The author of this post is a friend and analyst who holds a master’s degree in international relations with a focus on conflict resolution in the Middle East. She has interests in the intersection of American and Muslim cultures and that, as you will read, is territory she personally occupies. Navigating this space can be challenging but she is finding her way and, through her work, making important contributions that I can’t detail here. – John
This piece is dedicated to Muslim women, specifically those in their adolescent years, faced with a multitude of obstacles and imposed familial and socio-religious restrictions in their journey to achieve their dreams. The inspiration for this post came to me after reading “Excellent Daughters” by Katherine Zoepf. The book highlighted the challenges faced by Muslim women in the Middle East. I wanted to supplement what I read with my personal struggle, my jihad, that I faced as a hybrid Muslim raised between two countries: the United States and Egypt.
Home of the Brave vs. Land of the Pharaohs
“No! That’s how Americans do things. We’re not American, we’re Egyptian.” I can’t recall the number of times I heard this phrase growing up and by growing up that includes just as recently as last week (I’m in my mid-twenties). Important to note that “Egyptian” is synonymous with Muslim in this context. Another note, my parents love America and all the opportunities it offered them but there has always been this underlying fear of their kids becoming “American” and, as a result, forgetting their Egyptian roots and, more importantly, their Muslim faith.
On the other hand, at school I wasn’t “American” enough. I wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers, hang out with friends outside of school (with the exception of two thoroughly vetted friends by my mother) or really anything most middle and high-schoolers did. At home, I was strictly Egyptian. I wasn’t even allowed to speak English at home so I could be fluent in Arabic (something I now commend my mother for). At school, I would try to be as American as I could. Reconciling these identities became the main crux of my struggle.
This dichotomous divide came to an end, for the most part, my first month as a sophomore in high school. My father called me from Egypt on my way to school in the morning: “I just bought a villa in Cairo and we’re all moving in a month.” I broke down crying and was utterly shocked. I was fifteen years old and had never lived anywhere other than America. It was an abrupt change and came with no prior warning. It would take me four months to fully accept and fall in love with Egypt after I got over my initial surprise and overly emotional and apocalyptic “it’s the end of the world” teenage sentiments.
The reason my father uprooted and moved our entire family to the “motherland” was to ensure my brother and I wouldn’t succumb to “American” temptations. He wanted us to live in a Muslim country during our critical teenage years. His solution: take us to Egypt where cultural and socio-religious norms would regulate and monitor our actions and behaviors when we weren’t under their purview. I’ll hand it to him, conceptually it was a brilliant plan and the best years of my life so far have been those spent living in Egypt. However, I’m not a better and more observant Muslim today strictly because of my time spent in the Middle East.
Already my first day at a private American high school and I was labeled the “loose American.” My schoolmates had these preconceived notions that Americans had no morals or values, woke up in a pile of cash, and gargled whiskey for breakfast. They clearly thought we all lived in one big Snoop Dogg music video. I of course did none of those things (can you imagine a fifteen year old living that lifestyle?). Eventually, I proved them all wrong. It dawned on me, however, that I not only face stereotypes as a Muslim living in the United States but I also faced stereotypes as an American living in Egypt. I am my own catch-22.
After those inaugural few months, my time in Cairo was amazing. My parents loosened up and my brother and I enjoyed freedoms we never would’ve dreamed of in America. I fit in, relatively, more so than I ever have before. I made lots of friends and was a normal teenager. I was always the American in the group, but that was a good thing. My schoolmates would always ask me to pronounce certain words so they could try to mimmic my accent and pretend to be American. I pronounced it hamburger with, what they called, an obnoxious American accent. They advised me not to speak so American outside of school so others could understand me. I had to tone done my “American” and say it like them: humm-bur-gAAR. Similarly, computer had to be changed to com-buet-AR, otherwise they’d look at me like I was a martian.
Fast-forward six years and my family decides my brother and I are Egyptianized enough. Mission accomplished! It is now time to return to the land of the free and the home of the brave, for good! Plot twist: I desperately wanted to stay in Egypt. Believe it or not, I fought tooth and nail to not move back to America. I was happily settled in Egypt, a third year undergraduate student with all my friends in Cairo. Staying behind alone to complete my last year in college, however, was not an option (you’ll find out why shortly). Ultimately, I was outnumbered — my father, mother and brother all wanted to move back. Alas, we were JFK-bound.
