In this interview, May Gah Allah—an Egyptian Nubian woman and a social entrepreneur—talks about her life and her long and versatile career. She also answers questions about her upbringing as a Nubian woman, Nubia, and Nubian displacement. In addition, she discusses the issues of women, business, and gender.
May’s journey with social work began early on, as she loved volunteering, and would constantly volunteer during the summer vacations of her school days. She also loved trade at that age and would sell her old toys and magazines at the club she used to go to. In secondary school, she started to communicate with several international institutions, which allowed her to have the chance to travel to approximately 21 countries, where she spent her summer vacations volunteering and learning. After graduation, she worked as compliance officer at New York Mellon Bank, but she continued to volunteer for a set number of hours. Her career even took her down a unique path, that is, sheep farming, which testifies to the versatility of her experience. One day, she decided to quit her job at the bank and return to the development sector on a full-time basis, as she felt she was not giving back to the community as much as she wished.
May then decided to take a trip to several villages in different Egyptian governorates, but she was disappointed. She noted that people complain a lot, but do not do much to improve their livelihoods. Because she is Nubian, she decided to start there. She launched her foundation Konouz Nubiyya (Nubian Treasures), a foundation keen on reviving rich Nubian heritage. May got married and had her only son, Noah, who eventually became her companion in all her activities. May talks at length about Konouz Nubiyya, and how she endeavored to create a good working environment for the women working there. This environment, to her, was meant to be mother-friendly and comfortable, as she allowed women to bring in their children. May sees in social entrepreneurship the right balance between making profit and giving back to society. She did not support the January 25 Revolution, as she believes that the problem was never a government problem. The problem for her was that people complain but do not act to change their lives with their own hands.
May asserts that her family has always been her greatest supporter. Perhaps they tried to have her reconsider her work in sheep farming or her decision to quit her work at the bank, but they knew, May says, that once she sets her mind to do something, she would do it. May’s current husband is also one of her greatest supporters, as well as her son.
Patriarchal, pseudo-religious thought was always one of May’s greatest challenges in her career, especially while she worked in Upper Egypt. She tells a funny anecdote about this when the local community was pressuring her to wear hijab. She, instead, started to wear the ‘imama, which is a traditional head cover for men. People around her, then, asked her to stop wearing it as it is unacceptable for a woman to wear men’s clothes, and they eventually let her be. The way the local community also looks at single or divorced women was also a challenge that May met, as she says those women do not enjoy any level of privacy. In a related vein, when asked about challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in general, May said that the family plays a huge role in women’s success or failure. Many families, she says, only want their girls to get married, or even get a regular government job. May also spoke about stereotypical ideas about women as a gender, such as saying that women are “extremely emotional,” thus cannot be decision-makers. May asserted that women are the primary decision-makers in many families today, as many women are the primary breadwinners in those families. Even in families where the main breadwinner is the man, women also have jobs and support their families. May also encountered difficulties due to tribalism. When young people would come to volunteer at her project, sometimes they would refuse to work together because their fathers occupy different places on the social ladder. Therefore, they would think they are not socially compatible and should not work together. May would resist such ideas and insist they work together or would ask a girl to be a team leader, leading a group of young men.
When asked about gender differences between men and women in relation to work, May said that it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations. Working in jewelry-making for instance is a job many men would find inappropriate. But she also says she wanted to give special attention to women. May criticized some stereotypical ideas, such as women being better than men in the kitchen, since many of the best chefs in the world are men. May thus tries not to fall in the trap of gendered differences.
May emphasized Nubian societies greatly value women, so much that there were four Nubian queens in the past. Women used to wear colorful clothing under the Nubian jarjar (traditional Nubian dress) and wear traditional jewelry. However, displacement came to change these customs and traditions. Nubian women now wear attire that is imported from other cultures, typically Gulf cultures, May states. She also says that her great paternal grandmother was a very important women in her community, as she knew Arabic, English and French. People used to come to her to write contracts of buying and selling and to record their debts. May also spoke about the effects of displacement in general, stating that many Nubians died when they were forcibly removed from their simple homes into ones built with cement as they could not stand the heat. Even their children died as a result. Nubian cultural symbols also disappeared from traditional accessories and jewelry, which now look more Indian than Nubian. She also said that not many young people speak the Nubian language today.