As a girl, to simply walk down the streets of Egypt means she’s willing to put up with abuse that runs between verbal, physical or even emotional. Dealing with being seen as a sex object and not allowed to do certain things in the streets is also a part of living as a girl in a conservative society like Egypt. But Mennatullah El-Husseiny decided to break that taboo.
El-Husseiny is a 23-year-old law student who decided to fight the general outlook of Egyptian society towards girls and her rights to do everything that’s entitled “only for men”.
The pure courage showed in her shaved hair up to her tattoo with the Arabic words “Shakily A’gebny” (“I like the way I look like”) is not something Egyptians get to see daily. And that applies as well to her small kiosk selling hot drinks in down town Cairo.
The hot drink kiosk, which she named “El-Nasba” (hot drinks stand), sold all kinds of flavoured tea, coffee, and hot chocolate for pittance on the sidewalk by the Ministry of Religious Endowments near Tahrir Square in Cairo.
“I’m not in need of the money I’m gaining from work,” said El-Husseiny. “But I was raised to be independent and to do what I love the most without putting people’s opinion in consideration.”
Before opening her private business, El-Husseiny worked as waiter at a local coffee shop, where people sat for hot drinks and shisha, is just 20 metres away from her own stand.
According to El-Husseiny, she can walk in parallel between her study and working.
“I used to go to college in the morning and open the stand in the afternoon from 6pm to 2am,” she said. “The Egyptian educational system is a total failure, as a student you don’t get to learn anything from college, so all the life experience you gain is from work.”
She sees the only way to find out what she wants in life is with trying everything.
“I worked as a saleswoman for four years, and even though I gained a lot of money, I wasn’t satisfied with my achievements, so I decided to look for something else I love doing. And serving people at coffee shops was it,” she said.
Before opening her own business, she searched a lot to find out her path, and tried several jobs and careers. After leaving the sales department, she tried working as an engraver, but engravers wouldn’t let her to work with them. Afterwards she stayed for three month on her own in Alexandria trying to find an appropriate job, and being a singer was one of them, where she adds: “People think I’m crazy, but who cares?”
After finding the job she thought was “the one”, the path wasn’t easily paved.
“First, the governorate didn’t approve to give me a permission to stand in the street,” El-Husseiny remembered, “and when I stood anyways the policemen used the help of the thugs to keep annoying me and my costumers, they just couldn’t bare with the idea of a girl doing what was usually a man’s job.”
The help of the people living in the neighbourhood and their encouragement helped her to fight back what she called “the terrorism of the thugs”, but “they never gave up on annoying me or calling the police to close the stand on a daily basis”.
In the end, both the police and thugs succeeded at pushing her away from the neighbourhood.
El-Husseiny finds that her way of surprising people with unexpected things is the method she uses to change them: “It’s called the shock theory, people are sick, show them everything they don’t want to be revealed and enjoy their reactions.”
She admits that she faces several kinds of harassment every time she walks down the street due to people not accepting her look, her shaved head and the way she’s dressed or acts.
“I’ve been hit three times while walking by myself without doing anything,” she said. “All were by different people who then run away cursing me after the hitting.”
Facing a society that didn’t understand, didn’t affect her dreams.
“I still dream of reopening it, but in reality it’s so hard to achieve it,” El-Husseiny sadly said. “Yet, it’s an experience that I will never forget due to the treasures I learned from it.”
Eventually, El-Husseiny believes that reopening the stand again is one of the messages she tries to delivers through living which she sees as”changing every stereotype society has”.