Understanding Sterlina

That was me in the mid-90s. Was I that different from Sterlina?

I often get nightmares. I used to blame them on the murder mysteries I read as a child or the police drama series I used to watch as a young adult. I stopped doing all that but the nightmares never stopped. I think my subconscious is strongly linked to my conscious. It turns all my real-life worries into horror-movie-worthy nightmares.

Last night I had nightmares of war. The part of the nightmare I remember was about me walking into a room and discovering it was full of Iraqi fighters. They were all pointing huge weapons out of a large balcony, focusing on something, people probably, not far below. I went to their leader, a rather stocky woman wearing a flowery dress with henna-painted fingernails. I was told that if I wanted to leave the room I had to have her permission. I gave her the most innocent I’m-of-no-matter-to-anyone look I could muster and told her that I really needed to go home PLUS I had to go to the toilet anyway. She looked at me very briefly, she was busy, and told me that it was dangerous out there. How was I planning on making my way home? I told her I’d walk to my father’s house which was not far away. I promised her I’d be fine. She allowed me to leave. There were many other woman in that room who were being held captive who were not as lucky. Perhaps they hadn’t tried to ask for permission like I had? Perhaps they knew too much already and could not be allowed to leave for that reason? A very young friend of mine was there. Her father’s house was close to my father’s house. She asked me to ask permission from the leader to take her with me. I woke up just as I started explaining things to the leader. I’ll never know if we both managed to leave.

When I woke up this morning, I tried to figure out what it was I was thinking about the day before that would have stimulated this nightmare. An aspect of this dream is reminiscent of the days of revolution in Cairo in 2011. But I realized that wasn’t what brought this one to the surface.

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook posted an article about an 18-year-old Dutch girl who converted to Islam, wore a face veil, and soon after fled from the Netherlands to Turkey by train, crossed the border into Syria, and married a Dutch-Turkish fighter.

Her story freaked me out.

This morning I figured out why.

Had the Internet been around when I was that age, that girl could have been me. (more…)

Hijab and Western Discrimination

Do Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries face discrimination? They certainly do. The fact of the matter is theyIMG_4506 face discrimination in Muslim countries as well. Heck, women face discrimination for the mere fact that they are women in most countries of the world.

I ask you, nevertheless, this: Do Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries face discrimination wherever they go and from most everyone? Absolutely not. Neither do women generally.

The Huffington Post published an article a few days ago written by a young Muslim woman who wears the hijab. Because of the very cold weather in the U.S., she added a knit hat over her head and a scarf around her neck that virtually hid her hijab underneath. In the article, reprinted from her blog, she explains how differently she felt people treated her. The Muslim taxi drivers were “cold and dry”. She was not acknowledged by her fellow hijabis the way she was accustomed to. On the other end, [non-Muslim] women started talking to her as if she’d “known them forever.” And men looked at her as if she was “approachable”.

I had never realized that with my hijab, I am given less respect and love and am not as accepted. I had always thought that the type of treatment I am exposed to is just how the world is. I didn’t know that people could be nicer.

I have no desire to undermine this woman’s experiences or how she analysed them.  Her experiences are her own. My personal experiences, however, and thus my opinions on the matter, are very very different. (more…)

Wearing the Hijab: Conviction or Brainwashed by Society?

The first time I heard about the hijab I was a little girl around the age of ten. I was growing up in the United States, the product of an American mother and an Egyptian father. My father and I were walking somewhere, and he mentioned that Muslim women start to cover their hair after they perform the Pilgrimage to Mekka. He may have been avoiding talking to me at this young age about menses and that in Islam, it is actually at the age that a girl gets her first period that she becomes accountable to God and should start wearing her hijab. Or perhaps my father just did not know this at that time, and because he witnessed so many women come back from the Pilgrimage with their hair covered he assumed that this was the rule. My father did not grow up in Egypt with women who covered their hair. Pictures of him and his classmates in Cairo University show women wearing stylish short dresses, sometimes above the knee, with hairdos that were common in the 1950s all over the Western world. Back then, even the wives and daughters of many of the Muslim Brotherhood did not wear the hijab.

I clearly remember my reaction. “Well, I just won’t ever perform the Pilgrimage then. Not at least until I’m old,” I said. The concept was so foreign to me it did not register as something I would remotely consider doing.

