women

Is change on the horizon in Saudi Arabia?

Only recently did I realize that it’s a country I love to hate. I have a lot of baggage with Saudi Arabia and I so wanted to remain angry at it. But even as I got on my first flight back to the country in around 15 years, I found myself unable to quell the little bit of mounting excitement that I felt about going back.

I first went to Saudi Arabia in the 70s. I went to the 7th and 8th grades there. Before that we lived in the US. We returned afterwards to the States but went back to Saudi Arabia, where I spent my last year of schooling (11th grade) before I went off to university in Cairo, Egypt. My father remained for most of the rest of his life. He only left when his health no longer allowed him to continue teaching at university, many years after the typical retirement age.

My story with Saudi Arabia is complicated. I think I actually liked it as a young girl. During my younger years, I thrived on change. I’ve never been able to relate to children or their parents who worry about changing schools and leaving friends behind. My way of thinking was that my friends would remain my friends for life, no matter where I ended up in the world. Moving somewhere else only meant that I got to make even more friends.

Saudi Arabia was so different from anything I ever knew. But it was an adventure. (more…)

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Cycling Europe Day 48: On Being a Woman – A Drop In the Ocean

I woke up this morning to the horrific news that two girls in India were gang-raped and then hanged. All they had done was go out to the toilet at night. Earlier, I had heard of the Pakistani woman who was killed by her own family for marrying a man against their will. In Sudan, a woman is being charged with apostasy and could face death. She was raised Christian by her mother after her Muslim father left them. She married a Christian man. She was forced to give birth to her child in prison with her legs shackled. In Nigeria, a militant Islamist group kidnapped almost 200 school girls.

There are horror stories every single day involving attacks of men on women in every single country of the world. Attacks range from rape and murder, to sexual, physical, and mental abuse, to sexual harassment at work and on the street.

This morning’s awful news from India made me think about all the measures I’ve taken on this trip to keep safe. I wrote about many of them yesterday. The attacks mentioned above all happened in less developed countries. They just happen to be where the media attention is directed nowadays. I am an independent, strong-minded, strong-willed, well-educated woman cycling alone through “civilized” Europe. Yet I am constantly aware that there is nothing civilized about the attacks that happen on women in Europe everyday. And I am insanely relieved that my husband is joining me now for the rest of the journey, not only because I really miss him, but also because of the safety I feel in his male companionship.

Why are things this way? What has gone so wrong in the minds of enough men to make the world a generally unsafe place for women? Why do some men need to exert dominance over women, whether sexually, physically, or emotionally? What scares them so much about a woman that makes them feel that they must dominate and control them?

I take all the measures I wrote about, yet I know I am relatively safe in Europe. (more…)

The Career Struggles of a Woman

I find myself – again – in a very difficult and uncomfortable position. I am unable to make the career choices and decisions I would like to make – that I NEED to make even – because I feel I need to wait for other people around me to make their own decisions first.

How many other women live their lives this way?

When I gave birth to my children, I made the decision not to work. This was a very conscious decision on my behalf. It was a very easy decision. My children were my priority. They were babies. They needed a parent to give them fulltime care for a certain period of time. That parent would be me, their mother. Their father would play the other traditional role of providing for us. I was happy with my decision for the first years of our marriage. But then the children started growing older and I realized three things: we needed more money as a family, I needed to be financially independent, and I needed to have something to occupy myself when the children started going to school.

This was when I made the conscious decision to start working. I was very fortunate to find my way into journalism and it became my passion. But I was always “limited” in the choices I could make because of my responsibilities towards my children. (more…)

Do Gender Issues Really Affect ME?

