A fresh blanket of snow dresses the ground at Iso-Syöte in Northern Finland. Egyptian-Finnish women’s rights activist Soraya Bahgat smooths her chestnut-colored hair before beckoning a husky to come hither. “I spent years growing up here, playing in the snow,” she smiles, as she confidently grasps the leash, before looking into the lens. In December last year, during the same week that Finland made headlines with the election of its youngest prime minister, Sana Marin, Bahgat was awarded the Hän Honor award for her efforts in promoting gender equality. In Finnish, hän is the inclusive pronoun that stands for equal opportunity. Bahgat is the first Arab to be recognized for her work that strives for women’s rights, which all began, according to her, by accident on the streets of Cairo, almost 10 years ago.
Bahgat motions to the cashmere sweater under her coat. It belongs to her mother, and is a personal reminder of another world. “I used to wear my mother’s shirt in Tahrir Square for good luck,” she says, her mind traveling back in time to her Egyptian homeland and the protests where her fight for gender equality first started.
“Soraya is one of the most capable women I have ever met,” starts Yousra, on the phone from Cairo. The Egyptian superstar actor and singer, who excused herself from filming to attend Bahgat’s awards reception, continues, “She is capable of learning languages, helping people, and fighting for human rights and for women. She loves and believes entirely in what she does.” It was on November 27, 2012, in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt, that Bahgat, then a 29-year-old Cairo-based HR executive and postgraduate student in law, was headed to the square to join the protests. It was plagued with mob assaults but she continued steadily to demonstrate against president Mohamed Morsi. When Bahgat witnessed a sexual assault, she panicked and left. “No woman should be prevented from exercising her rights to protest and make her voice heard,” she says. “If I had had a bodyguard, I would have stayed.” It was decided. Bahgat would become the bodyguard for these women.
After returning from Tahrir Square, she went on Twitter to launch the Tahrir Bodyguard as a collective effort to protect female protesters. “In just a few hours we had 600 followers,” she says. From there, she used Twitter and Facebook to share the experiences of women in the square and disseminate safety tips and alerts about places where sexual assaults were more likely to take place. Bahgat, who launched the initiative with her own funds, gathered male and female volunteers, who wore yellow vests and helmets to go with the women protesters. “We have faced many challenges in the Arab world as women and girls and now many women in the region are championing for change and gender equality,” she says.
Bahgat was raised in Finland by her Egyptian parents. She always knew that she wanted to serve her community and make a difference. She holds degrees in comparative politics and human resources management from the American University in Cairo and a master’s degree in cultural heritage management from Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. She presently serves on the board of The Girl Generation, a pan- African platform to eradicate female genital mutilation. In 2019, she participated in the 16 Days of Activism campaign organized by the UN, where she took part in panels, meetings, and writings on the subject of rape and violence against women. From 2008 to 2012, she served as board member at the Gezira Youth Center, the largest governmental youth center in Egypt. Bahgat also recently started the Equality Label, which encourages women to use their purchasing power to champion companies that compete for gender equality.
Despite her string of accolades, what sets Bahgat apart in today’s sea of woke figures on social media, is her desire to take a back seat. “I entered this field by chance. It’s not about me but about the women and girls who I am advocating for,” she says. “Women need support and to push each other forward until the entire female gender achieves the equal position we deserve.” Another collaborator is Karma Ekmekji, founder of Diplowomen and international affairs advisor to HE Saad Hariri. “Soraya is living proof that Arab women are playing a pivotal role in advancing their societies and instigating change,” says Ekmekji.
During a time of uncertainty, Bahgat believes that nothing can take away our will for change. “This is a major year for gender equality – we have an opportunity to raise awareness on the issues that are arising, from climate change to women’s rights,” she says. “We are five years into the Sustainable Development Goals, 10 years since the establishment of UN Women, and 20 years since the landmark UN Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security.” There’s more awareness than ever – and that means that the fight must go on.
Originally published in the February 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography: Sanna Krook & Kim Öhrling
Style: Caro Forss & Päivi Mäkelä
Hair and Makeup: Fatma Bendris & Virpi Väisänen
Production: Frej Karlson & Mjölk
Lighting: Petri Kulju
With thanks to Syötteen Eräpalvelut, Kide Hotel, and Sokos Pukumies Oulu