“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.”
Elselehdar, 29, was the first woman to enroll in the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport and was only able to do so after getting special permission from former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Her 1,200 classmates were male — and they tended to be “older men with different mentalities,” she told the BBC. “People in our society still don’t accept the idea of girls working in the sea away from their families for a long time.”
After she graduated, Elselehdar began working for the Egyptian Authority for Maritime Safety on board a vessel that delivers supplies to a remote lighthouse in the Red Sea, according to Egypt Today. When Egypt finished its expansion of the Suez Canal in 2015, she helped lead the celebratory procession, and became the first Egyptian woman to cross the canal as the captain of a ship.
On March 22, the day before the Ever Given became lodged sideways in the canal during a dust storm, the Arab News published a glowing profile of Elselehdar and her success as one of the only women in a male-dominated field. Anti-feminist trolls subsequently tried to link her to the disaster, claiming it was evidence of what would happen if women were allowed to captain ships, according to the outlet.
“Frankly, when I read the news, I was upset, because I worked really hard to reach the position I have reached, and anyone who works in this field knows how much effort a person has made over the years to reach this rank,” Elselehdar said in a video that she posted to her Instagram account. “One has to spend many years at sea, studying and taking exams before reaching this level.”
Elselehdar also told Egyptian newspaper Youm7 that fake Twitter accounts had been created with her name and photo, attracting roughly 20,000 followers in the span of just a few hours.
Female captains are a rarity even outside Egypt. According to the International Maritime Association, only 2 percent of all seafarers worldwide are women — and the overwhelming majority work on cruise ships.