March 23, 2014

Feeling Welcomed & Empowered. ~ Essraa Nawar

hijab fav

For the past 10 or 15 years, Muslim women around the globe have been trying hard to erase the misconceptions that people have toward both Islam and women in Islam.

They have traveled and spoken out, held high positions, served in and run governments, raised amazing kids, became doctors, architects, engineers, musicians, etc. But even though Muslim women were empowered more than 1,400 years ago with rights to education, inheritance and the freedom of marriage and divorce, the world wanted some proof and validation to this.

These women’s efforts were not only focused on showing examples of powerful Muslim women from the early times of Islam, but also making sure that this legacy is kept alive and that they succeed in the progression of Muslim women throughout the years until they prove to be successful and active in the contemporary world, too.

My story is different and may be unique. I never tried to erase any misconceptions or even had the idea of doing so, especially before I moved to the United States.

Throughout my life I lived in Egypt and the Persian Gulf area with my family, and then I got married and moved with my husband to Fairfax, Va., where he was attending George Mason University.

That was in 2002, just one year after 9/11, and I was a little bit worried about the move—but to be honest, not much, because it had always been my dream to come and visit the U.S. one day.

I have to say that my experience was totally the opposite of what many might think.

Although young and “hijabi,” as many young American Muslim women call themselves these days, I had so much fun and in fact learned a lot. Having the opportunity to be living near the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and working there, too, was such a treat. I got the opportunity to explore the city and all that it has to offer: museums, art, Broadway shows and universities.

At that time, I had the honor to work for the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, which meant commuting back and forth using the Metrorail and Metrobus transit services, which was actually fun because of the learning experiences I went through and the discoveries I made.

“Man, these people are nice,” I used to tell myself when I got smiles from neighbors, people randomly chatting with me on the train ride, people walking in the streets and, most importantly, our landlord, who was extremely nice and helpful.

I kept wondering, “Am I just being lucky, or is there something yet to come?”

Fast forward a few years and life has taken me and my family to Orange County, where my husband and I work at Chapman University. When I first moved to California, I told myself, “Let me just not assume that things will remain this way.” I was a little bit anxious when I first moved. But as it happened, I got a full-time job as the assistant to the dean for communications and external relations at Chapman’s Leatherby Libraries.

For three years I have been the only hijabi full-time employee in my organization and I am very comfortable with it. Many of my friends always tell me, “That must be a challenge! How can you handle that?” In fact, it was not a challenge and it had never been. My skills and background as a Muslim woman are appreciated and respected. They also came in handy when we were welcoming our Arabic-speaking Muslim international students a few weeks ago and when we decided to teach Chapman students about women in Islam through a library display and program.

Even though I am not a Muslim scholar, I was able to facilitate the event. During this presentation, we created a display at Leatherby Libraries titled, “Empowering Muslim Women.” This display showcased examples of powerful Muslim women throughout history, from the early times of Islam to the contemporary world.

There were free headscarves and beads, and the students watched a live demo on how to wrap a head scarf! Some people ask me, “This is in Orange County?” I assure them, “Yes!”—and on a university campus, too.

What I am trying to say is that “tolerance” has been created and “misconceptions” have been slightly erased. Although we are not there yet, we have crossed a long road and it seems like we are about to hit the finish line very soon.

In fact, we should never finish. We have to always have those open lines of communications, understanding and conversations. The best way to know somebody is to really to talk to him or her, visit, hang out together, ask
questions and explore different things.

When I joined Chapman University, the first project I worked on was an event related to Jewish heritage, which turned out to be a great success. On that day after the event, I ran into one of the attendees in the elevator, who looked at me and said, “This is quite interesting, a Muslim woman working in a university established by Protestants.”

He said it all. This is the United States, the home of everyone, and I wish that more and more people living in this country embraced this. For me personally, I have to be honest, I have never had a problem or suffered from any racism or misconceptions. The only funny question that I keep getting is, “Is your husband allowed to see your hair?” I just laugh and say, well, we have three kids … so!

For all of you Muslim women across the country, keep up the good work. Whatever you are doing is working, whether being public speakers at events or leaders in your work, it is working, and people are getting the message, whether directly or indirectly. Just be yourself and lead by example.

The idea has never been to impose our thoughts on others, but to start a language of understanding and acceptance toward one another and embed ourselves in the society and be part of it. For everyone else in the U.S. who has never met a Muslim woman and is afraid to talk to them, give yourself the chance to do so. Don’t feel intimidated or afraid; we are cool.

A friend of mine, who is a white Catholic man, by the way, just saw a hijabi boogie boarding the other day! We are nice, we are just like everybody else and we want to be ourselves—so please embrace us and help us in doing so.

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israam Dec 29, 2015 3:58pm

This article turned into a TED talk years later! Thanks elephant Journal! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myl722kHxbU

Matt Jan 4, 2015 7:55pm

You are a nice person. I hope that you and your family continue to have a good life in this country.

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Essraa Nawar

Essraa Nawar is the Assistant to the Dean for Communications and External Relations at the Leatherby Libraries and the Chair of the Arts, Exhibits and Events Committee at the library. Essraa joined the Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University in June 2011.

Essraa received her bachelor’s degree in commerce with an emphasis in accounting from Alexandria University, Egypt. She also holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the American Management & Business Administration Institute, Cambridge, MA. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) at Brandman University.

Essraa is originally from Egypt and prior to moving to California, she served in the new library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) for four years. She was involved in the acquisition of library materials through both purchasing and donations. She was actively involved in the solicitation of rare and unique gifts, and has also helped create the library’s Duplicate Materials Exchange Program. Over the years, Essraa has studied, lived, and worked in many places, including the Gulf area (Qatar) where she spent most her elementary and middle school years; Washington D.C, where she worked for The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, and most recently moving with her husband and family to Orange County, California in 2009.

Essraa served as the President of the Parent Teacher Organization for the Orange Crescent Islamic School in Garden Grove for the academic Year 2010-2011.

Her professional interests include developing and implementing marketing, branding and communications practices to support the Leatherby Libraries strategic plan in attracting faculty, staff, students and other entities on and off campus, as well as maintaining an integrated external relations model targeting prospective donors, current donors, board members and external partners. She is also very interested and active in the topics of interfaith dialogue, empowering Muslim Women and embracing diversity.

In her free time,  Essraa enjoys watching her boys do gymnastics and diving, in which they excel and are both part of the USA National team as well as spending time with her little baby girl.