Egyptian Journalist Sondos Shabayek Dares to Cross Red Lines to Investigate

During the recent people’s revolution that led to the ouster of Egypt’s dictator-president of over three decades, Hosni Mubarak, Sondos Shabayek, a professional journalist used to spend a large part of her day tweeting about the events at Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the agitation.

Though the 25-year-old was more of a citizen journalist during the uprising, she used social networking platforms like 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. Of course, that’s not the only distinction young Shabayek has achieved in her short career as a journalist. 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 the way in which ordinary Egyptians communicate. According to Shabayek, they have also become the official mediums of reporting. In fact, online media that even the new administration that came in after the change in regime is trying to reach out to the youth through it.

But considering that journalism is not a favoured career option for women in her country, how did Shabayek 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 the inclination was there since childhood and her parents were cooperative. While most middle-class Egyptians would deter their daughters from taking up the profession, largely because it is male-dominated and involves late working hours, extensive travelling and unpredictable schedules, the Shabayeks sent her to Cairo immediately after school to enroll in a mass communications course.

Incidentally, Shabayek concedes that journalism in Egypt is still very much male-dominated but she adds that now, “the situation is better than it was few years back.”

And her success is a proof of that change. Of course, Shabayek’s professional rise has been steady. While studying she worked as a copy editor with a youth TV programme for a year. A few months later she joined a monthly Arabic youth publication as an editor. Last year, she was made its Editor-in-Chief. Now, she has also started freelancing for a daily Arabic newspaper, 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 Shabayek feels that more space needs to be accorded to development and women’s issues.

Fortunately, there are women like her who can push this agenda forward. At least now the Egyptian media is known to be a little more emancipated than its counterparts in other countries around the Arab world. Of course, before the revolution censorship was very strict but like all things here too change is in the air.

“Those who dared cross the red line were later on charged and sent to trial or fired. We will definitely enjoy more freedom in speech, we are already starting to!” she says.

Shabayek 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 out into the field.

In 2008, Shabayek went to the strife-torn Gaza strip, from where she filed an extensive feature story on the lives of ordinary people there. “I wrote about what I saw and about the people I spoke to and the situation then,” she says.

“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.”

Till date, she considers the Gaza reportage as one of her best works.

While Shabayek is lucky to have earned such a daring assignment so early on in her career, she knows it will not be so easy every time. She realises that for women reporters, who want to take on sensitive issues through their writing, it’s a difficult road ahead.

“It is hard for women who are 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-sporting journo ever faced trouble on this account? She says, “There are times when people think of me as less capable or less smart because I wear a hijab (Islamic headgear). But that’s just in the beginning. It is difficult as a hard core feminist to write about ideas that the 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 little bit of discrimination here and there. I would not say that it made me feel less empowered.”

And 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.

Doesn’t that make Shabayek worry about her future in the profession? While she is not really bothered about the challenges that her work entails, what concerns her is: What will happen once she gets married? 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 have no idea yet how I will cope with my career once I am married. I hope to choose a partner who will value my ambitions. He must be understanding and supportive enough to cooperate,” she says.

Shabayek is eager to excel as much as she can. She likes to keep herself constantly updated with the newest happenings. Anything that can help her hone her capabilities as a journalist is welcome.

In fact, she has recently completed a course on reporting on HIV-AIDS, organised by Thomson Reuters Foundation at Nairobi, Kenya. “Unfortunately, reporting on HIV-AIDS is very poor in my country. Though it’s rarely addressed, it is improving bit by bit,” she says. She has also attended a short story writing workshop organised by the British Council in Alexandria and won a prize for a short story written about her homeland.

Shabayek always connects with anything that affects her country and the people, a quality that enables her to do her job well. She says, “I have realised that journalism is a very important profession in developing countries.”

As a journalist and a young Egyptian, she sees the revolution as the beginning of another bigger and harder revolution. She is referring to the rebuilding her 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
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