Challenge # 1 – Until Marriage Do Us Part
Now this is when things get a little more real (if you didn’t already think moving to a new country at fifteen then being forced to change universities and move back to the U.S. at twenty-one wasn’t dramatic enough). Transferring from a university in Egypt to one in the United States was not the easiest of tasks. I had to get all my courses and credits converted and then approved one-by-one. Most, but not all, of my credits transferred. It wasn’t enough for me to graduate in the one year I would have had left if I stayed in Egypt. Nonetheless, I was determined to graduate on time and, after doing the math, that would’ve been impossible without course overload (and I mean overload). I took five fall classes, two in the winter, six in the spring, and four in the summer all while working part-time after school, interning over an hour away and commuting another hour home. Phew, I thought the hard part was over. Things even got better. Shortly after graduating, I achieved what most recent grads aim for the minute their graduation ceremony ends: I secured a job. The catch: it’s three-hours away in New York City. Challenge # 1 activated.
Pause. A little bit of background before I get into the “s**t got real” portion of my story. It is important to first understand certain characteristic traits about some (not all) Arabs and socio-religious restrictions on Muslim women (again not widespread or imposed on all). That being said, this situation is also very unique to me and my family specifically.
As an unmarried young Muslim woman, my father is responsible for me until marriage. Responsible is often (a lot) of times unrightfully confused for or legitimized as control. Tribes in pre-Islamic Arabia tied family honor to the purity and virtue of their women. Generally speaking, that has in no way changed until this day. Owed to this, Muslim women are generally not permitted to travel or live alone — this is changing. Now like I said my situation is a little unique. Here comes a little bit of math. Add to the aforementioned factors that my family is unnaturally tight-knit and we have never separated before, and I mean never! We’ve had a family business for 17 years where we worked all day together then went home together, so as you can imagine we have a very close bond. Add: my father is very attached to my brother and I, especially me, and never wants us to leave even after marriage. Add: my father has had very strict control over my every move since I could remember. Multiply: my father has micromanaged my life. If you’re good at this no numbers math then it should look something like this: tight knit family + attachment issues + strict control (micromanaging)= a hyper-controlled and sheltered upbringing with little room for freedom, creativity, innovation, self-expression, soul-searching…you get it!
Play. I was overwhelmed with excitement. I got a job and in my dream city. I told my parents and got a lukewarm congrats from my father. He wasn’t the least bit thrilled. I didn’t even dare ask if it was possible for me to temporarily live in NYC — blasphemy! I did, however, have to get my father’s permission before accepting the job. Finally, after much persuasion and concessions, he agreed under one condition: that I work with them on the weekends. I swiftly accepted. Remember, we had a family business that I was betrothed to. Therefore, me working somewhere outside our business was percieved and aptly labeled as treason. Side note: Egyptians are impossibly dramatic.
Here’s what most of my non-Muslim friends in America find weird and it’s always a challenge for me to explain. They would ask, “You’re twenty-two and have to ask your parents for permission?” Yes I do and no I don’t mind (most of the time) and it will continue that way until I am married. This is where reconciling different cultures and backgrounds comes into play. As an American, I shouldn’t have to ask my parents’ permission since I’m well into my mid-twenties. That said, even though I’m an American and was born and raised here, I was brought up at home by immigrants, not Americans, as an Egyptian and a Muslim. They left the job of an American upbringing for everything outside the home and it has been a successful balance.
Now since I couldn’t move to NYC alone, my commute was extreme: six hours round trip! I had to be on a 4:45 am bus to be in the office by 8:00 am. It was hard to say the least, but I was determined. Greyhound became my second home. I packed a travel pillow and sleeping mask and would try to nap if I wasn’t interrupted by the never disappointing animated characters on the bus (read sarcasm). I have Greyhound stories that almost sound unbelievable. Over the course of two years, I got around four marriage proposals — three from Arabs and one from an Israeli. He tried converting me to Judaism otherwise we couldn’t get married (you can imagine my dismay). I told him if he could convert me on a 2.5 hour bus ride, then he’d achieve a miracle greater than Moses parting the Red Sea! He appreciated my biblical humor and apparently took that as a sign to continue proselytizing.
Another unnaturally large man with a full head of white hair told me he was Zeus’s son. YES! Zeus, the mythological Greek God. In all fairness, he looked almost identical to Zeus from the Disney cartoon Hercules. His name was Constantine the Great — you can’t make this stuff up!
