Sunday May 20, 2018 By: Alexandra Kinias
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb
The idea of traveling the world captured Menna Shahin’s imagination ever since she could remember. “As a little girl, I dreamt about exploring the world, meeting new people and experiencing different cultures,” Shahin said. But it wasn’t easy for her to fulfil her dream. Traveling was not among her conservative family’s pastime activities. Traveling alone was not an option. Shahin never gave up. She fought fiercely for what she believed was her right.
Today, at 30, Shahin not only had traveled to more than 30 countries worldwide, but the single young woman has been living alone in the Emirates for almost 2 years. She works fulltime for a multinational pharmaceutical company. “It wasn’t easy to get where I am today, but with patience and persistence, standing my ground, I managed to convince them,” she explained. Moreover, she founded She Travels, an initiative that caters travel services exclusively to women.
Women in Egypt, like many other patriarchal societies don’t have the opportunity to travel alone. The mere notion that travel dares young girls to dream and gives them wings to fly, stereotypes it as promiscuous and sinful. Shahin witnessed firsthand the social and cultural restrictions of growing up in such society. For many years, her parents wouldn’t allow her to travel. To please them, she tried hard to become the person her family and society expected her to be. But no matter how hard she tried, the idea of traveling never eluded her. On the contrary, it grew to become an obsession. “I was torn between everybody’s expectation of me and my desire to be spontaneous and free to travel the world. I tried to adapt to the social norms, accept and follow my family’s way of thinking; finish collage, get married and have kids, but I really couldn’t. I had other dreams.”
Shahin fought long and hard to realize her dream, exposing herself to criticism and friction with her family. When they finally gave in, they refused to help with her travel expenses. That didn’t deter her. “I saved all my earnings and as soon as I had enough money, I planned my first trip. A friend of mine who never traveled alone before joined me. Since then, most of my trips are with girls who never travelled before.”
Traveling was a life changing experience for Shahin. It opened her eyes to how it empowers women. “My travel posts on social media intrigued many girls, some whom were not even my friends. The photos and stories raised their curiosity to learn more about traveling. I received messages from girls expressing how much they learnt from my posts and how they were inspired to follow the same experiences.”
Women put their dreams on hold either because they don’t find travel companions, can’t work the travel logistics, organize the itinerary, lack the resources and information, or because of their family’s restrictions. The experiences Shahin gained from her travels became the catalyst behind the inception of She Travels, to help women realize their travel dreams. “As I inspired them, they also inspired me to start She Travels page to expand the scope and reach more people – now we are also expanding it further to offer life coaching for girls, in addition to introduce them to new experiences and activities.”
Founding She Travels brought new challenges to Menna. When first launched, She Travels, was received with mixed reactions. On one hand it was welcomed by girls who wanted to travel, but on the other hand, many others disapproved it. “Not everyone was supportive. Experiences such as travel are still negatively perceived by a wide range of people, especially in societies where girls’ and women’s mobility are constrained. Some accused me that I am driving girls to rebellion, risking their lives and exposing them to danger. Some went as far as saying women traveling alone is haram, religiously forbidden. My answer was I am helping them to open their minds and develop the way they are thinking. But what surprised me the most was that it was always girls who didn’t want others to go through this experience.”
Holding two jobs in two countries, with each requiring a different mindset is challenging. In spite of her busy schedule with a fulltime job in the UAE, Menna overseas the travel logistics, plans and itineraries to guarantee the full benefit promised by the tour.She also travels along whenever her schedule allows. “Sometimes I am exhausted, specially that I am juggling many activities and wearing many hats at the same time. I am also a rotary member, playing a role a movie, developing a website, an application and a YouTube channel for She Travels. What motivates me to keep going though are the messages I receive from girls describing how their travel experience changed their lives. That transforms me to a super hero who wants to save all girls.”
With all the concerns about women safety, Shahin advises women traveling solo to read about the place they are traveling to, not only from a touristic view, but also to learn about its safety measures. “Safety tips are available online. Do your research. Always keep your money and valuables inside a small bag hidden within your cloths,” she said.
What Shahin loves most about traveling is the “human experience.” Meeting with different people. Experiencing different cultures. “It’s sometimes overwhelming that it pushes me to learn, adapt and develop in a very short time. Now I can see the bigger picture, concentrating more on what is important in life and don’t waste my energy on trivial matters.”
Shahin aspires to build not just a travel company, but a relationship company; to empower women to build new connections with other women and discover more about themselves through travel. With organizing trips in Egypt and abroad, she wants to offer women more than just a travel experience. She wants to mentor women through travel, enrich their lives, widen their knowledge, introduce them to new possibilities in life, to develop a community of strong, independent and confident woman. “I want to touch and help as many lives as possible. I want to be a positive force to change the world to a better place, and last but not least I want to break the stereotype, especially in this region of the world, and empower girls to conquer their fear, and challenge the social and cultural stereotypes.”
Menna graduated from the Faculty of Pharmacy, Ain Shams University, majoring in Pharmaceutical industries. When she is not traveling or working, Menna practices
capoeira and rowing. She is also a licensed static skydiver and diver.
Check Menna Shahin’s “She Travels” Facebook page here
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