I, generally, try not to talk about religion only because I feel like I am in no position to do so as extensively and as fairly as I’d like to. But one thing I feel comfortable talking about is my personal experience with Hijab (the veil). Hijab plays a huge part in my life, defines a huge part of who I am and is probably right there at the top of my “Personal Achievements” list!
I chose to write about my personal experience with Hijab (which very few people know of) at this time for a number of reasons. The Shaima Al Awadi case (regardless if it was a hate crime or personal matter) has been sparking lots of in-depth discussions on the issue which led me to find myself recalling all the little details of my own experience. It also happens that just a month ago I was questioned about my Hijab, and my faith in general, when my husband and I went to do our taxes (but that’s a whole other story)! And finally, because of an article that I came across today while I was “window-shopping” online for modest exercise outfits.
So, let’s start at the very beginning. I’m the eldest of two offspring to my parents. My dad is a retired Ambassador and my mum worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well prior to having me but chose to stay home and raise my brother and I over her own career shortly after my arrival into this world. They have always been very modest and relatively traditional people. They don’t smoke, drink nor lead a lifestyle that is typical of their professional colleagues. This is something that my brother and I have always been proud of. They also dedicated their life to our well-being. My mum sacrificed her career, and financial independence essentially, to make sure that my brother and I are raised properly no matter what country we’re in. She didn’t want the external environment, peer pressure and other inevitable factors to impact us in any way. That does not mean that she controlled us, rather she’s been our guide and most trusted adviser. She always made sure that we knew who we are, were proud of it and never lost our identity in the midst off all our travels. My dad, on the other hand, spent most of his income on our education and needs. He made sure to always enroll my brother and I at the best British School in the country and his only requirement whenever his superiors would ask him which country he’d like to go to would be “one with good standard British education for my kids”. Just to clarify why British, in Africa and Europe the best schools always have been the British schools … in some cases the American or French school were just as good but the availability of British education was almost guaranteed wherever you travel, that was not the case with other systems. He didn’t want us jumping from system to system and wanted us to excel at what we do.
I spent the first 3 years of my life in Russia, then we went back home for a year. That was followed by 4 years in Ethiopia then close to two years back home. That’s when we moved on to Cyprus for 10 months (there’s a weird yet entertaining story behind our short stay in Cyprus but I’ll talk about that later) then to Hungary for a little over 3 years. So, up until age 14 I was basically being raised abroad. And as you can imagine, the early teens are a very tough and confusing period of any young lady’s life. So imagine spending them in an environment where you behaved, dressed, spoke, looked and even thought differently from all those around you. I don’t believe I ever really felt different from any of the other kids growing up, except in Hungary, but it was always in the back of my mind that I was “different”. It wasn’t that I was oblivious to the fact, more like I was comfortable in my own skin. Hungary was different because it was the only country that I loved as if it were my home. I grew so fond of it that I felt like I was one of its people. I also happen to have met the nicest and most loyal friends there, friendships that last until this day (love you loads Charlotte W. and Urska K.). I wanted to do everything my friends did, I wanted to be able to go to their slumber parties, I wanted to go over to their place on the weekend, I wanted to be comfortable around them but many of them were at that age where they were discussing how soon they’ll be dating and their crush on this colleague of ours or that neighbor of hers, etc. And that was just not the same place I was at at the time! I have always loved to study (until this day) and at the time I had advanced with my studies and started my I.G.C.S.Es at age 12! I enjoyed the material I was studying at the time and dedicated all my time to it. I had the most wonderful teachers ever, who pushed and supported me every step of the way. And if I happen to have any spare time, I dedicated it to my poetry. I had discovered lately that writing poetry was therapeutic to me. Sure, I had started to evolve emotionally just like my peers but I knew that I cannot have the same kind of relationships with the opposite gender as they were looking forward to. So I always kept the issue at the back of my mind and tried to focus on other things.
The entire time we were abroad, my parents made sure to find us someone to tutor us in Arabic. They always spoke to my brother and I in Arabic at home but noticed that we spoke to each other in a weird mix of Arabic and English most of the time. They wanted us to be as strong in Arabic (written) as we were in English. If I were to say what’s the most beneficial extracurricular activity my parents took us to, it’d be those classes! It was just once a week and we’d be tutored in grammar, essay writing, reading, etc. Without those lessons, I can guarantee you that we wouldn’t have been able to write our names even! Sure, I absolutely hated those lessons when I was young but came to cherish them in my early teens. They even helped me when I started (at age 10) to take the Egyptian Curriculum’s exams (in all subjects) at the Embassy every year to help place me in the correct class whenever I go back home! Yes, I was basically studying for two systems but the latter wasn’t something that I necessarily wanted to do, it was something that I had to do rather than face rigorous and endless placement exams whenever we go back.
I was always looking forward to going back home. I love Egypt to death and have always been proud of being an Egyptian. People’s reactions to my origins further enforced my sense of pride, everyone who’d hear that I came from Egypt would tell me how beautiful it is, how amazing our history is, how lovely the people are … and all they said was absolutely true. I always felt lonely being the only Egyptian in class and my brother and I being the only ones in school! I was fortunate enough to have Egyptian colleagues in Ethiopia only (Shadia K. and sister Sherine K.) and during my last semester in Hungary a Lebanese boy joined the class (Khalil G. … or as he called himself, Charlie G.) and I just loved how he tried to communicate with me in Arabic just like our peers did in Hungarian. I always felt like going home will put me in the right place, I won’t be different from anyone, everyone will be on the same page as me, everyone would have the same principles, everyone would be speaking the same language, basically that everyone would be a unique yet similar version of me!
Going home in 1996 turned out to be one of the toughest experiences of my life! I’ll tell you all about that in my next post …