Lina Geoushy documents the female athletes pushing back against Egypt’s biased sporting culture

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Geoushy’s response to Malala Fund’s Against All Odds commission, in collaboration with 1854, follows the lives of Rooka, a footballer, and Malak, a gymnast. The resulting project spotlights the young women’s resilience in the face of deep-rooted social stigma and lack of sponsorship and funding

The inky silhouette of 20-year-old Rooka sits razor sharp against a fading Cairo sun: her arms outstretched, her face to the sky, a football skillfully balanced between her nose and forehead. Through Lina Geoushy’s lens, Rooka is breaking free. 

As in many parts of the world, Egypt’s football industry is not a welcoming space for women. Support from the Egyptian Football Association is in short supply, and media interest for their matches almost nonexistent. When an Egyptian network did broadcast a Women’s U20 National Football Team match in December 2020, it triggered a torrent of misogynistic abuse from men online. The conservative leaning of Egyptian society also means many parents are reluctant to allow girls to pursue the sport in the first place. 

Nonetheless, Rooka was a dedicated player for Egypt’s Junior National Team, and one of two subjects that take centre stage in Geoushy’s response to the Against All Odds commission from Malala Fund and 1854. Titled Cleopatras Scoring Change, the series delicately documents the daily lives of Rooka and 20-year-old Olympic gymnast Malak: two Egyptian female athletes who represent strength and determination in the face of stigma and discrimination by the country’s discriminatory sporting culture. 

“Malak and Rooka are breaking stereotypes that are ingrained in Egyptian culture”

-Lina Geoushy

1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021

Cairo-born Geoushy has little interest in fuelling false Western ideas that all Middle Eastern women are oppressed. Egyptian women are educated; they work, drive, go out, and enjoy many freedoms. But, “Malak and Rooka are breaking stereotypes that are ingrained in Egyptian culture,” she says, “where mixing with men and moving or exposing your body lessens your value as a woman”. Cleopatras Scoring Change is an ode to their resilience – and to sports, more widely, as a vital part of young people’s search for identity, community, and purpose.

Rooka grew up in one of Cairo’s impoverished neighbourhoods: a quarter of Manshiyat Naser. She was bullied by other children for her dark skin, but found solace in playing football as part of a local church group. It was there that she was first scouted by a coach for her impressive skills. But as she got older, her parents weren’t supportive of her pursuing the sport as a career.“They felt it was not feminine enough; that she was going to get injured, and that her skin would get even darker [from being outside too much].” 

Rooka was not deterred. Through her adolescent years, she saved up money her father gave her for specific purposes – to buy lunch at school; to spend on private tutoring lessons – and used it to pay for public transport to get to football training. She would hide injuries she sustained while playing, enduring the pain in private out of fear her parents would ban her from the game if they knew. 

1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021
1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021

In Geoushy’s images, Rooka is at once dreamy and determined: intimate moments in her bedroom, and gazing over her hometown, are weaved between portraits of her stretching and playing on the pitch. “I am hoping all my hard work and all the effort I put in comes to fruition,” Rooka says today. “And that I can prove to my family or anyone who demotivated me that it was all worth it.”

Malak, on the other hand, came to her sport of choice – gymnastics – aged nine. She always felt she had to push herself further to compensate for not having begun training earlier in life. In particular, she has come to struggle with mental blocks, brought on by the sheer pressure of the sport. “With gymnastics, one wrong move can end your career,” Geoushy explains, which fosters a destructive culture for athletes; one that Simone Biles bravely brought to light when she dropped out of the 2021 Olympics due to mental health struggles this year. 

“I saw myself in those girls”

– Lina Geoushy

1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021

But, like Rooka, Malak’s hard work soon began to take her places. She has achieved numerous medals for her sporting achievements, and this year made history at the Olympics: she was the first ever Egyptian woman on the first reserve to the finals, coming in 9th place overall. Malak also had little support from her parents growing up. Gesturing to a joyful photograph of Malak posing proudly on her scooter, Geoushy laughs: “It’s very uncommon for girls to commute with scooters. Cairo traffic is brutal. But there she is, all brave.” 

1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021
1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021
1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021

Malak evades confinement within any singular box. “Some people in Egypt have this stereotype that athletic women are not feminine,” explains Geoushy. But Malak is both. “And even though her [sporting] attire doesn’t conform with religion for many,” – Geoushy is referring to the leotards, vests and shorts Malak wears when she trains – ”she still very much has faith, and does her best to pray five times a day. This idea that people who pray are always in headscarves is just not true.” In one photograph by Geoushy, Malak soars above a trampoline, suspended in the air. “I love the metaphor of her jumping against gravity and pushing against all odds,” says Geoushy. “It really is what she’s doing.”

Speaking to Geoushy, it is clear that documenting the lives of Rooka and Malak for the Against All Odds commission was an emotional endeavour for her. “I saw myself in those girls,” she says -— referring to her own history as a once-professional tennis player in Cairo. Like Malak, Geoushy took up tennis when she was nine; like Rooka, her mother was worried her skin would darken in the sun. “Back then, women were expected to be soft and feminine,” she says, “but tennis made me feel powerful… It really shaped my character.”

Geoushy’s tennis career came to a premature end aged 19, when her father chose not to allow her to attend college in America, despite her having been awarded a scholarship there. In America, college students are encouraged to nurture their athleticism alongside their studies, whereas “in Egypt, you have to make choices,” the photographer explains. “[You have] to choose between education and sports, because the system doesn’t support both.” 

The Egyptian government has a history of positioning sports as at odds with, or irrelevant to, schooling. Only in 2018 did President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi call for the adoption of physical education in schools. 10 years ago, UNESCO had no record of PE classes in grades first through third in public schools throughout Egypt, and recorded only two hours per week for fourth through sixth grades. Malala Fund’s mission is to ensure every girl around the world has access to 12 years of free, safe, quality education.; Iin Geoushy’s case, she hopes to see an Egypt wherein sports can not only align with this, but play an important role for those who want it to.

1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021
1854 x Malala Fund: Against All Odds © Lina Geoushy 2021

Geoushy studied psychology and communication at the American University in Cairo., which This went on to inform her photography practice – which is — centred largely around gender issues, and the deconstruction of patriarchal power structures. “When I’m interacting with girls and women, or anyone, the human part comes first,” she says. “Psychology helped me learn to read body language, and know which topics to address and which topics not to address… [It] helps me understand what motivates people and what traumas could have happened, to avoid triggering them.”

Geoushy met with Rooka and Malak numerous times before ever taking a photo of them, instead sitting and talking with the girls; nurturing authentic relationships with them. The deeper they got to know one another, the better the photos became. Just as Malala Fund’s digital publication, Assembly, works to amplify the voices ofgirls and young women directly – not speaking for them, but giving them a platform to do so themselves – Geoushy saw the project as a collaborative effort. She fervently encouraged the girls’ input as to how they wanted to be represented, and what they wanted to wear. She is also developing a short film about the pair, in which they speak firsthand about their lives and experiences. 

“I want my voice heard,” says Geoushy, resolutely. “And I want other women’s voices heard. I’m amplifying our voices together. Photography is really just a tool for that.”

For more information visit Malala Fund


@linageoushy

linageoushy.com

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Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.