Sara Hegazy and the freedom to be yourself

I am angry. I am so angry that my anger has caused my anxiety levels to intensify. I need to express my anger with the hope that this helps my anxiety.

A few days ago, a young Egyptian woman committed suicide in Canada. She had fled to rainbowCanada not long after her release from prison in Egypt, following her arrest for raising the rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo. In prison, she was tortured by her jailers and molested by her female prison mates.

Sara Hegazy was gay. She was also an atheist. She did not hide the fact that she was either. And she paid for it in every horrible way possible. Even after her death, Egyptian social media erupted into all the meanness and terribleness it can be, demanding that people refrain even from even asking for God to have mercy on her soul. Discussions ensued about the inappropriateness of expressing one’s homosexuality in a ‘religious society’ like Egypt. Why did she even raise the rainbow flag in our society, people asked. She should have been smarter than that. “Those people” have been living in society for centuries without anyone harming them, said others, as long as they don’t rub their gayness in our faces. We can’t allow them to just go around talking about their homosexuality in our society, yet others said. If we do, homosexuality will spread amongst our children like an infection.

I can’t help but take this personally.

I have experienced first-hand what it means not to be able to be one’s true self in and among one’s own society. It is pure hell. I have spent years delicately testing the waters to figure out what I can and should not say publicly, whether it is regarding my religious or my political views. The past few days are the first for me to properly express my belief that a homosexual person should not be discriminated against in any way. How ridiculous does that even sound?? I have expressed this not because I feel safe in doing so but because I feel so outraged that keeping that outrage inside of me might eat me up alive.

I feel outraged for Sara and for ANYONE who can’t just be themselves because of the discrimination of the people around them. I feel outraged by the things I hear, like: if we normalize homosexuality, what’s to prevent pedophilia from being normalized? I feel outraged that no logical response to these illogical fears that people have settles in with them in any way.

I feel outraged.

I feel outraged because I hear Muslims living abroad complaining constantly about Islamophobia and demanding constantly that they have the right to publicly and safely practice their beliefs. This means, for example, the right of a Muslim woman to wear a headscarf or a face veil, or the right of Muslims to conduct their prayers in public. If you believe, as I do, that this is a basic human right, as it is your right not to be discriminated against because of your religion, how can you possibly not see how wrong it is to discriminate against someone else for another reason? If you think it should be your right to be your true self as you believe God demands it no matter where you go on this Earth, how is it possible that you think it’s wrong for someone living a different life with different beliefs to be themselves wherever they are? How can you not see the hypocrisy in your words and actions?

I am outraged that you think your beliefs are of significantly higher importance, the only relevant beliefs, compared to the beliefs of any others.

I am outraged that, because of your beliefs, we cannot find a common ground for discussion. If something is forbidden for you, then it is forbidden for you! Don’t do it! That doesn’t make it forbidden for the rest of the world!

I am outraged because you think that it’s all right for others to believe what they want and to do what they wish as long as it’s not done publicly. As long as it’s kept a secret. Yet you wouldn’t accept this for yourself in any way. Nobody should. A Muslim woman who believes in the necessity of wearing the hijab is carrying her rainbow flag around with her, announcing proudly to the world that she is a Muslim. A person wearing a wedding ring is carrying their rainbow flag around with them, announcing to the world that they are married, something that inevitably involves having sex at some point in time. When people have weddings, they are announcing to the world their new relationship. When a Muslim man chooses a corner in a park to pray one of the five daily prayers, he is carrying his rainbow flag announcing that he is a Muslim. Why is that all right for you but not all right for anyone else?

I don’t even know if I am making sense, I am so outraged.

Why can’t people understand that living inside your head is destructive, so much more destructive than it is to let that person just ‘be’, no matter how different that being might be from your kind of being.

I heard so many times over the past few days that people should have enough social intelligence to know when it is and isn’t appropriate to let your thoughts and your true self be known. Do they not understand how self-destructive that can be?

It’s as if you are asking a person to choose between two hells: the hell of keeping yourself hidden in order to stay safe from a societal backlash, or revealing your true self to avoid the inner hell but expose yourself to an outer one.

I wonder whether these ‘religious’ people understand how their imposed ‘religiousness’ is affecting our mental health as a society. We’re a society that has everything in it and we all know it. But it’s all hidden. It’s all a huge secret that’s not really a secret. But as long as we pretend it’s a secret we think it’s all right. It isn’t. It really isn’t all right.

