Hamsa Mansour: The Egyptian Cyclist Showing How it’s Done

Twenty nine-year-old Hamsa Mansour is many things: athlete, adventurer, aspiring documentarian and storyteller – and come 2019, she might just be the first Egyptian woman to solo cycle the entirety of Egypt.

I first stumbled upon Hamsa’s story in an article published on the independent news organisation Egyptian Streets. Here was an inspiring women with a passion for travel and challenging preconceptions about what is and isn’t possible – how could I turn down the opportunity to share her story?

On the 23rd of December 2017, Hamsa completed an 8-day solo, unsupported cycle from the capital city of Cairo and across the Sinai Peninsula; a journey that served as preparation for her 2019 goal. For this challenge, Hamsa was sponsored by Wild Guanabana and supported by her husband Nour El Din, and one of her best friends, Galal Zekri Chatila – both whom have solo cycled Egypt before. Nour and Galal provided pre-trip consultations and were Hamsa’s emergency contacts throughout the duration of the trip. Additionally, a wider support network based in different locations around the country tracked her progress and safety. In the final days of 2017, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Hamsa on cycling, Egypt, and why being a girl should never stop anyone.

You recently completed cycling around the Red Sea and Sinai. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience?

The journey was overwhelming. Let me start by saying that I had to stop at Nuweiba (70km and one day away from the planned end destination) because of an injury. I was advised by a doctor to turn around and take a bus home on the fourth day, but I was sure I could push some more, and I wanted to reach the farthest I could.

The journey to Nuweiba was really overwhelming. Being on my own on the roads I truly love and feeling that I’m at home was new to me, (and) being challenged every single day and breaking down and getting myself back up made me more resilient. The first 3 days were very hard; I was facing unpredicted head winds at great speeds that slowed me down a lot, and my speed averaged at 9-10km/hr instead of 17-19 km/hr. It was demotivating and devastating to not have been able to reach my original destination on the second day, and having to make adjustments because of the wind. I had to take everything in a joking manner. I would sit on the road and laugh at the fact that I’m cycling at 8km/hr, and that I’d been cycling for five hours to cover thirty-something kilometres. It was my way of dealing with it. It was an “I’ll get there when I get there” sort of mentality. I learned a lot about respecting my body. I learnt that it isn’t a machine, (that) it will get tired and it is entitled to.

You had to amend your original plans to manage injury. Is psychological flexibility something that comes naturally to you?

I actually had to amend a lot of things on this trip – before your question, I didn’t even know that it required psychological flexibility!

Changing plans according to the circumstances doesn’t bother or worry me. On the first day, I had to accept that my speedometer wasn’t working and wouldn’t work and (that there was) head wind. I had to change the plans and destinations because of this several times, (and) then I had to change my plans because of the injuries. This started with completely ditching the planning and going as fast as my body would allow me, to not cycling the last day and ending the journey in Nuweiba. I do better when I’m not tied to schedules and deadlines. It gives me space to breathe.

What is your response to people who tell you that you’re pursuing the impossible by training to be the first Egyptian woman to solo cycle around Egypt?

I don’t believe in impossible things. I would just say that I have been told that the trip I just finished is impossible and that I will end up raped and dead on the side of the road and here I am, I think the first Egyptian woman to solo cycle such a distance inside Egypt unsupported.

“(When) I started planning this trip alone, 99% of the reactions I received were along the lines of, ‘Girls don’t do this alone, someone will kidnap and rape you and you will be found dead’. I didn’t believe this to be true and it made me want to embark on this adventure the soonest to prove that people are inherently good.”
Source

How has living your whole life in Egypt informed your attitude towards gender?

There has always been a contrast between the way I was raised and how the society functions. At home, I was never ever introduced to the concept of saying ‘the difference between men and women isn’t right’. I didn’t know that some people saw it this way to begin with, so I never thought of that. My mom raised us as all kids should be raised. Being a girl was just a fact, not an issue. As I grew older and I saw how the society functions, I didn’t understand or conform to it, (and) it was never a part of any decision-making. It is way more simple to me than this, and I believe (it is) what makes me not scared while venturing on such adventures.

