Women of Egypt — Smashing Stereotypes (Part 2 of 2)

Women smashing stereotype by Sam Manns via Unsplash

Trend-setters, Influencers, and Ambassadors

While Part One of our two-part, smashing stereotype series highlights women in Egypt playing a major role in the burgeoning field of adventure-travel, the women featured in part two are involved in a much wider range of activities. Some of these activities are still closely related to travel, others maybe not as much. But these women all have one important thing in common: a desire to inspire others – be it through coaching, writing, food, or art.

We talked to these amazing ladies, to find out more about what they do, to discover who or what inspires them, and to learn their thoughts on the potential for women to continue smashing common stereotypes here in Egypt.

Women smashing stereotype by Sam Manns via UnsplashWomen smashing stereotype by Sam Manns via Unsplash

Laila Hassaballa, co-founder of Bellies En Route – tourism company for foodies

Laila Hassaballa

You’re doing something one-of-a-kind here in Egypt! Tell us, how did you get started with your company?

I’ve always known I wanted to do something revolving around food and travel, I almost started a couple of food blogs but I wanted to do something that’s more interactive and after doing a food tour abroad myself and listening to a few podcasts about food and travel, I knew this is it.

Can you describe the reaction of those closest to you when you told them of your goals? Were they supportive or skeptical?

To avoid generalizing, I have to mention that I’ve received all types of reactions, most people in Cairo still aren’t very familiar with the food tour concept, so most of the reactions were questions asked. After the initial confusion fades, almost everyone we’re spoken to has loved the idea and people have been so encouraging, mentioning they want to join tours themselves.

What initial challenges did you face starting out?

We’re still starting out, and our initial challenges are mostly lack of resources (funds, time, and business expertise). Both partners had full-time jobs and financial commitments, so just like any startup, it’s difficult to work on proper processes, manage customer relations, go on tours and work on marketing, if you can’t hire anyone yet. Things have gotten a lot better when we had access to consultants and we’re learning as we go.

What about working in this business as a female … did you face any kind of challenges or discrimination?

Since the tour we run currently is held in Downtown/West El Balad, we’ve found that most of the vendors were very surprised that we are independent and we’re not afraid to go out there and work hard to get what we want, especially when male vendors (which most of them are) realize that there is no man running the business in the background. It’s all us and once they’ve realized that we’re doing it well, they’ve been very supportive and they’re always welcoming genuinely and happily now.

We have never felt unsafe at any point during our tours, on the contrary, we’ve noticed that even if a random case of harassment happens, our vendors and the people who know us now jump at any chance to protect or help us. We are always encouraged when people realize that our business leaves a good impression and brings more business to vendors who might need it.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? What makes you passionate about your work?

Meeting people from all around the world is definitely the most rewarding part of the job for us, especially when we’re the reason they’re adding a very memorable and fun experience to their vacation. We are happy to share we’ve toured with incredible people from 25 countries, from the most common guests from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia, to other countries like Iceland, Argentina, Japan and Sri Lanka.

Can you talk about the potential you see for your type of business to grow here in Egypt? What do you see yourself achieving in the future?

We were lucky to have a slow start and that gave us the chance to prototype our product for a whole year before were luckily included in an article in The Independent about Cairo’s Foodie Scene. Since then, traffic dramatically increased and we’re prioritizing maintaining our quality to ensure that all our guests end up having a fantastic experience even in our busiest season yet.

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

What I love in Egypt that it’s so rich when it comes to things to do. The winters aren’t too cold, so sight-seeing is always a great option if you’re in Cairo during winter, and if sightseeing is not your thing you can head out literally North, South, East or West to experience anything from camping in the dessert to kitesurfing or just enjoy being a beach bum (like I do). There’s always going to be something that piques your interest, no matter what type of traveller you are.

Name three females who inspire you … and why?

I am very inspired by friend and artist Lorna Brown (@lornastration). She does things like traveling to Palestine to teach kids how to skateboard, and she just released a book with a collection of street art from around the world. To write the book, she travelled around the world, including Egypt photographing meaningful street art and illustrating it, including stories she gathered along the way. To me she’s the perfect example of a woman who is not afraid to break barriers and really challenges the status quo. Her book is called Painted Cities.

I also have a special affinity for actress Rachel Bloom, who portrays and discusses mental health issues through her comedy creations and music. She also hits the nail on the head when it comes to speaking openly about gender equality and I believe her work raises awareness on important issues in a hilarious way.

