popular in Egypt. I certainly see a lot of potential for more growth for apnea diving in Egypt. I don’t really seek inspiration from other; I believe inspiration and motivation need to come from within.

Freediving by Jakob Boman via UnsplashFreediving by Jakob Boman via Unsplash

What do you love about Egypt, and what do you wish more foreigners understood?

I love the nature most; we have a truly beautiful country. I wish foreigners would not box us in stereotypes; I wish they can understand that tradition and religion are different things, and that we’re not necessarily oppressed, uneducated, or with no real say or control over our lives.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you do?

Go for it, take a course for your own safety!

Hamsa Mansour, record-setting long-distance cyclist

Hamsa Mansour

How did you begin as a long-distance cyclist, and what motivates you to continue?

It began with a dream, I was going to Sokhna with my parents years back when I saw a cyclist on the road and I remember thinking “it would be amazing if I cycled to Sokhna one day”, it sounded like a very far and hard dream at the time, one that I forgot about for years as well.

At first I was repeatedly told “Girls, don’t do this on their own for a reason, you will get kidnapped, raped and we will find you dead on the side of the road”, I saw it in a much simpler way and I believed that people will actually be helpful and it was the case. The closest people to me were very concerned for my safety but very supportive, they talked with me about the possible safety hazards and why they think the trip is dangerous but told me to not come back before finishing the trip. My husband taught me everything I know about bike fixing and was very helpful with the logistics and reviewing my plans as he solo cycled Egypt 2 years ago.

If someone tried to tell me I can’t be successful as a cyclist as a woman in Egypt, I wouldn’t say anything. I would just continue to do what I’m doing. Actions speak louder than words.

How do you see the future of cycling in Egypt?

I see more people interested in adventure and adventure traveling for sure, be it cycling, climbing, hiking, kayaking, etc. I’m also being contacted by several girls who want to follow suit and go on solo cycling adventures in Egypt. I believe the adventure field is just getting started here in Egypt. I want to be the first woman to solo cycle around Egypt in 2019.

Who inspires you … and why?

My mother, my sisters and my mother in law. They are the strongest people I’ve ever met and the amount of love they have in their hearts and the things they are willing to do for the people they love is inspiring to say the least.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you do?

Try to surround yourself with people who believe in you and get out there and achieve your dreams. Write your dreams down and hang it somewhere you can see it so you never forget them, write down why you want to do this to read it when it gets to hard to go on.

Rana El Harty, desert rally car racer and adventure travel enthusiast

Rana El-Harty

What challenges did you face getting involved with rally car racing, as well as your other adventure travel activities?

At first, family and friends did not grasp what would be interesting in hiking or camping or driving in the desert or rock climbing! They simply thought I was mad. Some others so I had plenty of free time to kill, which of course is not true! Some of my friends were supportive and some were not. To some, I am seen as an untypical and unusual Egyptian female. Some see this is a pro and some as a con, but dreamers don’t really care for what others think. I never give up, every day, wherever I am, in whatever I do.

What makes you so passionate about adventure travel, and what makes you want to share your passion with others?

Adventure travel, for me, is simply a way of living, with connecting with nature and recharging my mental battery. It is something that everyone needs to in this stressful world that we live in. It makes me believe that I can challenge anything and make it happen. It reminds me that I am not defined by biological age but rather with my experiences.

How have you seen adventure travel in Egypt change since you’ve been involved?

Now, it does not sound as crazy. For example, I’ve introduced adventure travel at my workplace as I work with university students. I’d like to be able to create a group for women to give them a chance to experience what I experience. My friends actually ask me to bring them along with me in my adventures whereas previously they used to mock me.

What is it about Egypt you love most of all, and what do you wish more foreigners understood about Egypt?

What I love about Egypt is its diversity. No one would imagine that we have desert tourism, ecotourism, adventure tourism, Coptic tourism, Islamic and Jewish tourism. Moreover, I would like foreigners to understand that Egypt truly is a safe place. You need to exercise common sense in all cases but truly it is a safe place.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you do?

It is not easy… but it is much more difficult to live in a life that you are imprisoned in by conforming to people’s expectations than to fight on your own.

 

***Continue reading part 2, here!***

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Comments

  1. Reply

    Big thank you Paisannte, for pulling this together. It was great fun to be part of it, and I’m really looking forward to part 2!

    1. Reply

      It’s a great pleasure to have you on this list Tanis, you’re a source of inspiration… keep it up 😉

  2. Pingback: Women of Egypt - Smashing Stereotypes (Part 2 of 2) - WhyNotEgypt?

    • Islam Mohamed
    • November 20, 2018
    Reply

    I have been in the tourism field for over 20 years and running my online travel site for 6 years. So, you can say we are competitors. But honestly, I see that you have one of the best Egypt travel sites on the internet. You are doing a really great job. I wonder what is holding you back to dominate the market? especially in terms of traffic and ranking? I have a good feeling about some kind of cooperation between us. Please contact me if you might be interested.

    1. Reply

      Thanks a lot Islam 🙂

  3. Pingback: What To Do In Dahab, See, Costs & Ways To Save | Why Not Egypt?

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