Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2015, Mennatollah’s treatment initially consisted of daily injections of insulin, combined with the intake of tablets with her meals. Mennatollah was also advised by her doctor to change her diet and to exercice on a regular basis. She followed the advice and changed her life pattern.
She first tried indoor team sports like volleyball and basketball, but quickly understood that team sports were not for her. However, she immediately knew, when she was introduced to cycling, that that was the sport she wanted to practice.
The cycling scene in Cairo is rather limited. So much so, that bicycle shops are concentrated on a single street. Yet, the strong solidarity between cyclists makes up for the modest size of the community. This is how Menna, as she likes to be called, integrated into a group of cyclist who goes touring in different parts of the country once a month. She was given cycling clothes by one of the bicycle shops and offered a bicycle at a discount price, so that she could be part of the group. The main difficulty was obtaining a female bike.
Yet as a young muslim woman evolving in a traditional social environment, Menna had to receive permission from her family before she was allowed to cycle. She started by persuading her sisters and her mother that she needed to cycle for her good health. Then, with their help, she managed to convince her father. Her brother, at first reluctant, went along with the paternal approval. Unfortunately, some of her friends who disapproved of her choice, believing her attitude to be unrespectful of Islam, parted ways.
When mentioning her former friends and the comments they made toward her, Menna insists on the fact that she isn’t doing anything wrong and that people should change their views. « Cycling women might not be usual in Egypt. It certainly is out of the ordinary. But I’m not doing anything wrong. Cycling is part of my treatment and I am not hurting anyone! »
Besides having a positive effect on her health, cycling has also forged her character and opened up Menna’s horizon. Menna’s fiance, a young man studying at the University of Cairo, asked her to put aside the bicycle, now that they were engaged, Menna defended her choice, telling him that he could go back where he came from, if this is how he was envisioning things. This is, given the context, a pretty bold move!
Yet, her battle doesn’t end there. When cycling in a group, Menna often gets disapproving looks and comments from people on the street. This disapproval reaches her also on social media, where she often receives negative feedback from the stories and pictures she posts in different groups as well as on her Facebook page “The Egyptian Girl on the Bike”.
But this won’t deter Mennatollah. She resolutely cycles every week in her area and wouldn’t miss, for anything in the world, a Pirate Bike excursion, the name the Cairo cycling community gave itself. Over time, her dream went from being allowed to cycle, to cycling all the main routes of Egypt, to cycling around the world. Many practical obstacles lay ahead of her, but she remains hopeful.
First of all, women in Egypt can only get a passport to travel if they get the consent of their father, or, if they are married, from their husband. Yet, acquired consent doesn’t necessarily mean that the Egyptian authorities will guarantee a passport. And if she does obtain one, she would still need to obtain visas, which is much more difficult for an Eyptian national than, let’s say, a Belgian cyclist.
Then there is the money issue. Besides the drop of the Egyptian Pound’s value, Egyptians can only exchange a limited amount of money against other currencies under strict conditions. In the meantime, Mennatollah combines her shopkeeping work during the day with teaching private classes to primary school children in the evening to save money in order to, one day, set off on her own journey.
After our interview in Cairo, Menna and I decided we would try to meet again near Hurghada, so that I could film her on her own journey against diabetes. Unfortunately, the fact that I was, as a tourist, constantly followed by the police, made it difficult for Menna to cycle with me as she feared for her safety and her reputation. Indeed, with cycling already being a challenge, being accompanied by a man, a foreigner on top that, wasn’t imaginable for her and probably for many people along the road, police officers included. One has to pick their battles.
To my surprise, after talking about the absence of restrictions to cycle for women in Europe and in the western world, be it as a means of transportation or as a recreational activity, Menna decided to take on another challenge: cycling on her own, instead of in a group, like she normally would, with the Pirate Bikes. This is how she cycled from El Gouna, where we were, to Porto Sokhna, about 320km (200 miles) north, in only two days.
She later told me, after she arrived home in Cairo, that her stomach was tied up in knots before the departure and that the unpleasant feeling only faded away once she had cycled a few kilometres on the main road.
Besides being a great first time experience, this excursion also got Menna to be invited on different talkshows to share her experience the main TV channels of Egypt where she could both address the diabetes issue and inspire other young women to follow her track (see YouTube links below).
In terms of diabetes, Mennatollah’s change of diet and her consistent exercice allowed her to abandon the insulin injections and only take tablets once and again. This, of course, is a good incentive to keep up with her lifestyle change and her dream of traveling the world.
Epilogue: Menna messaged me in May 2018 to tell me that she met a young man to whom she got engaged. Being a cyclist himself, he understands her drive and, of course, is supporting her in her quest!
Thank you to Emma Scolding who put me in contact with Mennatollah Gamal.
Thank you to Esraa Saleh, Manager of Falak Bookstore in Garden City, Cairo, who provided a room to conduct the interview in Cairo.
Thank you to the Lambrecht family and the Three Corners Hotel of El Gouna, who gracefully provided rooms for Mennatollah and I, and who provided all the necessary help.