Egypt’s first female ship captain says she was subject to a fake news campaign blaming her for grounding the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal, despite at the time working on a ship that was hundreds of miles away.
Marwa Elselehdar was working as a first mate in command of the Aida IV in Alexandria when the 220,000 ton Ever Given got stuck, blocking one of the world’s busiest shipping routes for six days.
The 29-year-old is a celebrated feminist figure in Egypt. In 2015 she became both the youngest and the first female Egyptian captain to cross the newly-expanded Suez Canal.
Two years later she was honoured by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi during women’s day celebrations. Her Instagram – a collection of motivational messages and her life on board – boasts over 30,000 followers.
But when the Ever Given became an online sensation, a rumour mill was telling the world that she was to blame.
“I felt that I might be targeted maybe because I’m a successful female in this field or because I’m Egyptian, but I’m not sure,” she told the BBC.
Headlines that had previously celebrated her successes were doctored to say she was to blame and fake social media accounts were set up in her name. The rumour was spreading widely in Egypt and Ms Elselehdar was concerned her reputation could be damaged.
“This fake article was in English so it spread in other countries,” she said. “I tried so hard to negate what was in the article because it was affecting my reputation and all the efforts I exerted to be where I am now.”
In an interview with BBC Arabic, Ms Elselehdar said that she has faced sexism at every turn of her education. She studied at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport in Alexandria at a time when they only admitted men. She applied despite the restrictions, she told Arab News last month, and was only accepted after a legal review by then president Hosni Mubarak.
“People in our society still don’t accept the idea of girls working in the sea away from their families for a long time,” she told the BBC. “But when you do what you love, it is not necessary for you to seek the approval of everyone.”
After addressing the fake news in a video on her Instagram account, Ms Elselehdar said she was encouraged by the response, despite the comments that she had received.
“My message to females who want to be in the maritime field is fight for what you love and not let any negativity to affect you,” said Marwa, who also holds a Masters in Business Administration from Cardiff Metropolitan University.
Women only account for two percent of the world’s seafarers, according to the International Maritime Organisation.