What is a message you have for anyone considering traveling to Egypt for the first time?  

Forget the stereotypes and the places they tell you to visit. This country is very, very diverse; we have several cultures and ethnic communities that you would love to discover and understand. Instead of going to Cairo and Alexandria, go to Siwa and the western desert and its marvellous sand dunes. Go to Sinai and enjoy hiking the deserts and climbing mountains for days at a time. Go to Aswan and see the colourful islands on the Nile banks, and stay with Nubian people in their homes. Go to Luxor and see pharaonic wonders. There is much, much more.

You have said that you weren’t always the strong, adventurous person you are now. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self in light of everything you have achieved today?

I would tell myself to get up and get stronger. I would tell myself that it is worth it.

How can we support you on your journey towards your 2019 goal?

I want to raise awareness towards (my) journey. I will honestly need sponsors to be able to (achieve) this, and I need more people to know about it. I have been receiving messages that what I did inspired some – if that is true, I would love more people to hear about it.

“I do believe it’s always mind over matter. In any single adventure, in anything we do. It’s what gets you up a mountain; it’s not only your training, but what you think, and how you talk to yourself.”
Source

Follow Hamsa on Instagram to keep up to date with her adventures…
… and check out Wild Guanabana, the sponsor of Hamsa’s cycling!

 

Let’s Get Social!

Facebook ● Twitter ● Youtube ● Bloglovin’

And don’t forget to subscribe to our behind-the-scenes email newsletter!

Continue Reading

Open Season: Being a Ginger in Egypt

I arrived in Egypt with little expectations about how I would be treated as a white, unveiled and ‘exotic’ (I use that word liberally) female.

As a student of gender studies – and someone who has an active interest in global politics – I was well aware that the Middle East’s relationship with woman is far removed from what I am familiar with in the west. It was to be the first time in my life that I represented the minority, and that thought both excited and scared me.

The next two weeks would expose me to a side of humanity that very few things could have prepared me for. It disgusted me; not disgust in the sense that I grew reluctant to venture out of the house without completely covering myself – which, FYI, isn’t even enough to stop men who feel entitled to make women uncomfortable in the public sphere – but disgust in the sense that I couldn’t believe people think that this kind of behaviour is actually okay. The argument from relativity suddenly lost its shine that trip.

Over those two weeks, I was subjected to people stopping in the middle of the street and pointing at me, cars honking as I walked down the side of the road, and the making of rude and unnecessary comments in Arabic as I walked past. At one point, I was in the middle of a marketplace when a man riding a motorcycle zoomed past, shouldered me and nearly knocked me off my feet. When I visited the iconic Great Pyramids, I was surrounded by local tourists more interested in taking pictures with me than the actual wonders. It was flattering until they started grabbing me.

Making friends… us gingers gotta stick together.

All of this was just by existing in Cairo and minding my own business. Whilst I did not veil my head, I was dressed conservatively and respected the culture. None of the behaviour was provoked in any meaningful or justified way.

From my observation, about 85-90% of the women I saw in the streets were veiled. It is also worth mentioning that – compared to their male counterparts – very few women even venture into the public sphere. I counted the occasions I saw people who represented tourists, and the number might amaze you: seven. Just seven – over two whole weeks. Egypt’s tourist economy has plunged from 14.7 million to 5.4 million per year, and it is noticeable. Tourists have become something of a commodity, only fueling the attitude towards them.

The irony of the whole trip was that the occasion on which I felt most comfortable in public was when I visited a nightclub. I remember thinking that there is definitely something wrong with a culture where you receive more unwanted attention on the streets than in a freakin’ bar.

I’m not comfortable arguing that it is easier being an unveiled woman than a veiled woman in Egypt, as other travel bloggers have. There are cultural forces at work there that someone like me can’t even imagine, and it isn’t a competition of oppression. I’m also aware that my experience was far more benign than that suffered by other females. I’m just writing this blog post to share my personal experience so that if you are a woman with intentions of visiting this incredible country, at least you’re not walking in blind.

