CAIRO: For the simple reason that they are young, many men and women are not taken seriously in their careers. Yasmine Shihata, the editor and co-founder of Enigma magazine, has more than one story to illustrate that point, but she also credits her young age – early twenties – for preparing her to take more than one risk – most notably leaving a magazine she created from scratch to start a similar project all over again.
“You know the good thing about being young, I think, is that you take these risks that your ignorance [makes you] believe [are right], says Shihata. “I was a very over-confident young person.
Just before 1998, the then 20-year-old Shihata, had worked in Vogue London and Marie Claire, two of the top women’s magazines in Europe and throughout the globe. She also served as senior assistant to the Vogue editor in New York.
“I was obsessed with Vogue magazine from when I was 12 years old, says Shihata, who gave up a lifelong dream of becoming a fashion designer after studying international relations in the London School of Economics. “I decided that I would get into magazines because that way I could used my writing skills and my love for fashion and art.
But soon it was time to return to Egypt – aside from a few summer visits, Shihata was raised in Vienna and Washington. After a few months of freelance work, Shihata had already met her first business partner and together they established Cleo.
“I thought there was a big market for fashion and lifestyle magazines for [modern Egyptian] women, she says. The magazine title, short for Cleopatra and referring to the modern version of the Egyptian queen, is in-sync with Shihata’s vision of the magazine.
Due to disagreements with her partner, Shihata felt compelled to leave and start her dream project all over again; she sold her 25 percent share during what she described as quite an emotional experience. Her youth and her confidence that she could do it all over again, however, made the decision easier.
But she didn’t take any notable breaks; Cleo, being a type of English magazine relatively new to Egyptian society, had attracted much attention on the market, and its young trendy editor was the center of this attention. Thus, Shihata had more than one offer to start a new magazine. She managed to combine four offers she received into one, convincing several businessmen to work together on a project.
In January 2000, exactly two years after Cleo’s first issue, Enigma saw light. With fewer restrictions on her creativity, Shihata wanted to make a magazine that transcended Egyptian borders. “When I first moved to Egypt, everybody complained about Egyptian quality, Egyptian workers. I sort of wanted to prove that you can be in Egypt and produce a beautiful magazine with beautiful photography, with beautiful writing, beautiful modern ideas and great covers . It was a vision to produce sort of this modern lifestyle magazine that was, for the people who appreciate it, as high quality as anything you could get abroad.
In spite of recognizing the success in realizing her vision, Shihata still points to the areas that need more effort and work. Talking about the international quality of her magazine, she says “Obviously I don’t think we’ve reached it there. I think we are still working hard to get to that standard . We pay more, we might make less money, but we put in all we have, to produce a high quality publication.
She also acknowledges the fact that occasionally she has to compromise on editorial content for the sake of advertisers’ needs. “For example, the society pages [pictures of weddings and high-profile social gatherings and events]; I’m not a huge fan of them. If it was up to me, we wouldn’t have more than five society pages . In the end this is a business. You have your readers who want to read these pages, and you have advertisers who want to be placed next to those pages. So if we don’t make money, we close.
But she strongly defends being a positive magazine with mainly light features that only targets the country’s upper class. “What we try to do is we don’t write anything negative in the magazine. It’s a purely positive magazine. We just try to show you the best that’s happening in Egypt, in the Middle East. We try to show you successful Arabs abroad. I just feel that are so many people focusing on the negative that our job, our contribution, should be towards the positive.
“From day one we never pretended to be a magazine for all Egyptians. Everybody had a magazine except for this type of Egyptians [English-speaking, upper class] who didn’t have a magazine when we came. It’s a niche magazine.
But Shihata is not giving up hope of improving and realizing all of her dreams. For starters, she is exerting more effort and spending more money to better the quality of her fashion shoots by executing them abroad. Now living between Cairo and London, where the magazine’s offices are, Shihata oversees fashion shoots that feature the latest clothes and accessories. With more professional models and higher quality pictures, Shihata is working at keeping the “international edge of the magazine she aspires to.
With this time and effort-consuming job, Shihata has also been facing a stereotype of women’s role in society. She stresses first that she is not a workaholic, but a person who appreciates life and the value of each moment.
Marriage is definitely on her agenda, but she believes that it has its time. “I just feel when I focus on my career I really want to focus on my career and when I focus on my family I want to be able to really focus on my family. And sort of have everything in place, so that my magazine or whatever I am doing can kind of run itself.
But this doesn’t mean she is against the idea of working and having a family at the same time; in fact, she refers to many success stories of women who have done exactly that. She just wants women to believe that they can have dreams and achieve them and discard the idea that only marriage makes them “something.
“I just don’t want all of these women to miss out. We can do so much as women. My father always encouraged me, saying that I could do just as much as any guy could and I feel if more Arab women had this type of encouragement we could see so many great things. You can have a family and be married but also fulfill your own dreams.