Introducing Active Voice Fellow Nashwa Bawab

2016 Active Voice Fellow Nashwa Bawab

As a Muslim girl living in Texas, it was hard to find my voice at first. After 9/11, my dad would try to explain to me what hate was and instances I might come across it in life. I felt like I couldn’t speak out when someone talked about my religion and I felt like I couldn’t defend myself, as if I had to hide from these people who could threaten me. I eventually joined organizations in middle school and high school like yearbook or orchestra that helped me feel like I was a part of a community and gave me more confidence to be proud of my unique heritage. I love explaining who I am now and I think it’s important to help educate people who might not understand my culture or different backgrounds.

By Holly Speck

Q: Describe your family?

A: My family is my mom and dad and two younger sisters. My mom is a spanish bilingual teacher in Arlington and my dad works for American Airlines (we use his benefits for traveling a lot which is why I’m currently out of the country). My parents are like your average immigrant parents: protective, but really supportive and loving. My sister, Niveen, is 19 and a student at UT Arlington and Nura is 17 and a high school student in Arlington. My sisters and I are really close and I honestly consider them my best friends.
Describe your experience of growing up as a female Muslim living in Texas. Were there times you were threatened or intimated?

Growing up as Muslim girl in Texas mostly felt pretty typical. I don’t wear the hijab so I definitely don’t face the same discrimination that many Muslim women face. I don’t think I have ever felt personally threatened, but I do worry about my dad. He prays at mosques around our area almost 5 times a day. One of the mosques he frequents has been set on fire a couple times as a hate crime. He also attends prayers at a mosque in Irving that has been getting a lot of attention from protesters that show up with weapons, which is really scary to think about.

As for intimidation, one of the most clear times in my mind that I remember is when I was in junior high and a girl wrote me a letter telling me about why I should convert to Christianity. It’s funny now to look back and think of a little girl taking the time out of her day to tell me why, in her words, “I would go to hell” but I remember feeling scared and wanting to hide. I think a lot of growing up “different” in the US is a lot of subconsciously trying to assimilate and fit in which is something I still struggle with sometimes.
What was the first instance in your memory (childhood) where someone made you feel like you were ‘different’ because of your heritage?

When I was really young a cop walked up to my mom outside of a grocery store and asked her if I was her kid because she’s darker than I am. I also remember a lot of confusion trying to fill out the race/ethnicity section on scantrons. I would ask my parents what I was supposed to fill out and they couldn’t even give me an answer.

How would you describe being Muslim to someone who was bigoted or hateful towards the religion?

My mom is a Christian so I’ve grown up hearing about both religions and they honestly have a lot in common. I feel like Christianity is easier for people to understand so I think I would try to describe the similarities of both religions first. I have been in heated arguments about the topic though and I usually just go straight to facts about the terrorism in the United States seeing as that’s where the conversation always tends to lead.

How has journalism helped you find your ‘voice’?

Journalism has helped me figure out what I’m interested in and what issues I care about. When I get to choose what I write I find myself going back to topics that are important to me. But I think writing in any instance can help people find their voice. For me, writing helps to sort out what’s happening in my head.

Why do you think women in particular are prone to self-censorship? How can we fix the problem?

When I was a senior reporter for The Daily Texan I noticed that it was always the women who would say “sorry” after stating their opinion. I talked to Kirk Lyons (the attorney representing The Sons of Confederate Veterans who was against removing the Jefferson Davis statue on our campus) who compared UT’s student body president and vice president to ISIS and he was not in the least bit shy about what he had to say.

I guess its easy to chalk it up to “society” but I think a lot of it really does have to do with girls having to apologize for everything from a young age while boys are allowed to grow and given excuses for their behavior. Girls have to apologize for what they wear, for having their hair a certain way, for sitting and speaking “wrong” — and those are all just things me and plenty of other girls can get in trouble for in elementary school. Make women unafraid to be themselves or say what they really think from a young age and that could make them more likely to replicate that strong-willed attitude into adulthood.
Imagine you are a major female, Muslim role model (like Malala Yousafzai or Amal Clooney). What would your advice be to girls similar in culture (or fighting similar battles) to you in America and elsewhere?

I know I talked a lot about being a Muslim (because it is really important to me) but I really do consider myself a girl who is a part of a mixed Arab and Hispanic heritage. Besides my sisters, I’ve met and know of less than ten people with that mix. I often find myself respecting and looking up to any women of color who might even resemble me in anyway because of this and for that reason I would tell young girls of any culture to be your own role model and always strive to help people in your community. It is way too easy to feel alone and to feel like no one understands you but if your objective is to help those who cannot help themselves then you’ll always find someone who shares your values and it’ll help you feel less alone.

How have you conquered the fear to speak out and defend your heritage? What has given you this inner confidence?

My grandmother who only speaks Arabic can’t defend herself against some random person in a restaurant telling her to leave the country just like Syrian refugees don’t have an American news channel that broadcasts fear-inducing propaganda 24/7. I do struggle with my own confidence in my own life but if I have the means and a platform to use my voice then I think it’s important to use it in place of those who might not be able to.

If I had known I had people like Malala Yousafzai, Dalia Mogahed or Amal Clooney to look up when I was younger, I may have been able to find my voice sooner.