We need to be able to have conversations about stuff without being thrown into prison for it. We need to be able to have conversations about stuff without constantly being condemned to hell. We need to be more accepting of our differences. You do you. I’m happy for you. But let me do me and be happy for me too.

The fact that I currently live in the UK doesn’t make any of this easier, or make me feel freer. In the end, my community, my people, Sara’s people, are the people where our families and friends are, where we grew up, where we relate no matter how difficult it is to relate sometimes.

I need to have these conversations with my people. I have found it so difficult to find people outside the Arab world who are passionate about saving the world in the same ways I am. But these conversations are so difficult. And so enraging. So utterly utterly enraging.

I hope you have found peace now, wherever you are, Sara. I am so so so sorry we allowed this to happen to you. I am so so so sorry we have stayed silent. I am so so so sorry you weren’t safe to simply be yourself.



Cheaper Than Coal

Another guest post from my 18-year-old daughter, Somaya. Egypt and the broader Arab region are on her mind.

Cheaper Than Coal

By Somaya Abulfetouh

The most precious things that may cross your mind

Are the same things that could turn you blind

They shine so bright and drive people mad

They control even the strongest lad

Gold as bright as the sun

Silver as white as the moon

Diamonds, oh I want them by the ton!

At the sight of crystals some might swoon!

Which, you ask, is the most precious?

I’ll tell you none; I’ll tell you blood is.

All the above, compared to a soul

Become cheap, cheaper than coal

The blood of your friends, your family, your children!

Not even those, but your country’s citizens!

The people who live on the same planet,

Why should you make of killing them a habit?

What more value does your blood hold?

If theirs is cheap, yours is not gold

Oh, what a funny world this has become!

It’s become so dark, all the days are dun

No, not dun, more like red

When all our days are filled with dread

In the papers, on the news

All we see is sadness and blues

Where is the outrage, where is the ruckus?

How can you let murderers live among us?

Raise your voice, make a change!

Kick and thrash till you break the cage!

Terrorism and the Need to Acknowledge Accountability

I have a mixture of feelings of relief, angst, and anger following yesterday’s dramatic end to the search Earth_Western_Hemisphere_transparent_backgroundfor the Charlie Hebdo attackers.

Relief, because two psychotic murderers no longer roam the streets of France.

Angst, because of the brutal backlash that has already started against Muslim communities in the West.

And anger, partly at my fellow Muslims for seemingly wanting to fully distance themselves from any accountability for the current state of the general Muslim mindset/culture. And partly at the general Western world for not wanting to take accountability for a whole context they have played a huge role in creating.

I was glued to the television set as I watched events unfold live yesterday in Dammartin-en-Goele and Porte de Vincennes. I was awash with relief to see them come to an end. But at the same time I was horrified that yet four more had died in the midst of it all. For some reason I need to know who those four people are. I woke up this morning and the first thing I did was to turn on the news, hoping more information had been released. It hasn’t. There is a connection I need to make with those remaining four.

Yesterday night, just as the events ended, I learned that a friend of mine had recently moved to France. “Today they put a pig’s head in front of the mosque,” he told me. “Several women had their hijab pulled off their heads and there is a horrifying incitement campaign [against Muslims]. People are directing their anger at Islam and not just the murderers,” he said.

Early this morning I woke up to a status from a Dutch Muslim friend reporting that within her own limited network two mosques were firebombed, two women were soaked in beer by a co-passenger on the train while being called “fucking terrorists”, the mother of a friend was pelted with coca cola bottles, a young woman was told at the supermarket register that she should feel ashamed to still wear “that rag on her head”, numerous friends of friends were cussed at, slapped, lectured on their obligation to apologize, violated, etc., while bystanders did nothing. All the victims she had heard of were veiled women, she said.

I fear for my friends’ lives and for their families’ safety.

What frustrates me the most, I think, is the constant blame game that ensues after these sort of horrific events. No one wants to take responsibility for the mess we’re all in.

There is no simple answer to the question: what makes a person become a terrorist. Terrorism is the result of a very large number of complex factors. What acutely annoys me is that most of us have a very good idea what they are.  (more…)

The Art of Muslim Flirting

How does one find the perfect spouse? Of course here in the Muslim world, most people aren’t looking for a casual boyfriend/girlfriend or a longer term partner. Most of us wake up when we reach somewhere around the age of 20 and just want to get married. To someone. And thus starts the prowl for the suitable spouse.

