A tireless advocate for women’s rights, Soraya Bahgat has been acknowledged by the likes of Hillary Clinton; yet, in Egypt, she has often chosen to remain far from the spotlight. As she sits with Valentina Primo, the activist talks gender equality, FGM, and why she prefers to stay backstage.
Her name is a trademark in every reference to women’s rights in Egypt. She has been acknowledged as a female leader by the German Parliament, Hillary Clinton’s Vital Voices Foundation, and French university Sciences Po. During the mob assaults that plagued Tahrir Square in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt, she spearheaded Tahrir Bodyguard, the initiative that brought men to the forefront of the fight against sexual violence; now she champions change regionally as she heads the board of the Girl Generation, a pan-African platform to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM). However, this outspoken multi-faceted woman has always chosen to work under the radar.
“I like to keep a low profile”, Soraya Bahgat says with a timid smile, as she narrates the inception of the non-profit organisation that catapulted her into the centre of the fight against sexual harassment in Egypt’s convulsed post-revolutionary context. “It was a Tuesday in 2012 when everything came to place,” she recalls. It was one of those days when mob sexual harassment peaked in Tahrir Square, during the protests against the rule of Mohamed Morsi. She had finished work at Sodic, a real estate company located in Cairo’s satellite 6th of October, and was heading off to participate in the protest at Tahrir.
“My colleagues all left without me, and I got a panic attack because I knew what happened to women alone in Tahrir,” she says. “I had many thoughts going through my mind: ‘nobody should go through this, someone needs to stop it; if only I had a bodyguard, I would go’. And then it hit me. It was such a sexy name, and the idea came in flashes, very quickly; I was going to use social media, buy uniforms, and get men to volunteer during protests.”
Bahgat’s daily commute to work served as inspiration to put the initiative in motion in just a few days, sparking national action and garnering global attention. “I felt that everything was aligned; I used to complain that I had to commute for 45 minutes on my way to work, where I used to see the construction workers with their helmets and their uniforms. Then I thought: Bingo! I have no time to make a uniform – I need to act fast – so I called the procurement company that supplies their uniforms, ordered 200 of them, and I began recruiting volunteers right away,” she says.
The initiative grew into an internationally acclaimed campaign – covered by international outlets such as CNN and The Guardian – not only deploying male bodyguards to help victims of mob assaults, but also offering self-defense training courses for women. “It was one of the most exciting journeys of my life, and it taught me that, if you follow an idea and really believe in it, people will follow,” she says.
From that moment on, her steps in the path of advocacy - which started when she was appointed as board member of the Gezira Youth Centre - quickly took a leap. In 2013, she held a keynote speech at the Oslo Peace forum and, one year later, she was chosen as a mentee of the Fortune Magazine/US State Department Global Women’s Program, as well as a fellow of Hillary Clinton’s Vital Voices. Last year, she was selected as one of the 22 Mediterranean women leaders of the future by Sciences Po and the French government, and later by the German Bundestag.
However, the word ‘leadership’ is a tricky term to her. “Sometimes I worry about that word because it is not just about me; it’s us,” she says. “My real leadership would be to empower women to be leaders in what they do. I am aware that my history of activism is brief, so that pushes me to be aware and be humble because I know that there are so many people out there who have spent much more time and have many more accomplishments,” says the advocate, who has chosen to keep a low profile, despite embodying the symbol of struggle, persistence, and societal change.
“I’m trying to focus on my work speaking for itself. I really don’t feel that I have accomplished anything yet. I want to do more. I want to earn this. I will feel I have achieved something once I have become a catalyst for many women, concretely – once I can point them out and stand and clap at their graduation,” she says with an enviable conviction.
Bahgat speaks with the passion of a woman who doesn’t let bureaucracy or social barriers wear her out, with the names of idols and role models streaming out of her mouth as if drenched in a torrent of inspiration. “I have many role models. Every woman who recognises her potential, gives back, and works on breaking the ceiling and helping others, is a role model for me. So I have many. But, growing up as an Arab Muslim woman, it was hard to find a role model in the region. We have many amazing accomplished Arab women, but how many are appealing to young girls at schools? When Queen Rania came, that changed. She became a queen when she was 28; she dressed fantastically; she went to university at AUC. She could be one of us,” says the 32-year-old woman who speaks five languages – although she still aims for nine.
Between liberal conceptions and cultural values
In the midst of a global narrative that instrumentalises cultural elements and transforms them into oblique symbols of backwardness – such as the emblematic veil - the struggle for women’s rights in the Arab world is not devoid of dilemma. For Egyptian-Finnish Bahgat, an icon of both worlds, reconciling cultural relativism with universal values was an everyday struggle. “It is at the back of my mind every day, so I choose to avoid topics that infringe on a personal level. I want women who are wearing the veil to do it out of their personal conviction, not because someone decided that they should or shouldn’t wear the veil,” she says.
However, at the Girl Generation, where she advocates against FGM, pairing cultural norms to universal human rights comes as more of a challenge. “We try to do the messaging differently, because people will argue that this is cultural or religious,” she explains. “So, instead of saying the girls are victims, our message is ‘God and nature know best. Girls are born beautiful and complete the way they are. Let’s celebrate their nature’.”
Last year, on a trip to Kenya, Bahgat visited the Maasai community, which has been practicing FGM for centuries. “It was powerful to hear the speech from the midwife, who’d spent 30 years doing this under the conviction it was part of tradition. And after a training session, she found that there were aspects of their tradition that do empower women, while others hinder them. So the community saw that they were holding on to the wrong tradition, but it is a very complex issue,” she says.
However, the fight for women’s rights is, for Bahgat, more of a struggle against women than men themselves. “My brief history working as a women’s rights advocate has taught me that men are not necessarily standing in the way of women. It is women, sometimes,” she says. “Most of the time, it is women who are blocking each other instead of empowering each other. Most of the opportunities I have received were from men, not women, with the exception of my former boss, Wafa’ Loutaief, who is an amazing example of a confident leader who understands that she has to pay it forward, spot the talent in other women, empower them, and make them grow. That’s leadership to me - empowering other women,” she says.
Sexual harassment and the power of women’s legs
There is a common stem behind all the hindrances for women’s rights in Egypt, Bahgat says: it’s a matter of perception. “Women are sexually harassed because society has been giving men an excuse for a long time, so they think they can do it. There is underage marriage because a father in the rural areas thinks that the woman is the property of a man. Women are subjected to FGM because there is a perception that they will be more virtuous, because there is a perception that a man’s honour lies in between the woman’s legs, whether it is his mother, sister, wife, or daughter,” she explains.
Nevertheless, her history of trainings and exchange with women advocates across Germany, France, and the USA has left her with one lesson: the struggle is everywhere. “Look at the USA; they are also struggling,” she points out. “I have been on trainings with other women from all over the world, and we have seen that women have the same challenges - the degree is just different”.
Photography by @Mo4network #Mo4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb.