Rapper takes on sexual harrassment

VOICE OF YOUTH: Egyptian rapper Myam Mahmoud.
VOICE OF YOUTH: Egyptian rapper Myam Mahmoud.

Her rap cuts to the heart of most young women’s experience in Egypt, tackling head on the country’s epidemic of sexual harassment, the relentless criticism of how girls dress and the false equivalence that attempts to justify men's stares.

The 18-year-old took her message to the masses in October, making it to the semi-finals of the reality TV show Arabs Got Talent, rapping about girls’ rights and the crushing weight of societal expectation to an audience of millions across the Middle East.

Myam Mahmoud – in her first year of political science at university – has been rapping since she was 10, when she started writing poetry that soon grew into rap.

She listened to a lot of hip-hop, in English and Arabic, but it was not until she found female rappers talking about women and politics that she really found her place in the music.

Two of her main influences are Malikah, a 26-year-old French-born Lebanese rapper, and Shadia Mansour, a British-born Palestinian artist dubbed ‘‘the first lady of Arabic hip-hop’’. Both are intensely political in their performances and successful in a genre still dominated by men.

‘‘What got me started, what really angered me, was Arab rap songs that constantly criticised the way women dress,’’ Myam says. ‘‘A friend and I thought, ‘They aren’t the only ones who are allowed to criticise’.’’

She wears a hijab, but says it is irrelevant to both her music and her message. ‘‘When I write, I am not always telling women what to do . . .  I tell them they have real value and they have the right to choose.’’

In Egypt, girls and women are stopped from doing so much because of people’s perceptions of what is right for them, she says.

‘‘A lot of families just focus on preparing women to get married off . . .  I believe women are strong enough to endure much more than that.’’

For Myam there is much to achieve, in study, work and with her music, beyond marriage.

A major hurdle is the relentless sexual harassment that is endured by women and girls and ignored or encouraged by men, she says.

A staggering 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women report being sexually harassed, both physically and verbally, according to a recent United Nations report. ‘‘We cannot stay silent about it,’’ Myam says.

It seems, thanks to the audience reach of Arabs Got Talent and several more public performances, her message is getting through.

‘‘Girls tell me, ‘You are saying what we always wanted to say’, they say that I am their voice.’’

The 18-year-old is taking it in her stride. She has joined a human rights organisation that works to stop sexual harassment, ‘‘to get more experience and to hear more stories’’.

And, much to the relief of her parents, she is also devoted to her studies. ‘‘I do not know what I will do for work when I finish university, but I do know that I will continue rapping.’’

The last fortnight has seen intense mourning in Egypt as the country farewelled one of its greatest writers, Ahmed Fouad Negm, known as ‘‘the poet of the people’’.

A secularist and a revolutionary, the 84-year-old supported the mass movement that overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and was deeply critical of the Islamist government that took his place. Negm's death on December 3 clearly affected Myam, who was one of hundreds of devotees who attended his funeral in Cairo’s mediaeval Imam Hussein Mosque.

Even though they never met, Myam's poetry and rap has been inspired by Negm’s words and his use of ‘‘the language of the people’’, Egyptian street talk.

‘‘I loved him so much . . .  I would memorise his work – I do not ever remember a political event taking place in Egypt without reading a poem from him about it,’’ she says.

It might seem incongruous, this connection between a young hijab-wearing woman and an old secular poet, but once Myam starts rapping a fierceness takes over, her voice hardens and the politics is front and centre.

‘‘How can you judge me, by my hair or by my veil?’’ she sings. ‘‘You cat call and you harass, thinking this is right, not wrong. Even if these are just words . . .  these are stones.’’

As we sit in the back of a speeding taxi taking us back into Cairo from the sprawling 6th of October City where Myam goes to university, she tells me about another song she has written, recorded and posted to SoundCloud.

I Am Not a Cigarette is as stark an anthem as it gets. ‘‘It starts with a kiss and ends by being stomped on,’’ she sings. In other words, the fate of women is no different to that of a cigarette - kissed, then crushed into the ground. 

Not Myam Mahmoud. She is pushing back.

As she says in one of her songs: ‘‘The problem is not with the girl – the problem is with the society.’’