In June 2015, three young women who met at a creative writing workshop organized by the Egyptian civil society organization NAZRA for Feminist Studies came together to establish the first feminist underground band in Egypt; Bnt Al-Masarwa (Daughter of the Egyptians). Al-Masarwa, their first album, produced by NAZRA and Studio Badrum in Alexandria, consisted of six songs discussing their experience with gender-based violence, as well as negative customs and traditions affecting Egyptian women. The album was the product of NAZRA’s creative writing workshop in which eight female participants applied gender perspective to analyze women’s representation in songs and drama.
“While recording our first album, we felt that we want this band to carry on; we decided to name it after the album’s title,” Esraa Saleh, co-founder, songwriter and singer tells Egypt Today. “The name ‘Al-Masarwa’ was inspired by a line in one of the album’s songs. Other Arab countries refer to Egyptians as ‘Al-Masarwa,’ so we thought it would be creative to name the band Bnt Al-Masarwa, in a message that we represent all Egyptian girls and women beyond any stereotypes or classification,” adds Saleh.
The vibrant, passionate young women aim to produce women’s music in Arabic, based on real-life experiences of women and girls affected by different circumstances, backgrounds and identities. Through their music, they attempt to help women from different backgrounds express the reality of womanhood in modern Egypt. They explain that their cause goes beyond singing; as they believe that women all over Egypt face various forms of oppression as a result of culture, customs, religious beliefs and intersectional oppression. “There are many segments of women in society that no one speaks for, like the women of Upper Egypt, indebted and divorced women, girls who are subjected to harassment on the streets and those who face restrictions imposed by culture. Such topics require attention and need to be [highlighted],” says Saleh.
Cofounder, singer and executive director of the band, Marina Samir, has been a passionate advocate of women’s rights and feminism since she was young. The Cairo University political science student is intent on exposing how the patriarchal system controls every small detail of Egyptian women’s lives. “I think of music as a medium to transfer and voice women’s realities and experiences and also to highlight the pressure that falls on men to follow certain stereotypes, shaped by society, to be considered masculine enough. I also believe that all arts production in Egypt, from cinema to literature to music, help reproduce the patriarchal mentality; hence, we dreadfully need different voices in the music production domain to represent strong and independent female role models,” says Samir.
The other two members believe the band has contributed to shaping their feminist identity. “Since I was young, I loved music; now, I am determined to use it as a tool to spread awareness of issues that women face on a daily basis. Music can interpret love, anger, determination and passivity. This band provided me with the opportunity to translate my passion for music and connected me with people like me; people who would like to see social issues presented through music, not only through theories and books,” says Mariam Samir, the main composer and singer for the band. “We realize that history is always documented by the most privileged and the ones who have the power—men. Therefore, women’s stories are usually neglected or presented in a manner that supports men’s roles. Music is the language that we chose to change this status and to document our stories from our perspective. This was the entry point to my interest in feminism that I would like to mainstream in all stages of music production,” says Mariam, who is responsible for the band’s music production.
Photo courtesy Mona
Meanwhile, Saleh, who used to work as a storyteller before joining the band, says that the women’s group helped her question what she learned and realized about herself and her society since childhood. “I started to identify myself as a feminist only after we established the band. Before, I knew that I was a woman who was not enjoying her full rights, but I never understood why. I thought that it was my own family until I understood that discrimination against women is a worldwide phenomenon, resulting from a deeply rooted patriarchal system. For me, feminism is extremely personal; it is a way of living,” says Saleh.
Following their first album the group decided to introduce themselves to the public as an “independent feminist band.” Bnt Al-Masarwa is currently putting the final touches on their second album, set to be released at the end of the month. The main themes of the 10-song album, Mazghouna (an old name of a village in the Minya governorate, Upper Egypt) are domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and cutting (FGMC) as well as child marriage and forced marriage. The band is planning to release their songs under the Creative Commons License as they believe it is part of their social responsibility to make their songs accessible to the public, free of charge and available for re-use. It is the same approach that they follow in their concerts, “All of our concerts were free. We do not want money to be a barrier for people to enjoy our music,” says Marina.
Mazghouna’s production process was part of the “Bnt Al-Masarwa in Upper Egypt” project funded by the British Council to discuss gender-based violence. The project followed a participatory approach, conducting storytelling workshops with 34 women from different governorates on forms of discrimination, violence and oppression that they face in their daily lives. “We were very aware of our privileges as a group of women living in Cairo, compared to other women who live outside the capital. We belong to the middle class; we have access to resources and services including education but there are other women and girls who live a different reality. We wanted them to speak about themselves and to explain their reality [in] their own words,” says Marina.