Finally, the more I grow up the more I am inspired by my mother. She always lifted me up and has given me the courage and freedom to try, even if I fail, and to do it all with mindfulness and compassion.

How do you see yourself as a role model for others?

I don’t think I’m someone who has done anything big or impressive enough to be a role model, but I want to take this chance to remind myself and other people to not be afraid to be who they are, without a doubt, with confidence, with passion and with energy. Everyone would be a role model if they play to their strengths and develop them instead of focusing on what is missing.

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

Be honest, be authentic, genuinely work hard to give your guests the best possible experience ever.

Enas El Masry, travel-writer, photographer and journalist

Enas El-Masry

Yours is such an influential voice coming out of Egypt. Tell us, how did you get started in journalism, and what makes you passionate about what you do?

I’m a graduate of Mass Communication, with a major in journalism. I started growing an interest for travel in college, and it developed in the years to follow, especially after joining the Wild Guanabana as a journey facilitator towards the end of 2014. My two passions eventually and inevitably merged into travel writing, and voila!

What I love the most about journalism is that it’s a gateway for me to know more about people. Besides how it pushes me to always dig for more, it also makes sense to others why I would be pursuing information.

Furthermore, to me, it’s like a form of storytelling. I love telling stories, and I love the influence stories have on people. It’s like a form of art that speaks to the human soul regardless of race, culture, education, or any other variables.

Were there any challenges that you faced starting out?

Honestly, none that I can clearly pinpoint. The whole travel thing grew gradually, and so did my parents’ acceptance of it. To me, that was the most important. Anyone else’s comments didn’t matter to me much. The more I traveled, the more contacts I made which made my travels easier and easier.

Describe the reaction of those closest to you when you told them of your goals. Were they supportive or skeptical?

I think I’ve always been kind of different, ever since I was young. As far as my parents, brother, and best friends, they’re quite supportive. But I guess to most people outside this circle, extended family or family friends, I am strange. My parents often find themselves in a position where they have to defend themselves for allowing me to live this kind of life that involves traveling to nontraditional places, even if they’re inside Egypt. Their support has definitely encouraged me to keep fighting for what I’m passionate about.

Have you faced many challenges specifically as a female working as a journalist in Egypt? Has anyone ever told you that your gender could be a liability in your field?

I never really treated my gender as a variable worth considering as a journalist or travel writer. I believe that my confidence in who I am and what I do regardless of my gender forced others to treat me seriously and with due respect.

I’ve honestly never heard anyone say that, but as I mentioned earlier, success is something that you earn despite any cultural conditioning. If anyone says what I do isn’t for women, I’ll simply show them what I’ve done, and I’ll let that speak for itself.

How have you seen your field change since you’ve gotten involved, or how has it changed you? And what do you see yourself achieving in the future?

Just like any form of art that takes practice, the more I wrote and the more I photographed, the better I got at both. There weren’t any particular turning points that gave me a noteworthy boost. I definitely think there’s plenty of room to grow in Egypt because there are so many stories that are worth telling, especially about the different cultures around the country – something I’m particularly interested in writing about. A successful future for me as a travel writer is a future where I keep writing, and I keep publishing locally and abroad.

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

What I love most about Egypt is its diversity, whether we’re talking about Egyptian culturally or geographically. There’s always something new to find out, and in learning about it, you get to explore different sides of who you are. I wish foreigners understood that there isn’t one single image that you can propagate about Egypt, and that each corner, each culture should be appreciated for what it is. I wish more people visited with open minds and hearts, leaving prejudices behind.

Who are some females who inspire you … and why?

Hmm, let’s see.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés for the book she wrote: Women Who Run with the Wolves. Her work, which is psychotherapy through storytelling, and particularly folk stories, is something that speaks quite clearly to me. Instead of gathering real stories like I do, she gathers folk stories, analyzes them, and explains what these stories are meant to teach us.

And Maya Angelo for the strength that she lived with and taught. Every word that she said breathed out life.

How do you see yourself as a role model for others?

I prefer not to see myself as a role model 😀 If others see me that way, I’m honored. But what I can do to inspire others is be true to myself, and keep doing what makes me who I am, and hopefully excel at it. In the process, I hope to be there for as many people whom I can pass knowledge (the little of it that I have) to as possible.