Another guy who proposed was Egyptian. He told me he was a world class boxer and an internationally renowned chef with a $500,000 car (but he’s on a Greyhound?!) that was being fixed at the “shop.” Another side note about Egyptians: they’re notorious exaggerators (this blog post aside). He insisted on taking me out to dinner once our bus arrived and wanted to meet my father immediately to ask for my hand in marriage. I too at this point notoriously exaggerated and told him I was engaged. Perceptively, he noticed there was no ring on my finger. I had to think on my feet and came up with a white lie right on the spot: “my ring is being sized, my silly fiancé was in such a romantic rush to propose he didn’t get the right size.” He bought the lie!
But you see here, his interest wasn’t in my profession or career choices, my studies, or my goals or ambitions. He went on for over two hours about himself, his “accomplishments,” and lest I forget bolstering his ego. He even sang to me at one point. He butchered a song by my all time my favorite classical Arab artist (I now look back and question why I never carried mace). His interest was solely superficial based on the fact that I was a Muslim woman, who conveniently happened to be Egyptian, and I was at the blossomed age of marriage. Nothing else mattered, because to him the end goal for me should be a husband and a family to tend to and he made sure to remind me of that one too many times. Which is all well and fine and those are two things I very much can’t wait to have, but I don’t believe wanting a family and successful career should be mutually exclusive.
Back to Greyhound. I made that commute five days a week and you would naturally think I rested on the weekends to shake off all those horrid bus encounters, right? Wrong! Weekends were spent working 14-hour shifts at my family’s business to appease my father. I had to uphold my end of the peace treaty so I could continue working in NYC.
Challenge #2 – The Egyptian GodFather
Not too long after, I got accepted to do my master’s degree in New York as well. My father didn’t understand the need for a master’s degree since I already received my bachelor’s — “What’s the point if the end game is to get married, have kids, and tend to your family? You’re already educated enough to raise your children.” In the end, he granted me permission but, again, I would have to commute.
Throughout the job/grad school/commute I had to deal with persistent and uninterrupted pressure from my father to quit everything. He would label my actions unIslamic and that I was forcing him to approve of such behavior. Words like honor, loyalty, betrayal, virtue, purity were thrown around countless times, you’d think I was part of the Italian mafia. Nothing I was doing, however, was unIslamic (or violated omertà for that matter) — something he would later admit. Mentally and physically it was a grueling challenge — grad school aside.
Challenge #3 — My Muslim Mary Tyler Moore Moment
Before graduating, I secured a job about 2 hours away. Let me elaborate. This wasn’t just any job. It was what I’ve been aiming for my entire young adult life. A job that would allow me put into practice everything I studied for throughout my academic career and open up the path for me to positively represent the Muslim community and make a difference. Where very few Arabs, and even fewer Muslims, were employed and where I could show my colleagues, by example, that observant Muslims were nothing like what they saw in the media.
At this point I didn’t have it in me to commute any more and pleaded with my father to allow me to move into a place near my new job. By a miracle of Allah and relentless persuasion from my mom and brother, he begrudgingly agreed. I would have never thought in a million years he would allow me to move out before marriage. Until today, it still hasn’t sunk in. I, of course, had to visit every weekend, my entire family would come stay with me 2–3 days during the week, and when they were not there I was required to report my every movement to them. Not owed to lack of trust but because they were concerned for my safety. It was my first time out of the nest. Challenge #3 accomplished — or so one would think.
Challenge #3.5 shortly followed this milestone in my young adult life. About a month into moving out and my new job, the nagging and pressure began. It’s almost as if my father was under some sort of spell when he agreed to let me move out and now suddenly woke up. Pressure, labels, accusations, shaming, guilting, threatening to disown me, and fighting became my daily post-work life either in person or via phone. Questioning my integrity as a Muslim, blaming me for separating the family and abandoning them was a constant. Remember when I said Egyptians are excessively dramatic and notorious exaggerators? I was only 1.5 hours away. It wasn’t like I had a child out of wedlock, married a non-Muslim, eloped to Australia and cut ties with them. I saw them 3–4 times a week! However, this would continue uninterrupted for almost two years and continues, to a lesser degree, until today.
Added to all this, I was still in my last semester as a graduate student struggling to complete my thesis everyday after work and during the weekends with whatever brainpower I could muster. I was also enrolled in an intensive eight-hour a day weekend grad course to complete a few more credits required for graduation. All while adjusting to a new job and struggling with being alone for the first time in my twenty-four years as a human.