I won’t get into the pros and cons of this way of thinking. I won’t address the various cultural approaches, whether semi-dating, meeting people in the family circle, or arranged marriages. Forget all that. Most people I know in my circle of friends just want to figure out how they personally can find someone they’d like to spend the rest of their lives with.

I’ve been telling my friends – guys and gals – that they all need to learn the art of flirting. They truly suck at it. For the most part, the girls I know won’t flirt at all because they feel it’s inappropriate. And when girls I know do flirt it’s very cheeky and superficial. It gives off the wrong message completely. The guys I know think flirting means batting their eyelashes at girls (yes…BATTING THEIR EYELASHES), looking at them inappropriately (they don’t realize it’s inappropriate but it is), and acting all manly and controlling with them. It’s a complete turn-off.

So as I’ve promised for quite some time, behold my blog post on the art of flirting in the Muslim world. I’ll only know if this post applies to other parts of the world once I finish writing it. I’m not sure yet what jewels will come out of my typing fingers! (more…)

The Truth about Muslim-Coptic Relations in Egypt

Before I married, I loved coconut. I loved coconut chocolate bars, coconut sprinkled over rice pudding, and coconut in basboosa, an Egyptian desert. I loved coconut.

I do not know who to attribute this design to. It was used as a profile picture by friends - and then me - on Twitter. It reads: one nation, one people.

 My husband, on the other hand, couldn’t stand it. He’s the type of person that makes a disgusted face whenever a food he dislikes is mentioned. It really only took a few short months and the thought of coconut made me feel sick to my stomach.

That’s the kind of conditioning one experiences growing up in Egypt. That’s how I was conditioned to have discriminatory feelings towards Egyptian Coptic Christians.

It is time for me to tell this story. I tell it with the utmost shame. But it is a story that must be told. Unless we admit we have a problem and try to understand why we have it, we will never be able to fix it.


Muslim Women Man-Eaters

I read this blog post The Penalty Box: Muslim Women’s Prayer Spaces yesterday and it sent my head a-rollin’. If you wish to read on, expect a lot of rambling. 

In almost every single mosque I’ve been to, women are made to pray in an area that is completely separate from the men’s praying area. And in almost all cases, the women cannot see the imam or the other men who are praying. The result is that it is not uncommon for women to “miss a beat” during the prayer and find themselves completely lost as to where the imam is at this stage of prayer, especially if the woman starts praying after the prayer has begun. 

This is in the best of cases. 

But frequently it is much worse. 

Most mosques in Egypt have a crappy, curtained off area for women to pray in. It’s usually a corner in the very back of the mosque. A penalty box, as the writer of that blog post so eloquently puts it.

I will admit that if a woman has gone into the mosque and wants to take a nap, it is quite convenient to have a separate area for women. And I’ve seen women do this. But most women go into the mosque to actually pray. 

What is so wrong with women being able to pray the congregational prayer at the back of the normal praying area of a mosque? This is what happened at the time of the prophet. Lines were made such that men were in the front lines, young boys were in the middle, and women were in the rear. But in this day and age we have taken this to an extreme: women are hidden away from sight. 

How many women are out there that – like me – wished they could just walk into a mosque, Al-Azhar mosque for example, and pray the sunnah prayer right in the middle 

I didn't have to glare at anyone to pray in this blessed mosque 😉

of the mosque like everyone else? I’m going to have to admit that I’ve done this a few times. And I have a glare that can scare off a thousand men so I get away with it too. But many women don’t have The Nadia’s glare. And if they try to pray in the middle of the mosque they are reprimanded by one man or another and sent to “the penalty box”. Why do some men feel obliged to send the women away? What threatens them so much about a woman praying? 

I’ve even prayed in parking lots and parks when I’ve needed to. In the non-Muslim world, this will get me the odd glance or two. But in the Muslim world, I’ve frequently been approached by men and women telling me that it’s haram (prohibited) for a woman to pray in front of men. Prohibited? Who prohibited it? The odd logic they give is that men will look at a woman’s behind as she prostrates. Come on! First, I’m praying. I’m not doing anything other than what God has asked me to do, and that includes prostration. Second, what the heck is a man doing looking at a woman’s behind while she is praying before her Lord, for goodness sake? Who is in the wrong in this case? The woman praying or the man looking at a woman’s praying behind?? And if there’s a huge issue about hiding prostrating behinds, men should hide their prostrating behinds as well. Or do you think women don’t like to look at men’s behinds? 

