Empowering Egyptian Women Through Music

Cynthia P. Schneider
Cynthia P. Schneider Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy - Georgetown University

March 26, 2012

“I entered this competition because I wanted to represent the generation that witnessed the revolution, and let people know what’s happening,’ explained 14-year-old Zain Abed before she launched into a robust rendition of James Morrison’s “Up,” her entry into the “Sing Egyptian Women” contest. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo partnered with Share the Mic, a company that strategically matches emerging artists with non-profit causes, to develop the contest as a means to empower Egyptian women.

Wait a minute; the U.S. Embassy is co-sponsoring an American-Idol style contest to empower Egyptian women? What happened to seminars and speeches? The U.S. Embassy in Cairo, specifically cultural attaché Michael Hankey and his team, “get it.” In this time of uncertainty and change, they have developed an innovative program that delivers something young Egyptian women want: a platform to leverage their own voices.

After their active participation in the revolution, female voices have played a disappointingly small role in the current developments in Egyptian politics and society. Women comprise only 2% of the 508 seats in the Lower House of Parliament. Association with Suzanne Mubarak, who supported women’s rights to some degree, further has smeared the cause. But women in Egypt have no intention of remaining silent. Public figures such as presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel and actress Tayseer Fahmy continue to speak out for representation of women in the Constitutional Assembly and other aspects of government, and the well-attended march on International Women’s Day showed the broad-based backing for these demands.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that many of the “Sing Egyptian Women” contestants referenced Egypt’s future in a recent standing room only concert in Cairo. Teenaged Maggie Fekry voiced a common sentiment when she dedicated her song, Patti LaBelle’s “There’s a Winner in You” to the people in Egypt who may be feeling “a bit down right now,” applying the song’s title to the people of Egypt. Noha Alaa’s rousing version of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” echoed this theme, and ended the night on a high note, but it was Dina El Wadidi’s rendition of Sayyed Darwish’s anthem to Egypt’s 1919 revolution (“Da Elly Sar”) that really brought the house down.

Regardless of who wins the contest’s prize of a trip to New York and the opportunity to record an original song with a top American musical talent, each of the finalists was transformed by the experience of performing before that packed hall, many of them singing in public for the first time. Contestants also thanked Embassy officials and others involved for the Contest’s workshops in music (with Cairo’s top opera singer), performance, communication, and leadership, the effects of which were visible on stage.

But the most lasting effect of the contest may be the strong network between the contestants. In a few short weeks, the young women have gone from strangers to close, supportive friends. With each successive round of elimination, those who don’t make the cut support the remaining finalists online and in person. That the 16 finalists have become the talk of the town in Cairo, and have given many repeat performances after that success of their first concert has only strengthened the bonds between the young women.

This contest has also facilitated phenomenal growth in the Embassy’s Facebook presence. After the contest launched, its followers increased by over forty thousand people. In just one week of voting, the contest generated more than 60,000 visits and over 111,000 views, over 8,000 votes, and over 5,000 comments.

Judging by the response at the sold out concert, and subsequently online, anti-Americanism, which currently runs high in Egypt, does not interfere with “Sing Egyptian Women.” In fact, in this time of transition, elevating Egyptian voices arguably accomplishes more than the traditional business of cultural diplomacy — showcasing American performers and thinkers.

An American Idol-style contest in Egypt (and elsewhere in the Middle East) makes sense now for another reason: it is a meritocracy. In a country where connections grease advances in work, school, and society, a merit-based contest, with the winner selected by voting offers a small taste of the social justice sought by the revolution.

In their introductory remarks, the “Sing Egyptian Women” contestants envisioned their roles in the future of their country, providing a reminder of the “voices of the Revolution” that have been overshadowed by the Islamists’ political gains and the NGO crisis.

Yet the youth activists are still as committed as ever, and, just as is true of the contestants in “Sing Egyptian Women,” they don’t fall into one category. Some wear hijab; some don’t. Some support Islamist parties or candidates; some don’t. But they all have been irrevocably changed by the revolution.

Ask the youth still fighting for basic freedoms and justice, in the face of brutality from police and security forces, what the ongoing revolution signifies to them, and you will hear answers like “Now I know what it means to be an Egyptian. Before I only wanted to leave Egypt. Now I want to stay and rebuild it.” But the past year has sobered the youth, too. “I am fighting for my grandchildren,” said 21-year-old Noha Redwan. I may not see the changes we seek, but, eventually, they will.”

Washington was taken by surprise by the Egyptian revolution because policy experts focused too much on Mubarak and his government, and too little on the “voice of the people.” The same mistake risks repetition, only now the focus is on the SCAF (Supreme Council of Allied Forces) and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership.

Good to know that in Cairo, at least, embassy officials are not only listening to the “voice of the people,” but also, with the help of an innovative private company (Share the Mic), are creating a platform for empowering Egyptian voices.