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Young woman's report on Egypt

Teresa Rehman | Updated on June 09, 2011 Published on June 09, 2011

Sondos Shabayek is Editor-in-Chief of a youth magazine.   -  wfs

During the recent people's revolution that led to the ouster of Egypt's dictator-president Hosni Mubarak, Sondos Shabayek, a journalist, used to spend a large part of her day tweeting about the goings-on at Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the agitation.

Though the 25-year-old was more of a citizen-journalist during the uprising — she used social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to do most of the reporting — she was one of the few women in the Egyptian media who witnessed the revolution as it unfolded. But that's not the only distinction young Sondos has achieved in her short career as a journalist: shattering the glass ceiling, she has become the Editor-in-Chief of an Arabic youth magazine.

“During the revolution, I was reporting small incidents using pictures or tweets. For instance, who got beaten up, what kind of force the police was using, what the protestors were chanting, and so on,” she recalls. Today, social networking sites have revolutionised how ordinary Egyptians communicate. And, according to Sondos, they have also become the official mediums of reporting. In fact, even the country's new administration is trying to reach out to the youth through the online media.

Women and journalism

But given that journalism is not a favoured career option for women in her country, how did Sondos become one? She smiles, “I always asked the stupidest questions; ‘why' followed my every line, and whenever my parents said ‘no' to anything I would argue back, ‘why not, you have to give me a reason'.” So she did have the inclination since childhood and, of course, her parents were supportive. While most middle-class Egyptians would deter their daughters from taking up the profession, largely because it is male-dominated, involves late working-hours, extensive travel and unpredictable schedules, the Shabayeks sent her to Cairo after school to enrol in a mass communications course.

Sondos concedes that journalism in Egypt is still male-dominated but adds that “the situation is better than it was a few years ago”. Her success is proof of that change. Of course, her professional rise has been steady — while studying she worked for a year as a copy editor with a youth TV programme. She then joined a monthly Arabic youth publication as an editor. Last year, she was made its Editor-in-Chief. Now she also freelances for an Arabic daily, one of the few independent ones in the country.

“I chose to work as a journalist because I realised that I have a passion to investigate, listen and write,” she says. But she feels that development and women's issues should be accorded more space.

Fortunately, there are women like her who can push this agenda forward. Before the revolution, censorship was very strict but now change is in the air. “Those who dared to cross the red line were later charged and sent for trial or fired. We will definitely enjoy more freedom in speech, we are already starting to!” she says.

Sondos has enjoyed relative freedom — she has chosen to report on subjects close to her heart. She has also been sent on “risky” assignments, even though most media houses prefer to send men. In 2008, she went to the strife-torn Gaza strip, from where she filed an extensive feature story on the lives of ordinary people there. “It was my first time crossing the border into Palestinian lands, so it was breathtaking on many levels. The humanitarian situation was appalling. Children were making toys out of stones and swings out of barricades and shattered homes. It was invigorating reporting on the political turmoil and its offshoot,” she recalls. She considers the Gaza reportage one of her best works till date.

Reporting in a hijab

While she is lucky to have bagged a daring assignment so early in her career, she knows it may not be easy every time. “It is hard for women interested in addressing daring or bold issues, or topics that are taboo in society. It is not because ours is an Islamic country — if you walk down the street, the diversity of people will prove this — but Egypt is simply conservative.”

Speaking of taboos and conservative attitudes, has the hijab-wearing journo ever faced trouble? She says, “There are times when people think of me as less capable or less smart because I wear a hijab. But that's just in the beginning. It is difficult as a hardcore feminist to write about ideas that society doesn't accept or think are right, but I have made it, as have some other young women like me out there. I have faced a bit of discrimination here and there, but I would not say that it made me feel less empowered.”

Does she have any female role models? “Not really; those I aspire to be like are all male reporters. It's not because they are any less capable but usually the nature of the job makes it hard for most women to excel,” she says.

While she is not really bothered about the challenges her work entails, what concerns her is life after marriage. She knows Egyptian husbands usually expect their wives to compromise on their career to take care of the home and children. Yet, she is optimistic. “I hope to choose a partner who will value my ambitions and be understanding and supportive,” she says.

In the meantime, she aims to excel at what she does by constantly updating herself on the latest developments. She recently completed a course in reporting on HIV-AIDS, organised by Thomson Reuters Foundation at Nairobi, Kenya. “Unfortunately, reporting on HIV-AIDS is very poor in my country… it is improving bit by bit,” she says. She also attended a short-story writing workshop organised by the British Council in Alexandria and won a prize.

Her ability to connect with anything that affects her country and the people ensures she does her job well. She says, “I have realised that journalism is a very important profession in developing countries.” And as a journalist and a young Egyptian, she sees the revolution as the beginning of another bigger and tougher revolution — that of rebuilding the country. It's the lines of the famous Sufi poet Rumi that keep her going: “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there's a field, I'll meet you there”.

© Women's Feature Service

Published on June 09, 2011
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