The blog post I refer to in the beginning of this post also addresses segregation of men and women during religious lectures. 

Let me tell you a story. 

I was covering a conference a few years ago in Dubai (I’m a science journalist). The conference was about the scientific miracles in the Qur’an. Let’s put the subject matter of the conference aside because that needs a whole ‘nother blog post. But in this conference, the organizers had placed the men’s seats up front and the women’s seats way behind. I had to do my work and take pictures and also interview people. So I was roaming around for the three days of the conference going up to the stage, taking pictures, and mingling with men as I spoke with them for potential interviews. At the end of the conference, a woman – whom I did not know – came up to me and told me: “You are like a sister to me and I would like to give you advice. The other women are talking about you because you walk among the men. This is not good behavior.” 

I must admit this sort of situation only happened that once in my professional career as a journalist. But that was the only time I covered a religiously inclined conference too. 

The point: many conservative Muslims have a preference of segregating men and women everywhere; in mosques, in religious lectures, in non-religious lectures. It’s perfectly fine with me if that is what makes them comfortable and I do not want or need to attend. But then what about the rest of us who every once in a while would like to attend a lecture and see no need to be thrown in the back of the room? Which reminds me of the time I stopped by the Islamic Youth conference held in Cairo a few short years back and found that they had the women sitting in a room at the back that was completely cordoned off from the rest of the conference. What is so bad that can happen to a man when Nadia El-Awady decides to sit next to him while he listens to an Islamic scholar speak about Islam? Could I possibly be that distracting? And if I am, whose problem is that exactly? Mine or the person who gets distracted by a veiled woman sitting next to him? 

I’d suggest to organizers of that sort of conference: have a special place for men who don’t want to sit next to women, a second special place for women in the back who feel that’s their proper place in society, and a third place for the rest of us who can keep our minds and our hands to ourselves when sitting next to a member of the opposite sex.

Movie Review: My Name Is Khan

The crazy, messed up world we live in required the clear sight of a man with Asperger’s syndrome to show us how life should be – could be – if we opened our eyes, minds and hearts to each other.

I watched the movie “My Name Is Khan” last night. I do not exaggerate if I say it is probably one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. It resonated so closely with thoughts I’ve had for quite some time. It focused the spotlight on a type of people who are out there but are not acknowledged.

“My Name Is Khan” is about an Indian Muslim man with Asperger’s syndrome (an autistic disease) who grew up in India among Muslim-Hindu troubles. His mother taught him that it was not Hindu or Muslim who was bad. It was the man with the stick in his hand who was bad, no matter where that person comes from.

Khan takes this simple idea with him to the U.S. and marries a Hindu woman he falls in love with against the wishes of his brother, his only remaining family member. And then 911 strikes.  The movie portrays the lives of Muslims in the United States post-911 and the prejudices they were exposed to as a result. The movie shows how friendships, relationships and lives were shattered and how people coped in different ways. And the movie has one overwhelming message repeated throughout by the main actor: “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.”

My sister was a veiled Muslim woman living in the US when 911 struck. My sister is half-American. She was – as I’m sure she will tell you – as shocked by the 911 attacks as everyone else was. But she lived a very scary time afterwards, where she could not leave her home for days on end as anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiments pervaded. I am also half American and have struggled with my identity for most of my life. So this movie is very personal to me in many ways.

The message of the movie goes beyond, however, the fact that not all Muslims are terrorists. The beauty of the movie is in its portrayal of the multi-cultural, inter-ethnic world we now live in (practically wherever we live) and how we must learn to look beyond color, race, clothing, appearance, religion, ideology and see the human being in each of us. We must look beyond our differences and see our commonalities. We must look beyond our commonalities and appreciate our differences. 

I appreciate “My Name Is Khan” because it portrays a type of people I know, but who are not given a voice. I appreciate “My Name Is Khan” because it comes after countless movies where Muslims have been portrayed as terrorists, gold-diggers, or crazy genies and sorcerers. I appreciate “My Name Is Khan” because it shows the kind of world we could be – should be – living in.

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.