This all ended up taking a toll on me. I began suffering from anxiety attacks. I had no idea what was happening to me, I couldn’t describe it to anyone, and for a while I kept it to myself. I was afraid if my father found out, he would pull the plug immediately and give me the “I told you so” speech. Thankfully this only occupied a very brief period in my life and once I completed my masters degree and settled into my job, things went back to normal, at least anxiety-wise.
Challenge #4 – We Either Live Together or Die Together
The new norm became pressure, nagging, and shaming but at times it was manageable enough where I could ignore and compartmentalize things. There were of course occasional soap opera-esque flare-ups. Alas, I realized I was not destined for a life free of drama when my father announced to me, via a family meeting, that they all decided they want to move back to Egypt, permanently. Again! I was asked to quit my job, break my lease, find a job in Cairo, and move back with them in the fall. Now fifteen and twenty-one year old me, as you recall, was dragged to Egypt then back to the United States without a choice. I will admit that while both times I benefited from those moves, I was never allowed to make my own decisions and learn from them. This time around I refused. “YOU CHANGED since you moved out! I KNEW I shouldn’t have allowed to you to move out. How dare you! If you decide to not come back with us, I’ll disown you and you’ll no longer be my daughter.”
What this boiled down to was, for the first time in twenty-five years I didn’t let my father control me. I didn’t allow the decisions collectively made by my family determine my life. That was unheard of and unprecedented for me, almost as unprecedented as this abrupt decision to move back to Egypt. While I stood up to my father countless times before, never something of this level or gravity. Nothing as large-scale as not moving with them to another country or standing my ground and refusing to leave. I did not disrespect him, I simply did not agree with moving back to Egypt when I was perfectly content and happy with my life here. If moving back would make them happy, then I totally supported their decision.
Ever since I was a child my mom would always repeat this quote: “We either live together or die together.” We are inextricably tied to one another and I have been fortunate enough to have such a close and loving family. However, I was not convinced that abandoning all my hard work here to become a middle school teacher in a private American school in Cairo would fulfill the goals I set out for myself.
The current outcome of challenge #4 has not yet been determined. Await season 2 in the fall.
The Best Part
There is no doubt my journey could have been made a little easier if I didn’t have those arduous commutes or incessant drama but I am very fortunate for everything my family has done for me. Over the years, I saw past everything and realized just as things were difficult for me it was even harder for them as immigrants to adjust to life in a new country and shake off the only thing they brought with them: their traditions. While I had to push and fight to get what I wanted, my father always came around and I had the undying support of my family and a few very exceptional friends. All the hardships posed by my father were done out of fear, love, and were a product of his upbringing and I do not blame him. On the contrary, I’m especially grateful to him and my mother, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for them.
My Personal Jihad
“Do you expect to enter Paradise without God distinguishing those among you who strive, and without distinguishing those who are steadfast?” [Qu’ran 3:142]
It has been and I’m sure will continue to be a a continuous ebb and flow of drama and challenges. As hard as all this was at times to navigate as a teenager and then as a young adult, this has all strengthened my faith. Forced compulsion to established, and at times outdated, social and cultural norms are not what made me a better or a more observant Muslim, it was in spite of all that. Throughout every obstacle I faced, every accusation, every fight it was incredibly easy to quit and be the ideal Muslim daughter or even just be a normal person. A six-hour commute to work and attend grad school? So many times I questioned my sanity or broke down in tears on the bus when I had to break my fast alone during Ramadan. It was my personal jihad the way it was truly intended by Islam. While some have deformed and linked the word to atrocious and unIslamic acts, jihad does not mean “holy war” but rather, “struggle” or “striving” by any means, both internally and externally, spiritually or materially, to obey God.
Additionally, this all contributed to my understanding of and ability to adapt to two polar opposite societies. I can easily switch back and forth between being an American and an Egyptian. It’s fair to say they aren’t clearly delineated within me and because of that I am a hybrid product of the two countries with Muslim filling and millennial sprinkles on top.
My message to young Muslim women, American or otherwise, is you can still pursue your dreams in the face of obstacles and be an observant Muslim.
*I realize a few people may be able to identify me after reading this post but I kindly ask for your discretion and would prefer to remain anonymous for the time being. Thank you in advance.