I never once felt unsafe or threatened whilst I was in Egypt. I think a large part of that is because I mentally prepared myself for the attention and was always in good company. But I can wholeheartedly understand why the experience would be enough to deter someone from the Middle East altogether. It’s a shame, because the two countries I have traveled to in this region so far – Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – left me with rich knowledge and positive memories that surpassed my wildest expectations.

You don’t have to lose all sense of identity in Egypt to avoid harassment. Even if you were wearing a niqāb, the chances are, you would still receive some form of it. After all, studies reveal that 99% of Egyptian women have been subjected to misogynist behaviour on the streets of Cairo (what is being called a ‘moral epidemic’).

But what you can do to prepare is educate yourself on the culture and understand that there is nothing you are doing to deserve this treatment. There is nothing morally justifiable about it. It it simply the result of a lack of education, public safety, poverty and dangerous cultural ideas. The only way it can be challenged is by standing up to it and raising awareness about the injustices served.

 All of the photographs in this post were taken at the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel of Cairo.
Let’s Get Social!

Facebook ● Twitter ● Youtube

And don’t forget to subscribe to my monthly email newsletter!

Continue Reading

Traveling with the F-Word (That’s Right…Feminism)

Let’s have a little talk, shall we?

As a gender studies student, I was determined that I would somehow incorporate a blog post discussing this wonderful thing called feminism. For those of you that are not acquainted with feminism – or perhaps need a little refreshing in the midst of the anti-feminist backlash – allow me to welcome you back into the classroom.

Feminism is essentially the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. And when I say ‘essentially’, what I mean is that I copied and pasted that right out of the dictionary. Plagiarism points for me.

Gender equality – or inequality, I should say – bleeds into every area of life. We hear about the gender ratio in parliament, the wage gap between female and male employees, and even the extent of legal independence women should have in some parts of the world. As important as these issues are, there is a further niche where gendered assumptions and expectations permeate, however implicitly: travel.

In the travel arena, I am a very privileged individual. Pretending otherwise will not do anyone any good. I’m privileged because I grew up in a safe country rich with opportunity (shout out to New Zealand), am from a financially stable background and have a supportive family who encourage anything and everything I set my mind to. The term ‘privilege’ receives a bad reputation because it includes connotations of individuals who have never had to work a day in their life, don’t understand what it means to be confronted with setbacks, and who are generally just ‘bad people’. I acknowledge that the avenues I have taken to make progress towards my goals may not have been characterised by the hardship many other people experience, but that doesn’t automatically make me unworthy of enjoying them. Accepting that I am in a position of privilege – as uncomfortable as that process may be – affords me the opportunity to overcome the prevailing obstacle in the way of holding myself partly accountable for the injustice in today’s society.

Travel can be a feminist pursuit through many means. Anything that furthers women’s ability to achieve things that society may not necessarily acknowledge or approve of for women is a feminist issue. This article will illustrate 3 tropes which you – as a female traveler – can identify to challenge the mentalities that prevent women from participating in an equal and rewarding experience of the world 💪

The “Settle Down” Trope

You know what I’m talking about – the idea that a woman has only succeeded at being a woman if she has managed to land a job, find a man, slap a ring on her finger and pop out two or three young ‘uns. That, ladies and gentleman, is the arithmetic of womanhood. Anything that strays from this paragon means she has failed.

One of the many problems with this trope is that it doesn’t accommodate goals such as travel. How is a woman supposed to maintain a 9-5 job when she’s never in one place long enough to make the interview? How is a woman supposed to settle down if she doesn’t have the suburban house with the white picket fence? An airport is no place to raise children.

The reality is that this paradigm does not fit every woman. Truth be told, I would be surprised if any woman – or man, for that matter – was perfectly content following this preconceived course. Success is subjective, and in the words of Swami Vivekananda: “The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence.”

The “Vulnerable Woman” Trope

“But is it safe? You know… for a woman?” 

“Will you have a man with you?”

“No parent wants their daughter alone in a foreign country – you’re being selfish!”

If any of these sound familiar to you, then you will have been exposed to the Vulnerable Woman Trope. This is the one where – upon announcing your travel plans – people automatically latch onto the implications of your gender.

