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Egypt’s first female ship captain says she was falsely blamed for Suez crisis

Marwa Elselehdar was hundreds of miles from the canal when accident took place, but online rumors quickly spread saying she was responsible

Egypt's first female ship's captain, Marwa Elselehdar. (Instagram Photo/@marwa.elselehdar)
Egypt's first female ship's captain, Marwa Elselehdar. (Instagram Photo/@marwa.elselehdar)

Egypt’s first female ship captain has said she was blamed after a massive ship became wedged in the Suez Canal last month, hobbling global trade, even though she was nowhere near the scene of the accident.

Marwa Elselehdar said soon after news broke that the Ever Given had blocked the canal on March 24, she noticed online rumors saying she was responsible.

She was hundreds of miles away at the time, commanding a ship called the Aida IV in the city of Alexandria.

“I was shocked,” Elselehdar told The BBC.

“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 said.

The online rumors were propelled by a doctored image of a news headline headline that said she was involved in the Suez accident.

The fake image, purportedly from the Arab News outlet, appears to be from an actual story about Elselehdar from March 22 that was unrelated to Suez.

Some Twitter accounts under Elselehdar’s name also spread false rumors that she was involved in the Ever Given’s crash.

The 29-year-old told the BBC that she did not know who started the rumors or their motivation.

She said some of the comments were harsh, but many were supportive of her.

“I decided to focus on all the support and love I’m getting, and my anger turned to gratefulness,” she said. “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.”

In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, is pulled by one of the Suez Canal tugboats, in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

Women only account for two percent of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers, and 94% of women seafarers work in the cruise industry, according to the International Maritime Organization.

Elselehdar said she was always drawn to the sea and had been spurred toward a career on the water after he brother began studies at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, a regional university.

She applied to the academy, even though it only accepted men at the time, and was allowed to enroll after a review by Egypt’s president at the time, Hosni Mubarak.

She has regularly faced sexism during her career, she said.

“Onboard, they were all older men with different mentalities, so it was difficult not to be able to find like-minded people to communicate with,” she said. “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 was honored by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi during the country’s Women’s Day events in 2017.

She is currently ranked as a first mate and is set to take a final exam to gain the full rank of captain next month.

Her ship, which is owned by Egypt’s maritime safety authority, supplies a Red Sea lighthouse and is used for training purposes.

The Suez Canal’s backlog of 422 ships was cleared on Saturday after the Ever Given blocked the waterway for almost a week.

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