This changed a few short years later. (more…)

Reflections on My Journey With and Without the Headscarf

I need to think out loud. I’ve found blogging my thoughts helps me work through them. Most of the time I receive very helpful comments on the things I blog about. These comments are read and much appreciated even if I don’t always reply to them. Sometimes I don’t reply because I’m mulling over the things that people have said. Of course, other times I receive quite hurtful and judgmental comments. But even these are helpful. It’s good to know where societies stand on certain issues. It’s good to know where work needs to be done to create positive change.

I had a long conversation last night with a very good friend of mine. It was about the hijab; that piece of cloth that covers a woman’s hair. Many of you will recall the blog post I wrote in which I admitted that I had experimented with taking my hijab off during a trip to Europe. That post received more than 68,000 views since it went online and more than 450 comments. Clearly this is a topic that many people find important, whatever their reasons.

Since I wrote that post, I will now admit that I have continued to experiment. My experimentation the first time was mainly to try to see if complete strangers, in a European country, dealt with me differently with and without the hijab. I was raised to believe that the hijab protected women from the evil stares of men. The hijab allowed people to deal with me not because of my beauty but because of my personality and what was in my head. I wanted to know if this was true. The result of my European experiment was that there was no difference. People did not look at me or treat me any differently because I was wearing the hijab or because I had exposed my hair. The treatment in both cases was almost exactly the same. Since then, whenever I’ve been to Europe and when I’m not in the presence of people I know who I feel may be judgmental of me, I continue to not wear the hijab. This time though, I’m experimenting with my own feelings about this. I know that people in a European country could care less whether I cover my hair or not. But do I care? How do I feel? And what are my feelings about doing the same thing in an Arab country? Or in the midst of people I know?

This is what I’ve learned about myself so far: (more…)

I’ve Gone and Done It Now: What It’s Like Without the Muslim Headscarf

I have a secret. Not a dirty little secret. I’m not going to tell you those. A normal, short-lived secret as you soon shall see. And I’m going to tell you my secret – this particular one anyway – because I hate feeling like a hypocrite. I hate doing one thing in front of people and another behind their backs. I do enough of that already. So I’m going to tell you about this one to lighten the load a bit.

I experimented last week. I took off my hijab – the headscarf many Muslim women wear to cover their hair.

I have been wearing a headscarf when I leave the privacy of my home for 25 years, since I was 17. That’s a long long time in human years.

I took my hijab off during a recent trip to Europe. I wanted to know what it would feel like. I wanted to know how people’s perceptions of me would change and how my perception of myself would change.


Societies Overpowered by a Headscarf: It’s Time for Change

Muslim women in Europe and the United States who choose to wear a headscarf or face veil are placed under tremendous societal pressures almost every day. On the streets, some people look at them as if they are freaks of nature. Many find it difficult to get jobs or even to be accepted as tenants. And in France, women who wear the face veil are now affronted with legal action. Some women hold their heads high and persevere despite all this. Some women find it difficult to cope, they cringe under the heavy fist of society, and they decide to take off their hijab or their face veil and conform to the societal norm. Other women decide that the hijab wasn’t for them anyway and that this is as good an opportunity as any to take it off.

The struggle of the veiled Muslim woman in Europe has reached the hearts and minds of Muslims all over the world, including mine. Her struggle is their struggle. A woman has the right to choose, we all shout. Muslim women do not wear the headscarf/face veil out of oppression, we explain. In so many cases, they wear it as a matter of choice.

A woman, we shout, has the right to choose.

But do we Muslims really believe this or do we use this argument when it suits us?


A Woman’s Right to Independent Adulthood

I’m feeling angry. And when I’m angry, I write. It’s the only way I know to release my frustrations out onto the world.

The topic for today is societal control. I know of no way to get to the point of what I want to address other than by giving an example or two.

Example number 1: I have a couple of friends who wore the hijab (a scarf that covers the hair) and then decided to take it off. Both describe very uncomfortable situations where they were criticized and judged for this decision. Yet at the same time, if a woman decides to wear the hijab in Egypt, she will also in many circumstances find herself judged by other members of society for becoming too conservative. And yet other women who never wear the hijab find themselves sometimes criticized for being loose or without moral values. And still other women who decide to cover their faces are labeled extremist by many members of our society.

What is this obsession with what women wear for goodness sake??

Example number 2: I also have some girlfriends who are in their 30s but because they are not married they live with their parents. It is almost unheard of for an Egyptian woman, no matter how old she might get, to live outside of her parent’s home unless it is in her husband’s home. Although it is nice that women are taken care of – to an extent – in our society, the downside is that the woman’s independence is seriously compromised. Even if the families allow the woman to be independent, society and its harsh judgments will affect the woman’s decisions and actions. A single Egyptian woman will find it difficult, for example, to come home too late. This is not necessarily because her family prevents her. It could very likely be because she doesn’t want the neighbors or the doorman to talk and spread rumors about why she stays out late. A woman’s reputation in Egypt is everything.