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

You have to start somewhere, so just start and things will follow through. Be prepared, and keep an open mind so you can truly learn from the people you meet. Stay true to yourself. Storytelling is a big responsibility, so you have to make sure to leave your stories represent people fairly. You don’t necessarily have to put your opinions aside, but be sure to clarify what is your own take of things, and what is it that people actually told you. Live every moment fully so you can write about it vividly. The truer you are to your story, the more you’ll be able to transport the readers to the places you’ve been.

Iman Refaat: self-leadership coach, author, and founder of Paradigm Shift life-coaching program

Iman Refaat

You’re involved in so much! How did you get started along such a unique path?

Scrolling the Facebook during the summer of 2015 I caught a post questioning the one thing I would regret on my death bed. Not something that I have done. Something that I have wished to do and yet didn’t. It all started here. I used to visit bookshops and wish to see a book with my name as its author. Yet I never dared to dream until this post awakened my desire to give it a shot.

Paradigm Shift started with the novel. I personally had a paradigm shift. I used to belittle myself and imprison myself in “I can’t, I should, I must…” and many other cognitive distortions. Alongside my journey of writing the novel I reconsidered and reexamined many of my limiting beliefs and misconceptions. My novel became for me a social initiative to lead an Egyptian revival by inspiring women and teaching them how to transfer their lives. I studied Meta-Coaching and became a certified coach. Currently, I am a public speaker, coach, mentor, trainer and a writer.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? What makes you passionate about your work?

What I enjoy most is that I am exploring new potentials I didn’t know I have, that I am in a constant state of learning and growing as I take more risks and try new things that need from me to keep learning. That I am meeting new people from different age groups, backgrounds, ideologies and hence it stretches and enlarges my worldview and understandings about human beings. Most of all I love that, as a Self-leadership coach, mentor and trainer, I’m inspiring people and guiding them to transform and elevate the quality of their lives.

Were there any challenges you faced starting out?

My inner thoughts. I’m not good enough. Who do I think I’m to write a novel. Many people already tackled the message and topic I wish to tackle. Then in later stages when I considered quitting my job and become self-employed I felt fearful. On another level, some people’s comments about how wrong my decision was [were a challenge].

While writing my novel the main challenge was writing it in English. I received many rejections from publishing houses which made me choose to self-publish it.

Describe the reaction of those closest to you when you told them of your goals. Were they supportive or skeptical?

Well, it depends. My close family members are very supportive as well as my best friend. They encourage, bless and support my steps. For my previous colleagues and larger circles they have doubts as they aren’t used to deal with people who play big and dare to dream and most of all pursue their dreams.

Your book Fabulous Veils addresses issues of discrimination and gender inequality in Egypt. Did you personally face any kind of push-back or challenges entering your field as a female?

As for my work in the field of coaching and training I can’t really say that I faced challenges for being a female. It’s the opposite, I receive regular requests from males to offer more training programs for both gender in addition to requests to coach and mentor men.

On a similar topic, what do you have to say to people who say your activity isn’t for women? What do you say to those what tell you you can’t be successful in Egypt?

I tell them you need to reexamine your beliefs and frames of references. I tell them the talk about gender is so old. We are in an era which needs all people to contribute as human beings for the sake of humanity.

What kind of goals do you have for yourself and your work in the future?

I have big dreams. I see Paradigm Shift as a company offering services for individuals and families, in Egypt and hopefully in the Middle East. My services focus on helping individuals leading themselves and restoring families and relationships. In the future, I see myself awarded for my community and services initiatives in Egypt led by youth and teens whom I trained and mentored.

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

Its richness. Egypt is a very beautiful and rich country I am Egyptian. I was born in Egypt and got married to my Egyptian husband. Though we had several opportunities to work abroad we made the choice to stay in Egypt and contribute to its development.

I love traveling its extremes. Enjoying its historical places is so enriching. While visiting its beaches and trying snorkelling and many other beach activities is relaxing and entertaining. I love its people; their kindness and goodness. I like its Nile and I’m grateful that I live by its border and hence I start my day every morning contemplating and meditating by its side.

Name three females who inspire you … and why?

Mother Theresa is one of my top five role models. From her, I learned that I just need to spread love to one person at a time with whatever I have, even if it’s a smile or a tap on a shoulder. She taught me that we can heal the world with love. One person at a time.

Another one of my top role models is Lisa Nichols. She’s a great example in vulnerability, courage, discipline and consistency. She inspires me daily to persist, to play big and to be authentic.

Also, my mother. She has high principles. She’s devoted to her family. She taught my sisters and me how to love one another and act as one person. And she is the most giving and helpful person I ever known. She helps from the heart whoever turns to her for help.

How do you see yourself as a role model for others?