Femininity never confused me. It didn’t at least until my late 30s/early 40s. Before that I never really thought about it. I was just me. I was a person. I did not want people to think of me as Nadia the woman. I wanted people to think of me as Nadia the person. And I lived my life that way. And because I did, or at least I thought I did, I did not feel that I faced many of the issues that women commonly complain about. I made choices in life based on what I felt was right for me. After studying medicine, I got married and by my own free will chose to be a fulltime mother and wife. When my children reached school age, when the family needed more financial support, and when I felt I needed more in my life, I freely chose to start working. Throughout my career, I have very rarely felt that I have been treated a certain way because of my gender. The only times where this might apply were when I had been invited to speak on a panel where they needed a gender balance and I was chosen to help create that balance. That really offended me. Otherwise, I have always been very lucky with my employers. My salary has always been equal to my male colleagues, I have been given the same opportunities or even better because I deserved them, and I’ve been given every chance to prove my capabilities; not because I am a woman, but because of what I can do. In my personal life, I’ve worked hard to create a balance between my family, my career, my education, and my hobbies. I never felt that my choices were made or were hindered by other people. I was just me doing what I chose for myself and for my family. I realized that I was very fortunate and that so many women around the world were not as fortunate as me. But I did not think about it that much. Opportunities were created by us and with hard work. Obstacles were made for us to go around them. Stop complaining, women, and move on with your lives!

It was only recently that I started realizing that, as a woman, I do face issues specific to my gender. One reason I did not realize that I faced these issues was because of the way I thought about them. (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…)

A Woman’s Independence: Fearing What I Ultimately Strive For

I live many contradictions. One in particular has been haunting me lately.

For as long as I can remember I have asserted my independence and been proud of it. I make my own personal decisions and take permission from no one. I have my own money. I own my own things.

I recently realized that I have only done this, however, under the guardianship of a male. The first 24 years of my life my guardian was my father. The following 17 years of my life my guardian was my husband.

Why do I call them guardians?

When I think of my father and of my now ex-husband I think: protection, stability, guidance, companionship, someone to trust in, someone to resort to or to fall back on…

Throughout my 41 years of male guardianship I never would have called my father or my ex-husband my guardians; especially not my ex-husband for the principle of it. He was though. They both were. I realize this now.

For the past year, since my divorce, I have been without guardianship.

(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.

(more…)

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.

Taboo Topics 1 and 2: Giving Muslim Women and Children Choice

In Islam, Muslim men are given the choice of marrying either a Muslim woman or a “woman of the book”, which refers to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. However, Muslim women are not given the same choice. They can only marry a Muslim man. Why is this?

Most arguments that support this say that it is for the children; to make sure the children are raised as Muslims. The man, the argument goes, is the head of the household and it is he who determines the faith of his children.

But is this really true? What are the statistics (are there any to begin with?) of Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women and ending up with all Muslim children? How much of the non-Muslim woman’s faith is actually instilled in these children?

A more important question is this: why is it that we feel the need to brainwash our children (I apologize in advance for the harsh terminology but if you want to be truthful and sincere this is what we do) into believing in one religion? What is so wrong with having children grow up learning about more than one religion and making their own choice when they come of age? Is religion such a delicate and fragile concept that the only way for a person to believe in it is for that person to have it pounded day after day into his/her head from the day they are born?

So today’s topic is about choice:

Giving Muslim women the CHOICE to marry whomever they want regardless of religion, creed, race, or nationality.

And giving children – all children – the CHOICE to think for themselves and decide what they want to believe based on knowledge and faith and not on what they were groomed to believe is truth.

I will probably be “crucified” by some Muslims for even raising a topic like this. We believe in the word of God and the words of His prophet and we do not necessarily need to understand the wisdom behind them. I wonder when Muslims started making up that phrase. Since the dawn of Islam and until only rather recently, Muslims were allowed to discuss and philosophize about the most sensitive of topics; even about the “whatness” of God Himself. When was there ever only one truth in Islam? When was there ever only one understanding of the script? When did we stop relearning Islam and re-understanding it as times changed?

At the same time, other friends, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, will probably see these questions as very backward and long overdue. Many Muslims are way past discussing these “petty” issues and have gone on with their lives. And for non-Muslims, some might relate to a degree because their religions are not very different and others will not because they live with the times and are more in tune with the universality of the world and the intrinsic right to freedom of choice.

These two topics stem out of a discussion I had with a group of female Egyptian friends of mine. These friends and I have basically gone through similar phases as conservative Muslim women and are now going through a similar phase of questioning some of the most essential “truths” we have learned along the way.

So regardless of whether you are going through the same phase, or you are past it, or you never thought this needed to be a phase to begin with, I’m looking forward to hearing all of your input on this topic. And expect more to come!