There are so many examples one could give.

My question is: At what point is an Egyptian woman considered an independent, mature adult who has the right to make her own decisions and live her life the way she sees fit?

Why do I even have to ask this question?

And as I continue in my angry, emotional rage, I’ll ask more questions:

Why is it that women in particular are so strongly judged for almost any action they take by the society they live in? Even more infuriating is that these judgments are made both by men AND women.

Why is it that a woman’s reputation can be so negatively affected because of her personal decisions about how she wants to live her life or what she wants to believe?

Why is it that once this reputation is affected, all aspects of her life – including her career and her relationship with work colleagues – might also be negatively affected?

When will the day come when a woman’s personal decision is left at that: a PERSONAL decision and it is no one else’s frickin business!

There are also much simpler examples, but also very telling. After I returned from my Kilimanjaro trip, many women told me that they would love to go out and do something of their own but that they can’t because their husbands would not allow them to. Would not ALLOW them to?? What kind of a shame is it for our society that a 40-something-year-old woman is either being “allowed” or not to do something she feels she needs to do? I am not in any way suggesting that spouses should not discuss things over. But there MUST be an age when a woman is mature enough to make her own decisions? There MUST be!

A woman is more than capable of considering all the issues at hand, the advantages and disadvantages, the impacts of her decisions on her family and how to put in place the mechanisms that will keep the family strong and happy even as she allows herself some degree of independence.

So what if a woman – maturely and independently – makes a decision that others find to be non-compliant with their religious values? It is that woman’s decision and it is her right to decide what her values are. You stick to your values and your religious beliefs. I’ll figure out what mine are and try to stick to mine. Or I’ll change them as frequently as the leaves change on trees. It is no one’s business.

The Right to Question Faith – Any Faith

On April 26, I published a blog post titled “Time for a confession: I wore the face veil for eight years”. Among the 1,845 words in the article, there are the following ten words: “I even have my own questions about the head scarf.”

In response to those ten words, several people asked me on the blog and on my Facebook page what I meant by that exactly. I even got a rather nasty comment that I refused to publish that included among other things something to the effect of “people are saying that you are planning on taking off your hijab.”

Let me set one thing straight: I have absolutely no plans to take off the hijab (the head scarf).


Love me and not your expectations of me

Last night was a great win for Egypt against Ghana in the Cup of African Nations 2010.

Cairo celebrations Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

After the win, I went out to Pyramids Street, near my home, to watch the street celebrations and take some photos. The celebrations felt so anti-climactic to those only two nights before when Egypt won against Algeria. I didn’t stay long on the streets and walked home. At home I continued to watch the celebrations on TV. I couldn’t help but notice how silly Egyptians get when they are happy; especially after winning a football match. To tell you the truth, I’m pretty much the same myself. The masses were dancing foolishly, chanting silly chants, and saying the most ridiculous things in front of television cameras. It was all quite funny.

So this is what I posted on Twitter while I watched:

NadiaE: for a country where the majority doesnt drink alcohol, we certainly celebrate like a bunch of drunkards when we win a soccer match!

NadiaE: im watching coverage of egyptians celebrating all over the world and laughing my head off. Ppl not even talking straight!

NadiaE: sha3b genetically m7ashish sa7ee7 (rough translation: we’re a people who are genetically stoned)

Before I come to the reaction I got from one of my followers, I must admit that I have always been thankful that I do not drink alcohol because it is prohibited in my religion. The main reason I’m thankful is that I can quite easily get into a “drunken mood” all on my own. So this thought about us being “genetically stoned” is not a new one and has mainly been a thought I reflect on myself until yesterday. Yesterday, I discovered that it seems this applies to many Egyptians when they are happy as well.

I have absolutely no interest in pointing fingers, so I’m not going to include the Twitter name of the person that reacted negatively to my last statement. And for the record, I’m pretty sure this person had absolutely no bad intention in what he said. It just pushed a very sensitive button of mine:

“I am not expecting this statement specially from u Nadia, please note that people r inspired by your writings & blogs. Take care pls”

This statement from a Twitter follower elicited a tirade of comments from me, the last being this morning. They summarize in short 140 character tweets what I feel about the whole role model concept and our high expectations from them:

Tweets from me:

@x not sure what u read into what i wrote, but i have no intention of being a role model becuz im not 1

@x I tweet what I think and won’t stop because of others’ expectations of me. I wont be careful. Ill be me

I say NO to self-censorship because of others’ expectations! That makes me so angry!