I see myself as a role model in leading myself, balancing between my personal life and social contribution. I see myself as a role model in how a wife can be happy at home, putting her family first and yet inspiring others and elevating her country. I see myself as a role model on how we can chase our dreams and transform, understanding and discovering that the sky is the limit and that we can achieve anything we dream for. We just need to imagine, believe, work, learn, persist and enjoy.

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

To keep learning and growing and to live for a purpose higher from herself. To be crystal clear about her desires, her mission and her values. To be ready to be tested and understand that hardships are opportunities in disguise. Most of all, to relax and enjoy the journey!

Asmaa Al Zohairy (a.k.a. Chica): fitness coach, rower, and Nike Ambassador

Asmaa El-Zohai

How did you get started in athletics? Was it something you always wanted to do?

I wouldn’t call myself the kid who was involved in sports when they were young. But I remember going to karate, hitting some a gym at 13 years or so. It was at college that I was interested in joining the volleyball team, but I never really committed because I thought academics mattered more, especially as a student on a scholarship. So, aerobics was my go-to because it was convenient and I loved the idea of moving to music. And I committed to that till graduation.

I continued to work out after graduation until my best friend encouraged me to pursue Aerobics and get certified, which I did at the end of 2011. With time, I have come to enjoy the process of seeing change happen. I have always loved movement just for the sake of it even if it is for no purpose. I thought movement was therapy. But I have come to learn about the empowering feeling it provides. Hearing that from my athletes is very motivating. It’s incredible to see them believe in their abilities through movement. Then they inspire me to pursue my full capacity in my own training. And it becomes a cycle of learning, developing and growing. That’s about coaching and my relationship with my athletes.

And that was my career shift from doing communications work and news production for TV into sport and fitness. ( I graduated from AUC with a mass communication TV and Broadcast degree). So now, I am a full-time fitness coach and a hopeful athlete. I plan on pursuing sports academically as I am also interested in the education and science behind it.

Was it difficult, switching fields like that? What were some of the challenges you faced in the beginning?

Initially, I thought time was a challenge in the sense that I was starting out quite late or old. I have learned so many skills at an old age, basic skills such as rope jumping and swimming and may be cycling. But I have become open to the idea that you can always learn at any age.

Another was finding a community to do sports with. I witnessed the transition in this. It was quite unfamiliar for me to go running on my own in the beginning for example. But with time and with the rise of such sports communities, it has become easier to do it on my own. I am grateful for that. I loved being part of a community that facilitated doing the action on my own when I had to. People are now more accustomed to the sight of athletes running or cycling so it has become sort of “safe” with time.

It has been quite a journey, teaching aerobics in one of Egypt’s largest gyms at the time and exploring my potential as an athlete. Fitness has picked up in the number of boxes opening across Egypt and people becoming more aware of the importance of taking care of their health. I was lucky to join in the sports movement in Egypt and be part of different sport groups in cycling and running.

Tell us about the reaction of your friends and family. Have they always been supportive? Have you faced any push-back from people as you entered a field that may not have been considered traditionally “feminine” one? (Don’t worry – we mean that ironically!)

Friends and family have been SO supportive! It amazes me how lucky I am to get that from them. Of course they were concerned about the feasibility of the field as a career especially that it is not as advanced or appreciated as it could possibly be abroad. They thought it is important not to completely waste my media degree, but they thought I’d take a chance.

And I haven’t really received any serious push-back, to be frank. Though not a big challenge, as my body image begin to change and turn more muscular, maybe that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But I feel comfortable in my skin, looking how I do.

I have always believed in gender equality, and my field is one that does acknowledge the difference in capabilities because it is pure biology and too obvious men’s physique is stronger than women’s. But there are loads of women breaking limits beyond comprehension. So, be it a man or a woman, hard work must be appreciated and celebrated.

To be successful in Egypt, [regardless of gender] you have to be ridiculously positive and willing to walk alone with no expectations of any kind. Know that whatever you are doing, you’re doing for your pretty self.

What have been some of the biggest milestones in your athletic career? And what are your future aspirations?

I ran my first marathon in Italy in 2014 after recovering a bad back injury. Then, in 2015, at age 26, I joined a rowing club’s academy for a change and I just fell in love with the sport. Committed to training with the women’s team, I raced my first nationals and I won gold in the double scull event to join the national team a year into my rowing practice. It’s been 3 years now. And I have some big dreams in the sport that I am pursuing with all my heart.

