DHAHRAN: Egyptian-British journalist and blogger Alya Mooro released her first book last month. “The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside The Stereotypes” was selected as an editor’s pick on Amazon UK, reached number eight on the Amazon Kindle charts on release, and hit number one across a range of categories. Feedback has been tremendously positive, Mooro says — and not just from Arab women.
“It made me realize that this is a universal story,” she tells Arab News. “Women from all different cultures were able to relate and find that they have had shared experiences. What’s important is that we come together and share our experiences to overcome challenges, together.”
For Mooro, the ‘greater freedom’ lies in breaking free of social and cultural expectations and having the power to follow one’s own path. For the book, she drew on her own experiences, interviews with other Middle Eastern women, and statistics from various sources to explore identity, religion, politics, media narratives, relationships, beauty and appearance.
Mooro’s mother — like many immigrant parents — was afraid her children would assimilate completely into British culture, and in the process lose any connection to their Eastern heritage. “My mother would say: ‘We don’t do things like this,’ or ‘We don’t do that,’” Mooro says. “And I would always wonder, ‘Who are ‘they’ and why should ‘we’ be doing things a certain way?’”
She says she was chided for seemingly trivial freedoms like going out with her friends or wearing her naturally curly hair as it was (“reinforcing deeply-rooted beliefs about identity, beauty, and appearance,” she says). In chapter two of the book, headed “When you learn how you’re supposed to look,” Mooro cites other women, who — like herself — faced social situations that reinforced the belief that an Arab woman would never be as attractive as someone with fair hair and skin.
“For Middle Eastern women, many of these ideals go against what our biology naturally allows. These are the shapes our mothers gave us with one hand and, with the other, tried to change,” Mooro writes.
She also addresses how, in the age of social media, women are under pressure to construct an alternate reality and use filters to hide flaws, while, on the other hand, they are also able to use the power of the platform to voice their opinions, create an identity, and empower other women. Prominent examples include British activist Jameela Jamil, who has been vocal about body positivity and Abeer Sinder, who has rejected conventional ideals of beauty (in the region) and gone on to become the first black beauty vlogger in Saudi Arabia.
“When I grew up, similar restrictions and myths played out in my relationships and in the world around me,” Mooro writes. In the same chapter, she talks about grappling with the intersection of identity in the current political climate. “Growing Islamophobia, Brexit, and the whole anti-immigrant stance came as shock — London is home, where do I go from here?”
“I felt ‘othered’ when people made assumptions about my religion and my identity,” she explains. It was the lack of positive narratives in mainstream media that prompted Mooro to write her book. “I felt I should provide an alternative narrative to the conversation; I have a bird’s eye view of both cultures and I am in a position to voice the opinions of family, friends, and other Middle Eastern women,” she says. “(It was) almost my duty to write this book.”
Mooro recognizes that her background makes it easier for her to pursue the ‘greater freedom’ she is advocating. “Coming from a liberal and supportive family, I have a privilege that I acknowledge; not all women have a choice to pursue what resonates with them and the greater freedom of making their own decisions,” she says.
However, she hopes to create real change by encouraging young girls and women to be brave and follow a path that serves them, as opposed to blindly following societal or cultural norms. “There might be pressure to fit in,” she says, “but have faith in yourself and trust your gut.”