Last month, Marwa Elselehdar noticed something strange.
Word spread that a huge freighter, Ever Given, had been trapped in the Suez Canal, blocking one of the world’s major shipping routes.
But while checking her phone, she began to read several rumors on the internet that she was responsible for the blockage.
“I was surprised,” says Marwa, who is Egypt’s first female ship captain.
At the time of the Suez blockade, Elselehdar was working as a first officer, Commander Aida IV, hundreds of kilometers from Alexandria.
The ship Marwa works on, owned by the Egyptian Maritime Safety Authority, carries supplies to a lighthouse in the Red Sea.
It is also used to train cadets at the Arab Academy of Science, Technology and Maritime Transport (AASTMT), a regional university managed by the Arab League.
Rumors of Marwa Elselehdar’s role in the Ever Given incident were largely fueled by images of a fake headline, which was reportedly published by the Arab News website, which said she was involved in the Suez incident.
The manipulated image appears to be from an actual article published by Arab News on March 22, which describes Marwa’s success as Egypt’s first ship captain. The image has been shared dozens of times on Twitter and Facebook.
Hundreds of Twitter accounts using her name have also spread false claims that Marwa was involved in the Ever Given incident.
In an interview with the BBC, Marwa Elselehdar, 29, says she has no idea who was the first to broadcast the story or why.
“I felt I was the target of these rumors, maybe because I’m a successful woman in this field or because I’m Egyptian, but I’m not sure,” she says.
This is not the first time that Marwa has faced challenges in an industry historically dominated by men.
Currently, women make up only 2% of the world’s seafarers, according to data from the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Marwa says she has always loved the sea and that it was her brother who inspired her to join the Merchant Navy after joining AASTMT.
Although the academy only accepted men at the time, she still signed up and was granted permission to join after a legal review by then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
During his studies, Elselehdar said that he had always been a victim of sexism.
“On board, they were all older men with different mentalities. There was no one I could exchange ideas with, ”he says. “It was a challenge to go through this on my own without my sanity being affected.”
“People in our society still do not accept the idea that women work at sea far from their families for a long time,” he adds. “But when you do what you love, you don’t need to seek everyone’s approval.”
Upon graduation, Marwa rose to the rank of first officer and captain of Aida IV when he became the first ship to navigate the Suez Canal after its expansion in 2015.
Around this time, she became the youngest Egyptian captain and the first woman to cross this road.
In 2017, she was also honored by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi during Women’s Day celebrations in Egypt.
When rumors emerged about his role in the Suez blockade, he feared the impact it would have on his work.
“This bogus article was in English, so it spread to other countries,” says Elselehdar. “I tried in several ways to deny what was in the article because it affected my reputation and all my efforts to get to where I am now.”
But now she says she is happy with the support she has received.
“The comments on the article were very negative and harsh, but there was a lot of other support, both from ordinary people and from those I work with,” he says. “I decided to focus on all the support and love I get, and my anger turned to thanks.”
“Plus it’s worth mentioning that I’ve become even more famous than before,” she adds.
Next month, Marwa Elselehdar will take her final exam to advance to the full captain position and hopes to continue to be a role model for women in her region.
“My message to women who want to be in this career is to stand up for what they love and not be affected by negativity,” she says.