Turning trauma into a tune: Egyptian band helps women tackle taboos

Feminist duo ElBouma covers sexism, patriarchy, and gender-based violence in their new album.
Feminist duo ElBouma covers sexism, patriarchy, and gender-based violence in their new album.PHOTO: ELBOUMA/FACEBOOK

CAIRO (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Misogyny, child marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM): not the usual topics one may expect to inspire a band in Egypt.

But a feminist duo - ElBouma, or The Owl in Arabic - is blending old melodies, new rhythms, and bold lyrics to critique abuses faced by women and girls in their broadly conservative north African country.

In their new album, the band cover sexism, patriarchy, and gender-based violence, with harmful practices such as FGM still common in remote parts of Egypt.

"Oh bride, oh bride. They put you in a wedding dress, and stuffed it (to make it fit)," the pair - who are sisters - sing in one track about child marriage.

The lyrics are based on the testimonies of dozens of women and girls who attended workshops hosted by ElBouma between 2016 and 2017 in three towns in the southern region known as Upper Egypt.

During the workshops, Marina Samir and her sister Mariam used storytelling to encourage women to open up about taboo subjects.

"We believe that the voices of women in the south need to be heard, especially in a very centralized country that marginalizes all those who live on the peripheries," Marina told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a Zoom interview following the August launch of their new album.

It was "overwhelming" to encourage the women to open up about taboos in Egyptian society, she added ahead of International Day of the Girl Child on Oct 11.

Women and girls living in remote or socially conservative parts of the Middle East or North Africa are barred from many facets of public life, and have few venues for self-expression.

While Egypt's feminist activism is growing, ElBouma is a unique example of underground artists - made even more special by their on-the-ground inspiration.

From its name to musical style, ElBouma's goal is to tackle taboos. Owls are usually seen as bad omens in Egypt, but Mariam said the band wanted the bird to represent their feminism.

"We hope to hear and express those faintest voices. We want to be able to see even in dark times and to prey on an established patriarchy far greater than we are," she said.

The album art for Mazghuna features illustrations of neon green and pink female figures. Some are dancing and joyful, but the artwork for one track about FGM depicts a woman whose torso is skewered by a rose, which has been nipped near the bud.

"Oh sweet girl, it was tough. But everyone will live happily now - still, your own happiness will die," the pair sing.

Nearly 90 per cent of Egyptian women and girls aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM, according to a 2016 survey by the United Nations, in a ritual practised widely by Muslims and Christians.

Egypt has toughened penalties against the practice but activists fear that enforcement will be weak - particularly in rural areas such as those where ElBouma hosted their workshops.

While many of the band's songs focus on social ills, others are rallying cries focused on girls' rights and education.

"The good little girl is going to step out of your stories. Not all endings culminate in a wedding and children," they sing.

Marina said ElBouma had faced very little public criticism so far, despite the subject matter covered by their music.

And fans of ElBouma say the lyrics resonate far beyond their rural origins.

"This music really reflects voices of women not only in Upper Egypt but in other parts of the country," said Noura Ibrahim, a 28-year-old civil engineer based in Cairo, who reached out to praise the band after listening to their album.

The band had been hoping to generate money by performing concerts in the coming months, but may be thwarted by the country's low coronavirus vaccination rate.

Nevertheless, ElBouma is on platforms from SoundCloud to YouTube, and they are undeterred when it comes to their message.

"We want our music to be a space where other women can see a reflection of their struggles, thoughts and feelings," Marina said.