Now, I’m not stupid. I know that there are some places in the world that it would be simply irresponsible to venture alone. But there are also a lot of places that – while they certainly carry their risks – should not be off-limits for someone purely because they identify as a woman and not a man.

Statistics illustrate how men are actually twice as likely to experience violent assault committed by strangers than women. Yet, you rarely hear people warning their fellow male friends to avoid traveling alone. This fixation on the danger of solo female traveling only disseminates the cultural falsehood not only of women as vulnerable and helpless beings, but also of the conceptual impossibility of men as victims of crime. These ideas work to scare women out of expanding their comfort zone, and are all but an invitation for victim-blaming if a woman does happen to be assaulted whilst traveling on her own.

The take home message is that you should not let misogynistic stereotypes around female independence limit your opportunities. No one should travel somewhere without educating themselves on personal protection and welfare, and consulting the social and political landscape of any prospective country before booking those plane tickets should be a priority. Bear in mind that gendered advice around security can be delivered more for the purpose of reaffirming the Vulnerable Woman Trope rather than actually presenting a realistic view of safety. Traveling alone can be a rewarding and empowering experience – for both women and men – and we need to understand that threats to this independence are not all that meets then eye.

P.S. a fantastic resource for genuine advice on street harassment whilst traveling is this article by Everyday Feminism.

 

The “Woman = Things” Trope

When I was preparing to move overseas for the first time, I pulled a Marie Kondo and down-sized my possessions to the point where I could fit everything I owned into one suitcase. When I would share this with my friends, they would be astounded and ask how I could get rid of so much shit. And that’s what I want to emphasise – that it really was ‘shit’. It may have been shit I was admittedly attached to, but it was nevertheless shit. When it came down to it, I didn’t really need five pairs of Nikes. Nor did I really need three sets of reusable coffee flasks. Once I accepted that, a more minimalist lifestyle suddenly became a lot more appealing.

Society is obsessed with ‘things’ – and by ‘things’, I mean anything that you can buy/own. We tend to hierarchise people based on money; a habit propagated by commercialism and capitalism. We are taught that the more things we own, the more successful we are. We further observe this through the notion that shopping equals happiness.

Why is this a feminist issue, I hear you ask? Well, consider the relationship between females and shopping; the stereotype of women as ‘shopaholics‘ is well-established and reinforced by the philosophy that individuals that own a lot of stuff possess higher prestige and status. By going against the grain, females are gambling being judged as a lesser woman who has perhaps failed at cultural femininity.

Anyone who travels knows only too well that lugging bags upon bags of belongings wherever they go is a burden. Half the point of traveling is to detach yourself from material ownership and to feel at home – not within the four walls of a house – but by the quality of the people around you. A nomadic lifestyle is incompatible with the convention of women accumulating more and more stuff, which is all the more reason to challenge it.

Some final thoughts…

Travel provides many opportunities: the opportunity for new experiences, the opportunity to meet new people… and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to learn.

Growing up in New Zealand, misogyny manifests in micro-aggressions. In other words, sexism is an implicit and underlying mechanism that characterises the female existence in a seemingly insignificant way (emphasis on the ‘seemingly’). But when I am in foreign places, the gender inequality can sometimes be so palpable, it’s like a slap to the face.

The downside to being a Kiwi is that it’s easy to take a relatively egalitarian society for granted. But through living in one of the more privileged countries in the world, us females have a political voice that is heard and respected. Educating first ourselves and then others about the injustices occurring in other societies is an opportunity that should not be undermined but rather encouraged.

Through a feminist approach to traveling, women become more aware and vocal of the inequalities plaguing humanity. I am a firm believer that social change is a bottom-up process, and what better way to start than by challenging the mentalities that reinforce sexist travel tropes.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash

Hungry for more? Be sure to check out my blog post: The Bucket List: Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel (Or Why Tourism is Political) 🌍

Let’s Get Social!

Facebook ● Twitter ● Youtube ● Bloglovin’

And don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly email newsletter!

Continue Reading