Cleopatras Scoring Change: Lina Geoushy on Egypt’s inspiring female athletes

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Named the second selectee for Malala Fund’s Against All Odds commission in collaboration with 1854, the Cairo-born photographer will turn her lens to the young women rising above Egypt’s discriminatory sporting culture

Applications for the third and final commission opportunity from Malala Fund x 1854 close on 2 September 2021. Apply now.

In Lina Geoushy’s native country of Egypt, “women are not treated as equal,” she says. The 31-year-old photographer has little interest in peddling a “false western narrative that all middle-eastern women are oppressed” – Egyptian women are educated, go out, play sports, work, drive, and walk in the streets – but still, as in many spheres of the world, they suffer under the nuances of patriarchy. “They’re still treated in a patronising, secondary way… And the legal system is very slow in introducing and implementing laws to protect women.”

Based between Egypt and the UK, Geoushy is the second of three photographers to be selected by Malala Yousafzai and her Malala Fund team as part of the Against All Odds commission series in collaboration with 1854. Co-founded by Malala Yousafzai in 2013, Malala Fund is a non-profit organisation which advocates for girls’ access to education. The Against All Odds commission series was conceived to harness the power of photography to celebrate remarkable girls across the globe: namely, fostering a rich and multifaceted portrait of girls and young women who show strength, agency and drive in the face of challenging circumstances — whatever they may be.

©Lina Geoushy.
© Lina Geoushy.

For Geoushy, the Against All Odds brief inspired a visual ode to the achievements of Egyptian female athletes between the ages of 14 and 24: the kind of girl she was, and the kind of girl she looked up to in her youth. Having grown up in Cairo with her two older brothers, Geoushy was a sporty girl who rebelled against stereotypes, and she was made fun of at school for her athletic physique. But that didn’t stop her from playing for the Egyptian National Tennis Team. 

In her days as an athlete, Geoushy experienced firsthand many of the challenges she now seeks to document; from lack of support and funding to judgment and gender discrimination for playing a sport. These are themes that will inform the crux of her project. “Athletes – especially talented female athletes – deserve to get the support and recognition that their male peers receive,” Geoushy says, resolutely. “This project will investigate the different and complex realities these female athletes experience.

©Lina Geoushy.

Having studied psychology at first, Geoushy came to photography later in life, and is now completing an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication. As the 2019 winner of the Royal Photographic Society’s Documentary Photographer of the Year, she is no stranger to making powerful, poignant work that amplifies and acknowledges the lived experiences of her sitters. In projects such as Breadwinners and Shame Less, for instance, she explores issues of gender equality, sexual harassment and female empowerment. “I strive to push the boundaries of my work by exploring rarely documented topics to deconstruct patriarchy,” she says. “The goals of this commission align perfectly with my values and my background.”

Just as Malala Fund’s digital publication, Assembly, works to amplify the voices of young girls directly – not speaking for them, but giving them a platform to do so themselves – Geoushy envisions the project as a collaborative effort. She will be discussing every aspect of the process with Rooka and Malak as it evolves, assured in the knowledge that a successful portrait series requires reciprocal trust. “My approach is intuitive and organic, and I rely on my collaborators to direct and shape the moments I record,” she explains. “The conversations and connections take place, and the work follows.” As with previous projects, Geoushy intends to make portraits of the girls in the spaces they spend most of their time, or where they feel most comfortable. She feels confident that these locations will start to reveal themselves as they begin shooting, and they get to know each other more.

© Lina Geoushy.
© Lina Geoushy.

The two inspiring  young women taking centre stage in Geoushy’s project are Malak Hamza, a 19-year-old gymnast and Meret Saeed (known as Rooka), a 20-year-old football player. Coming from a non-athletic family, Malak – who Geoushy met through a friend who once trained her – didn’t start gymnastics until she was nine years old. She has always felt she needs to work harder to compensate for lost time. Despite there being minimal funding and sponsorship for women’s sports in Egypt, Malak qualified for a place in the Olympics this year, and made history as the first Egyptian woman on the first reserve to the finals, coming in at 9th place overall. “In a patriarchal Muslim society where women are expected to be reserved, quiet and static, Malak Hamza is using her body to go against the current,” Geoushy says, admiringly.

Rooka, meanwhile, grew up in one of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods: a quarter of Manshiyat Naser known as Garbage City, where the entire city of Cairo dumps their rubbish. Like Malak, she has thrived in the face of adversity, and through grit and determination, made the Junior National Team. “[Rooka] is a victim of bullying and toxic masculinity,” says Geoushy, who met Rooka through her football coach. “She has been singled out and mocked for her dark skin color, and for being a girl who plays football… But with all those challenges she faced, she broke barriers and fought the stigma.” 

©Lina Geoushy.

Geoushy is using the working title Cleopatras Scoring Change for the series, with hope that it embodies a sentiment at the heart of the Malala Fund ethos: the importance of young girls’ self-worth, and the limitlessness of their potential. “Cleopatra was a powerful, rebellious queen of Egypt, and her feminine dominance was challenged a lot,” says Geoushy. “The young women I am working with embody Cleopatra’s energy: going against the wave and pursuing their ambition, against all odds.” 

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Do you want to be the next photographer commissioned by Malala Fund? Applications for the third and final opportunity in the Malala Fund x 1854 Against All Odds commission series closes on 2 September 2021. Apply now.

Find out more about Malala Fund here.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London