LONDON, England (CNN) — As she took to the stage, both judges and spectators alike were unsure what the young Egyptian woman would do. Standing before the mic, dressed head to toe in a soft pink ensemble complete with a matching veil, Mayam Mahmoud was about to perform in front of an audience for the first time. Then, a hard-hitting beat began to blare out of the speakers and the 18-year-old started to rap.
Since her captivating appearance on popular TV talent show “Arabs Got Talent” last October, the young veiled hip-hop artist has amassed a huge following for challenging how women in Egypt are meant to behave. Her lyrics highlight the importance of girls’ education and denounce sexual harassment of women on the streets of Egypt.
“It was never about going on stage in a scarf,” says Mahmoud. “It was about going on stage and sharing a message,” she adds. “Egyptian women undergo harassment and bullying on a daily basis.”
Last week Mahmoud’s inspiring work for women’s rights was recognized at the prestigious Index Freedom of Expression awards. The young singer, who won this year’s Arts category, sat down with CNN before the ceremony to explain how she is tackling Egypt’s sexual harassment of women head on.
“These are matters that are very present in Egypt but no one is talking about them — they are a big problem in Egyptian society,” she explains. “It’s about going out there and explaining your experience and sharing that with others so we know these problems exist and that is the way of changing views.
“Hip-hop as a genre of music is where people have an avenue to express what they feel, the problems they go through … There is less of an emphasis on the performance itself but rather on what is actually being said.”
Having grown up in a traditionally conservative, patriarchal society, Mahmoud’s feminist rhymes resonate with many of her fans who encourage her to continue combating gender discrimination through her music.
She raps in one of songs: “Who said that femininity is about dresses, Femininity is about intelligence and intellect.”
‘I defy that’
Women in Egypt routinely face instances of sexual harassment — according to a 2008 survey of 1,010 women conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s rights, 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been sexually harassed.
Mahmoud describes how women can feel self conscious simply for walking to school or work. “She’ll get looks and it can degenerate into touching. Another thing that commonly happens is that a woman can be walking in the street and she could be followed by a car. It could also degenerate to people hitting her from within the car or getting out of the car while saying all sorts of things to her.
“[These incidents] do not encourage her to leave her house anymore. It supports that idea that a woman should stay at home and not go out and I’m completely against that. I defy that.”
Carnival of Freedom
The rapper, who is also an undergraduate studying politics and social science, also spends much of her time speaking to women who share their stories of daily discrimination with her. With their permission, Mahmoud then incorporates those experiences into her music.
“There is a lot of recent interest in women’s rights in Egypt. People are more responsive at the moment and are becoming more interested in what I have to say. Because of this I set up a Facebook event called “Carnival of Freedom” and the whole point is to show or post day-to-day activities that are otherwise considered taboo in Egyptian culture.
“So for example, [it could be] women playing football or going to a cafe, playing pool or eating in the street. Essentially this is to keep encouraging men and women to be part of this natural need to enjoy one’s self and express one’s self with freedom.”
For the time being, Mahmoud will continue to split her days between university and her passion for rapping. She acknowledges that she’s young and is still trying to work out exactly what path to take. But she hopes her raps will continue to inspire others to change the way they think and treat others in Egyptian society.
“One of the strongest messages I’d like to send is, ‘Freedom is an obligation on others before it becomes my right.’”
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