ZANZIBARRED – How one woman’s struggle inspires a generation
Aiysha Mohammed is Zanzibar’s first female tour guide. This doesn’t sound like a big deal to you? Well, in her country she made history. To come this far, she had to endure living with a man who wouldn’t allow her to go outside or work for five years, and many more challenges. Now, she inspired the next generation of women to fight for their dreams.
Scroll down for the interview video
I’m following Aiysha through the alleyways of Zanzibar’s Stone Town listening closely to all the historical facts and details she is sharing about her home. The hot and humid air smells of a blend of spices and fuel. Bikers and motorcyclists skillfully maneuver around pedestrians; more men than women flock these bustling alleyways, and most girls wear a hijab at a very young age as this is customary. With a vibrant pink and purple accented scarf wrapped around her head, held together by a pin with a sparkling stone, and a black robe decorated with a delicate sewing pattern in the front covering her wrists and ankles, you would not think Aiysha to be different than any other local woman passing by you.
But when she turns around, you can see a face with clear, smooth, dark skin, a radiant smile full of sparkling-white teeth, and dark brown eyes that hide all the tears this woman has ever cried. Today, her behavior and gestures attest to endless confidence and strength. When she talks to vendors, she is friendly, but determined – a well respected woman no one should underestimate. She is greeted almost every other minute of our walk, always with a smile and always replies kindly. “Aiysha,” they yell even from afar. All know her name. But not all know her story.
After Aiysha showed my mother and me her city, she invited us to her mother-in-law’s home to dine with them. We took a cab to the outskirts of Stone Town and stepped out to walk the rest of the way to her mother-in-law’s house. In the midst of high rises and smaller family homes, children, who had erected a makeshift goal, stopped playing soccer for us, so we could pass.
Aiysha’s mother-in-law’s house was in an area where only motorcycles can weave through the narrow, unpaved streets. After greeting the family, Aiysha and I went outside to record an interview on camera. Kids and adults alike passed by us waving and curiously watching what the only European lady in this area was doing there with her camera. Some greeted shyly and giggled; others just stared.
Aiysha is the first certified female tour guide in Zanzibar. She grew up on the East-African archipelago which belongs to Tanzania, but remains semi-autonomous. Slaves were brought to Stone Town’s harbor after daylong foot marches in the blistering African sun to be sold off to Arabs. The Portuguese, Arabs, and Brits all once governed the island before the island merged with the mainland, Tanganyika, into today’s United Republic of Tanzania. Zanzibar’s residents are almost all Muslims and an ethnic blend of mostly Bantus, Indians, and Arabs speaking Swahili as well as Arabic.
When none of the Zanzibari tour companies called Aiysha back for an interview, she decided to freelance. The reason why tour operators rejected her applications was due to her gender, she claims, because there had never been a female guide before her. Nowadays, they all desperately call her to work with them, which she kindly declines.
Aiysha studied tourism as the only woman among 19 men, who often preferred her to keep quiet simply because she is a female. “Sometimes, I was crying because of the challenges I faced in class,” she remembers. “But for me, this is normal because this is part of my life.” Some fellow students helped her and she managed to get her certificate as a tour guide.
When you find out her whole story, this part seems to have been the easiest. The hardest were the five years she was forced to live with a man she didn’t love. Aiysha’s mother had arranged her daughter’s marriage at age 20, but Aiysha’s heart told her this would be the wrong decision, also because she wanted to study and finish college. Already as a young woman, she longed to have her own job, take care of herself, and be able to buy her own things. She says that normally, the Imam would ask if the woman agrees with the marriage or not, but in her case, he didn’t come to ask, only to sign marriage papers.
The day before her marriage, she cried and wished her father could be alive to help her, yet she still hoped to live a good life and for her husband to allow her to do the things she really wanted to do.
Aiysha’s hopes were not fulfilled. Her husband would not allow her to go outside, work, or do any things that most of us consider to be normal or fun. Instead, he took her to Oman for the last two years of their marriage where she served mostly as his maid. When she had enough, Aiysha turned to the Koran, where she found a passage that allowed her to divorce her husband if she wasn’t happy by paying him back the mahr, the money her husband had paid “for her” before the wedding.
Being the resourceful woman that she is, Aiysha found a way to sell things and, within a month, surprised her husband when she handed him the money. He didn’t want to accept a divorce, yet still let her go, keeping one of the two children she had conceived during their marriage. To this day, he claims to have changed and wants Aiysha back, but she refuses.
When her divorce was official, Aiysha was on her own without much support of her family; nevertheless, she managed to enroll into tourism studies. She embraced her new-found independence and pushed through all the hardships in school. During that time, she met the love of her life. From the day this man saw Aiysha, he pursued her. He did not give up even though she now seemed as independent as ever. Her strength attracted him. They are now happily married expecting their first child together. When Aiysha talked about him, she did so with a sparkle in her eyes and a never-ending smile. However, her mother didn’t attend the wedding. When she mentioned this, her eyes start tearing up and mine too. When she started crying, I stopped recording, but took a few pictures and apologized for it: “Sorry, but I have to capture this.” Then I walked over and we hugged until she wiped away her tears to continue.
Her new husband is proud that Aiysha works for herself. He is proud of her being a role model for so many girls and women on their island. Aiysha is often invited by parents – mothers and fathers alike – to inspire their children. “I want my girls to be like you,” they say.
Pursuing one’s dreams, regardless of what anyone else thinks, is most important to her. “Girls have to be strong even if their parents don’t agree with what they want. They should know where they’re going. They have their own heart […]. If you face a challenge, it doesn’t mean you have to stop for what you’re looking for. You have to fix the challenge to make your future and your life go on.”
Once one has been through his/her challenges, Aiysha says that she would like more people to share their knowledge, share what they’ve learned along their path, to teach others, and to support others on their journeys. “Most of the ladies, they need that. I didn’t get that. But I think it’s what they need if they want to do great things. We can give each other hope.”
Share this story of Aiysha with someone who needs inspiration 🙂 !
If you’re going to Zanzibar, you can contact Aiysha for a guided tour here.
Watch the interview with Aiysha here:
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