CAIRO (AP) — As soon as the beat started, the young woman bobbed her head to the rhythm, raised her hands to get the crowd clapping and then unleashed a flood of rap lyrics that tackled some of the biggest social challenges women face in the Arab world.
With the Middle East’s hit TV show “Arabs Got Talent” as her stage, 18-year-old Myam Mahmoud rapped about sexual harassment, second-class treatment of women, and societal expectations of how a young religious woman should behave.
The Egyptian teenager didn’t win the program — she crashed out in the semifinals — but she did succeed in throwing the spotlight on something bigger than herself.
“I wanted to tell girls in Egypt and everywhere else that they are not alone, we all have the same problems, but we cannot stay silent, we have to speak up,” Mahmoud, who wears an Islamic headscarf but not a full-face veil, told The Associated Press.
In Egypt, a country where politics have grabbed most of the headlines for the past three years, little space has been dedicated to addressing social problems. So Mahmoud, who is a first-year student of politics and economics at the October 6 University in a western Cairo suburb, decided to draw attention to women’s rights through rap.
“Everybody speaks about politics, but nobody tackles the topics that relate to me the most,” Mahmoud said.
She said she gets the ideas for her songs from the surrounding community, and that sometimes girls send her their problems to write about and give them a voice.
“Many girls want to say what I rap about, but they cannot for many reasons,” she said. “I speak for them.”
One of the biggest problems for woman in Egypt is sexual harassment. A U.N. report released in April said the issue had reached “unprecedented levels,” with 99.3 percent of women in the country reporting that they have been subjected to sexual harassment.
“There is no single female in Egypt that has not been harassed, regardless of her looks,” Mahmoud said. “As soon as a girl is born in Egypt, she is repressed with many pressures.”
Part of the problem, in Mahmoud’s eyes, is that women don’t speak out against harassment.
“I wish we would not be silent about our problems,” she said. “We have to snatch our freedoms, nobody will just offer them.”
Her lyrics take the issue head on.
“Some of us see the answer is to cover up, and if the girl is hidden she will not be assaulted,” she raps in one song. “My body is only mine.”
Initiatives to counter the problem have increased in the past year in Egypt, where volunteer groups have started protecting women at street protests. On the other side of the debate are conservative religious clerics who blame women, saying they invite harassment and sexual abuse by mixing with men.
The issue is, in part at least, linked to the broader expectations that many men in religiously conservative Egypt have about women and their roles in society. Mahmoud, with her quiet self-confidence and animated performances in a genre that has gained more acceptance among younger Egyptians in recent years, has challenged those expectations.
She said she received a flood of messages after her performance on TV accusing her of misrepresenting Islam with her look — read veil — and attitude. But she dismissed the criticism, saying “religion has never been a constraint — we put the curbs on.”
“The veil was never a problem for me because it is my personal choice,” she said. “If I’m going to add anything new to my life it has to go with my initial choices.”