In rowing, women are achieving records that were once a dream. Yes, there is still a long way to go, but something is starting to blossom. And thanks to fitness boxes, rowing indoor started to be popular, so I feel I am on a mission to popularize rowing through my fitness career.

I believe my personality has developed a lot from it as a sport. It fires me up to wake up every day willing to work on weaknesses and challenging myself. It makes me hungry for excellence and trying to put Egyptian women on the international rowing scene, especially in my lightweight category. It would be such a pleasure to make that a reality.

On a personal level, I see myself achieving a decent Olympic participation for Egypt in rowing and hopefully may be bringing home the first medal … Who knows?

Fantastic! We wish you the best of luck with that! 🙂

Switching topics, since we are a travel blog… tell us, what is it about Egypt you love most of all, and what do you wish more foreigners understood about Egypt?

I love the idea that Egypt is such a potential. It’s quite tough to remain positive in it but it challenges you, and it’s about finding the right people to stick around for that matter.

I guess most of the foreigners I know get that it is such a friendly country where most of the people are helpful generally. And that it is about making it and living it that they get to see that. Also may be they might find it amusing surviving the chaos it’s known for 😀

And since we are talking about women smashing stereotypes… Name three females who inspire you, and tell us why!

There are so many! If I have to choose, it would be Kim Crow, an Australian Gold Olympic medalist, because she’s such a humble person from her interviews. She’s worked hard to be where she is in little time. She is strong and committed plus she is a beautiful rower to watch.

Also, Moshira Hassan, my Biology Professor from AUC, because she defines passion in pursuing what you do. And she is an amazing athlete, a cyclist. She does what she does with all the love. And she is incredibly smart and beautiful. I like this combo of beautiful and strong, not just physically but strong at all fronts.

Finally, Carol Ann, my Voice and Speech Professor from AUC too. If anything, she’s shown me how to be graceful and confident in one’s endeavor no matter what it is.

I am so glad I made friends with my professors that have served as mentors to me along the way. Taking notice of them being exceptionally amazing women is incredible.

Finally, what advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you do?

Say consistent because it’s key. And work hard to earn it; it pays off. And follow your own standards of getting things done. Make sure you set those high. And always always enjoy the process of transforming and learning regardless of the outcome.

Hend Hegazy, artist and painter

Hend Hegazy

How did you get started in painting? And what makes you passionate about your art?

I’ve always had a passion for painting, but never thought of it as a potential career. Though it was a really challenging decision to quit my corporate job after 5 years, it was ultimately a very rewarding experience to focus on painting for a living.

The opportunity to channel my emotions through my art is unparalleled. Painting is my expression medium, when I’m angry, happy or sad, I put that in my art.

What initial challenges did you face starting out as an artist?

Venturing into the art scene from the corporate world has been intimidating and quite challenging as I got to familiarize myself with the different dynamics of the art world. Going at it independently trying to develop your brand and promote your work to people is an ongoing process that I get to perfect over time.

That’s quite a bold move! What about family and friends — were they supportive or skeptical of your decision to become and artist?

Quitting a stable job with a fixed payroll is by default a controversial decision in our society. Nevermind quitting to become an artist, a career choice that is unfamiliar to many. Some were skeptical at first, but they saw my drive and determination and that gave them the confidence that pursuing my passion is ultimately what’s best for me.

How have you seen the art world in Egypt change or grow since you started? Do you see potential for it continuing to grow here in Egypt? If so, what do you see yourself achieving in the future?

Interest in paintings has really picked up over the last 5 years. Younger generations in particular are increasingly showing interest in the art scene and we’re seeing more galleries opening up and coming artists -myself included- eager to show their work. I believe Egypt will continue to witness growing interest in the art scene over the coming years as people develop a taste for paintings and art pieces in general. As for me, I am hopeful that I will continue to grow as an artist and develop a unique style of my own that will help me grow a fan base.

How do you see yourself as a role model for others?

The mere fact that I left a corporate job to pursue my passion has surprisingly struck a positive note within my social circle. I have heard from several people who feel stuck at their current jobs but are afraid to take the leap of faith to something that’s more fitting for them. I hope that my shift to becoming an artist is an inspiration to every young woman out there to put her fears aside, trust herself and take on something that’s more fulfilling.


A huge thank you to all 10 women who allowed us to interview them, and who continue to inspire us as well as countless others!

We hope you really liked this blog post, as much as we enjoyed putting it together. If you want to ask us any questions, or engage with other people, join our Facebook group here.

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