“Empowerment” and absurdity

You probably think we’re having the time of our lives in this picture. Well – not exactly. Let me tell you the story of how we ended up there.

I am with my friend Nasiem. I dragged her along with me to Cairo. I had to apply for a visa and I wanted company. For Libyans, applying for a visa is quite a problematic situation, which holders of other passports don’t seem to fathom.

Last October I applied for the She Entrepreneurs programme organised by the Swedish Institute. She Entrepreneurs is a recognised leadership programme for young women who are emerging social entrepreneurs in the MENA-region and Sweden. The aim of the She Entrepreneurs programme is to, ‘Support young female social entrepreneurs by giving them the tools and methods they need to develop their social enterprise.’

I was one of the 30 applicants chosen to participate. As I had a project idea that I wanted to develop I was over the moon, especially knowing how fierce the competition was!

Well, I was over the moon, until Thursday, 1st of February. The day started with us losing our money. We left a wallet in the taxi that drove us to the Swedish embassy building in Cairo. Whilst absorbing the shock, I walked to the building only to find out the visa application centre was in a whole other building, in a whole other area. I ran back to Costa, where I had left Nasiem having as bleak and dark a coffee as our morning was becoming. My appointment was at 10 am. I was knocking on Costa’s front glass like a lunatic in order to get her attention. I thought to myself: I’m never going to make it. We got in another taxi where I told him to step on it, and off we went, speeding through the crowded streets of Cairo. It was a totally cinematic moment, may I add.

I was pacing up the stairs, my heart about to fall out of my chest, with my Americano in hand. I ran to the application office. To my surprise, I was told that I had mistakenly booked two appointments: one at 10:00 and one at 10:30. Now imagine my thrill at the news! But it was too soon for celebration.

At the interview, I was told I had to leave my passport there for assessment and would only receive it on Wednesday, the week after. I had already booked my ticket back home for Saturday. I had – quite reasonably – been under the impression that I would have my passport with me. I also could not afford to stay that long given the exchange rate and my cash liquidity problems: I was already blowing through my savings. Leaving my passport was out of the question. I explained my situation, and they advised me to head back to the embassy to see if they’d make an exception.

Again, we got into another taxi and went back to the Swedish embassy. The Egyptian security guards were sweet enough to let me in. I explained my situation to the visa application worker and she said she’d try to help me. She brought down the Swedish counsel, who was completely inconsiderate to say the least. I tried to explain to him that I had travelled all the way from Benghazi to Alexandria then to Cairo for this. I tried my best to tell him I had been invited by the Swedish Institute. He would not even listen. He just said ‘I can’t do anything’ and left me there, staring at him blankly with tears in my eyes through a wall of glass.

At that moment, I realized how really hard it is to be a Libyan. Even if you’re qualified enough to land great opportunities, circumstances that you cannot control, such as your nationality can wreck them completely.

I decided right there and then to walk out, and not apply for the visa. I just wanted to go home. I emailed the Swedish institute to tell them what had happened, and they arranged another appointment for me on the Sunday, and got me an exception to pick up my passport on the Monday. It still wouldn’t do. To tell the truth, it was too late: they should have arranged for this from the very beginning. All the flights to Benghazi were fully booked until the 19th of February. I could not afford to stay in Cairo for that long on my own expenses.

The first thing you need to do if you’re trying to ‘empower’ women is to make sure they don’t feel powerless. If you can’t understand the difficulties that we, as Libyans, have to go through just to get a visa then don’t list us amongst the countries you’re targeting. Don’t promise me that you’ll pay me back when I am in Sweden, book my hotels, or transfer me pocket money. Don’t say you’ll only pay me back for two nights, when the minimum I need to make it to Cairo and back to my city is five days. Don’t try to empower me if you’re only going to break me in the process.

I refuse to accept being treated unfairly just because my passport says Libyan. Where is the equality and empowerment the program is advocating? Reading these phrases on the She Entrepreneurs website made it all seem absurd.

Listing all of these tragic events in the context of less than 14 hours makes it seem like some work of fiction. I felt like a character in an absurdist novel but sadly, it was all too real .

Regardless of the visa thing, the money thing and all the other unfortunate things I prefer not to share, it was a trip to remember. We got to see Cairo’s international book fair and enjoy the city.

So this is basically how me and Nasiem ended up in a tiny, expensive, organic café which we could barely afford, contemplating the absurdity of like, everything, over lunch.


Update: Since this article was written the program has reimbursed Hajir for the plane ticket.