Egypt’s first woman to captain a ship says smear campaign has empowered her

Marwa Elselehdar was falsely accused of getting the 'Ever Given' container ship stuck in the Suez Canal

Marwa Elselehdar’s name will go down in history. In a matter of weeks, she is expected to become the first woman in Egypt to earn the rank of ship's captain.

But on her journey towards achieving this, Ms Elselehdar has faced years of discrimination on account of her gender.

While this began when she was a cadet in the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport regional university, 12 years ago, it reached a whole new level in recent weeks.

"I was being accused of steering the ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal, while I was stationed on a totally different vessel," she told The National.

On March 23, 400-metre long, 220,000-tonne cargo ship the Ever Given became wedged across  the Suez Canal, completely blocking the vital waterway.

This created a tailback of more than 300 vessels, with the disruption costing billions of dollars, before the Ever Given was freed six days later.

At the time of the incident, Ms Elselehdar, 30, was serving on the Aida IV, a training and supply ship for an isolated lighthouse in the Red Sea.

Days earlier, a Saudi-based news outlet ran a profile of the first officer, marking her achievements.

But cyberbullies took that story and rigged it with a fake headline blaming her for blocking the Suez Canal.

"I was shocked. That was my name linked to that event. My reputation, that I worked so hard on,  was being tainted," Ms Elselehdar said.

In the wake of the fake story, the bullying centred around the age-old stereotype that "women can't drive" and that they are less capable than men, especially in male-dominated fields.

"Women have been pillars in Egyptian history and even now, during the coronavirus pandemic, have proven to the world what they are truly capable of," Ms Elselehdar said.

She has worked diligently to tell her story since the false accusation, and in doing so has garnered international support.

“I have had an outpouring of encouragement and many questions, too – about the nature of my field, its requirements and job opportunities – from men and women alike.

“This was a blessing in disguise,” Ms Elselehdar said.

Women in the maritime industry often get administrative roles, ones that do not entail being aboard a ship full of men for up to 18 months at a time.

“That was my main concern when I started. I had many moments of weakness where I felt like giving up. But my mom, who is my biggest supporter, always told me to keep going.”

Ms Elselehdar said she had to mature rapidly to deal with the difficult circumstances involved in long voyages and her unique work environment.

“As an Arab woman, it was important to me to make sure that I am being given the privacy and respect that complement my culture and my values.

"My cabin now is like my room. The ship, my second home and my crewmates, my second family.”

The first officer is just weeks away from taking her oral exam to become a captain, but getting to this point has not been easy. It has required her to "prove" her competence time and time again.

“Whenever someone directs a judgmental or discriminatory comment at me, I just challenge them to find a shortcoming in my professionalism and capabilities," she said.

"It means always having to ensure that I am doing my best.”

Ms Elselehdar said that although her detractors were numerous, grounding herself in a community of supporters and keeping in touch with her mentors gave her strength.

"I was really touched when my teachers, idols and mentors all reached out to me during the ordeal to make sure that I was OK.

"They gave me words of wisdom to go on, and spoke to me like a colleague, an equal,” she said.

The Egypt-based Arab Women in Maritime Association also rallied behind Ms Elselehdar, launching the hashtag #awima_support_capt_marwaelselhdar.

“Having such an empowering association behind me, who made such an effort to dispel all the rumours surrounding me, made me feel like we, as women, can really be there for each other,” she said.

Earning the rank of captain will qualify Ms Elselehdar to take charge of any type of ship.

“As long as we keep our professionalism, nobody will be able to say that we can’t do exactly what our peers do.”