WIWYK: Muslim women are more than their religion and hijabs

In the face of exhaustive stereotypes portrayed in the media about Muslims, Rodaina Tarek Mousa, an English literature graduate student from Alexandria, Egypt, encourages others to look beyond her appearance and advocates for social justice.

“Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve had lots of conversations with all different kinds of people — from bus drivers to random people on campus,” Mousa said. “It’s been so much of an eye opener, how many people that have no idea what Egypt is. They see Egypt and think of camels, pyramids and deserts, but they don’t see beyond that.” 

Proving Egypt consists of more than its stereotypes, Mousa encourages others to consider the abilities of Egyptians.

“I am an indicator that there are people who think, have a mind of their own and are capable of achieving big things,” Mousa said. “I’m hoping I’m a window to these people [who misunderstand Muslims].”

Mousa received a grant through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which led her to enroll at SIUE and pursue a graduate degree in English literature, while simultaneously completing teaching assistantships for the Arabic language and English literature.

“I’m the Arabic 101 teacher on campus, [and] I’m also doing my graduate courses and taking up women’s studies — that’s kind of my focus,” Mousa said. “Back home, I’m a teaching assistant at Alexandria University. I teach English literature with a focus in 16th and 17th century literature.”

According to Mousa, her selection as a Fulbright Grant recipient allows her to bridge the linguistic and cultural differences between the U.S. and Egypt.

“I have the Fulbright Grant, and I’ve been chosen along with 23 people from my country out of 100 million people, literally, to be here and do these studies,” Mousa said. “This grant allows people from all over the world to come to the U.S. and teach their mother tongue to university students and American scholars to go abroad and teach English to university students in return.”

Mousa said people often make assumptions about her and her beliefs before even having a conversation with her.

“They automatically assume that because I am a Muslim, hijabi person, I cannot be pro-LGBTQ,” Mousa said. “I’ve only been here a month, but my classes have already taught me so much about not only being a woman in the modern world, but also about myself and how I identify, carry myself and exist. I’m hoping I can use this knowledge to empower not only myself but also my students when I get back.”

Mousa is no stranger to assumptions and stereotypes. During her first month in the U.S., Mousa said she has noticed a pattern in her interactions with new people.

“If someone sees me on the street — wearing a hijab — they act as if I’m not there and ignore me,” Mousa said. “If I’m sitting on the bus, the seat next to me is always the last seat taken, which I find kind of awkward. I just want people to treat me like a person, because I am a person.”

The discomfort goes both ways around Mousa. While others may feel uncomfortable interacting with her, she feels uncomfortable when people are fearful of her.

“People are really awkward and uncomfortable just by my presence, and they don’t know how to deal with me,” Mousa said. “I just wish people did not assume anything. They do not expect me to be affectionate, which I really am. They avoid all physical contact, altogether.”

Mousa encourages individuals to interact with her as they would with anyone else, whether this includes a simple conversation or a hug to greet her.

“What I really want people to do is, if they feel like striking up a conversation, I would like to,” Mousa said. “I’m very sociable. I love talking about my country, heritage and religion. That’s what I’m here for.”

Mousa is more than her faith and appearance. She feels proud of her achievements and has several talents outside of her education.

“I have a small handmade business,” Mousa said. “I’ve been trying to start it up and make it grow for the past four years. Actually, I’m going to have my very first art exhibition next October here in Edwardsville.”

Mousa is exhibiting a selection of her artwork at the Leclaire Parkfest in Edwardsville on October 20.

Students interested in applying for the Fulbright Grant can learn more at www.cies.org/program/fulbright-global-scholar-award. Applications are now open for the 2020-2021 Fulbright Global Scholar Award.

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