The young women traveled to Minya, Assiut and Aswan in Upper Egypt to document women’s stories and life experiences as they believe that all development projects neglect this vital area in Egypt and focus only on the capital. “At first we thought the women and girls would not be responsive and that we would not be able to document any story. But as we opened up and shared our own stories on forms of oppression that we deal with on a daily basis, we broke the ice and gained their trust. They started to reflect on how the patriarchal system and other forms of intersectional oppressions such as social status, class, religious identity, color, race and family prevented them from being free and equal [which] therefore [means] they cannot fulfill their potentials,” says Marina.
After songwriting, the band delivered the stories to the public in the targeted governorates through songs and music. “We delivered the songs generated from the storytelling workshops in Minya in the village’s streets, it was very much like a march. The women who participated in the workshops joined us and they heard their own words translated into songs. The people at the village, including men, were very happy and they interacted positively with us. For me this day was a benchmark that made me even more passionate to continue,” adds Marina.
“In our songs, we embraced different slang and terminologies to represent various areas of the country, from Upper to Lower Egypt and that is what brought us closer to the people,” says Saleh.
Following these workshops, a group of young women from Minya were inspired by Bnt Al-Masrwa’s experience, leading them to write several songs that they hope to sing one day. “Sooner or later we will own our studio and production company, then we will support all young girls who are passionate about music. We need more women to reshape the music industry in Egypt; I hope that we as a band can provide this opportunity to young women because we are aware that they do not have equal opportunities to men to enhance their skills,” says Marina.
Challenges along the way
Bnt Al-Masarwa have come up against many challenges as a feminist and independent band, ranging from lack of funding to being overlooked to finding female musicians with whom they could work.
The band applied for several funding opportunities on the national and regional level to finance the production of their second album but were rejected. “Arts and cultural institutions don’t recognize us as artists and therefore we were not a funding priority for them. As long as we label ourselves as a feminist band, we are not considered artistic enough from their perspective,” explains Mirette Abdel Mawla, the band’s coordinator and a political science student at Cairo University.
Photo courtesy Nada Ryad
Still, the unstoppable young women continued their fund-seeking journey, finally managing to receive a small fund from Frida, an international organization which funds young feminists’ projects. The fund was not enough to cover the album costs, and so in August 2017, they resorted to crowdfunding, managing to secure 77 percent of their $12,000 target in just five weeks. “The idea of the crowdfunding campaign was to persuade people to donate for our album’s production and also to train one of us on music production skills,” says Mariam. Building on this, Saleh explains, “Our crowd funding campaign was successful and we were supported by people from more than 19 countries; we also received support from feminist groups, nationally and internationally, who believed in our work and cause.”
“For five weeks, we did not sleep as we were responsible for producing every video and designing every post and photo for the campaign. We did not have a digital marketer or a video producer to edit our video messages before going on the website. We reached out to friends who could volunteer to help us and some of them allowed us to use their homes to shoot the videos,” says Abdel Mawla, “People felt that we are sincere and passionate. They believed in us and donated to the band.”
The young women believe that the crowdfunding experience strengthened their bond. “We now understand what feminist solidarity means. It means that women should always be there to support and lift each other, the feminist bond is nothing less that sisterhood,” says Marina.
Another challenge that Bnt Al-Masarwa faced was finding enough female musicians for an all-women music production. “We wanted to show the world that an all-women team can produce music as good as men,” says Marina.
The members also explain that the music production industry is strongly male dominated in Egypt. “We struggled to find a female music producer, the only woman that we found was in Alexandria and she was still studying. The situation is not better if you are looking for female music engineers or music players,” says Mariam, who is studying music at the Cairo Conservatoire and plans to study computer programming for music production. “Presumptions about what women can or cannot do in the music field are very strong and the available opportunities for women are very limited. In the music field, men are more privileged and women are constantly prejudged that they cannot play certain types of instruments, like the drums and electric guitars, the way men would do.”
The band gained great publicity and media coverage following the crowdfunding campaign and has been invited to participate at the Festival d’Avignon in France next month. “The festival organizers offered us the opportunity to launch Mazghouna during the festival, but we preferred to do so in Egypt. We are an Egyptian band and we want to stick to our identity,” says Marina. “Our music should see the light in Egypt.”