I have no wish at all to be a role model. And I will not self-censor myself becuz some want me to act like one

question to my tweeps: if some ppl think of u as a role model, does that mean u have to start acting like one?

even more importantly, does it mean u have to act like the role model THEY want u to be?

and wasnt it you being genuinely you that made you their role model to begin with?

These are some of the responses I got to that question from different tweople:

No, not acting like one as in changing ur characteristics and who you are to who they want you to be. But taking the responsibility. That your actions & behavior might influence some other people, so giving more emphasis on being a better YOU with less mistakes.

Nope, if you change then فيه عقد نقص (rough translation: you have an inferiority complex if you change for that reason)

i guess wn u r a role model then it pushes u to be better even for urself !!

i think it’s the other way around..

I really hate the “exposure” I get, scares the hell out of me.

dear no body like it, but sometimes u r 🙂 so act based on that..

Right, but it’s natural for everyone to search for someone who practically resemble what he/she is seeking to be, it’s natural.

If someone thinks of u as role model, so its for who u r.. not anything else. So be urself.. don’t try to idolize urself.. 🙂

wat u r is wat make u role model 4 them so dont react differently when u know. B wat u r but carefully manage their expectations

What is it with people’s eternal urge for censorship??? It’s you as you are that inspired them and nothing should change that.

When you get that comment it’s more like what they would want you to be, not who you are. It’s an equation in their brains.

And I continued to rant…
this whole concept of taking role models worries me to begin with. Its idolizing ppl. Putting them on a pedestal

no one should have to be put on a pedestal and idolized because no one is that perfect. Do u realize the burden that is?

let me be very clear b4 i end my rant: i dont want to be anyones role model, do not have high expectations of me or u will be disappointed..

and i will not practice self-censorship and i will continue to be just ME

and ppl shouldnt be “as me”. They should simply be themselves. Thats what will make them unique

And my last tweets on this the following morning…

if coming into the public eye more often means I must put up an act of being an angel for people, I don’t want to be in the public eye

I’d much rather just be myself wherever i am; with all my beautiful imperfections and slips. and if that isn’t enough for ppl it’s their loss

Why is this a sensitive subject for me?

Being a Muslim woman who wears the veil (hijab), makes me the object of peoples’ scrutiny all the time.

For those who have reservations against it, if I don’t act like an angel 100% of the time I’ll hear comments like, “See what women in hijab do?”

And from those who fully support it I hear comments like, “You can’t do that because you represent women in hijab.” Or “You are such a good representative of women in hijab.” Or “How could you do that as a woman wearing hijab? Doesn’t it mean anything to you?”

I’ve heard all of this and more. And for some odd reason, most of those people do not realize that I’m just a normal, imperfect person who chose to wear the hijab. I do not and cannot represent every single woman who wears it. And I cannot – nor do I wish to – represent the whole of the Islamic nation because I have chosen to wear the hijab.

It’s just a head cover for goodness sake. That’s all it is. It does not mean that I have managed to become the “perfect Muslim”, whatever that might mean. It does not mean that I have even chosen to act like the “perfect Muslim.”

The same applies for any person who happens to come into the public eye for any reason. Perhaps someone has managed to achieve great professional accomplishments: reached greatness as an actor, an artist, an athlete, etc. They have achieved greatness in these areas. That does not mean they have achieved greatness in all aspects of their lives. They might be complete flops in their personal lives, for example. Does this diminish their level of greatness in what they’ve achieved? It doesn’t. Should they be required to be great in all other aspects of their lives simply because people suddenly have high expectations of them? No.

Part of the beauty of the human being is his imperfections; the fact that one can be great in one area and a failure in another.

There are people in my life I have always looked up to. But the knowledge that these people are imperfect is a relief to me. It allows me to push myself to be a better me on the one hand, but to accept my own imperfections on the other. It’s human nature.

So, I will end by summarizing my earlier tweets:

I will continue to be me in all my beautiful imperfectness. Do not take me as your role model. I do not wish to be in that position. If I have ever done something or said something you have learned from, well and good. I’ve learned a lot from you as well. Do not expect me to be perfect because of a few things you’ve seen in me and liked. Your perfect is not my perfect is not our neighbor’s perfect. Love me and not your expectations of me. Just let me be me. And I sure as heck hope you continue to be you.