“What really matters to me is making people feel seen”, journalist and author Alya Mooro tells me over a cup of tea she’s served in a Believe In Your Selfie mug.
The importance of representation – alongside belief and trust in yourself in spite of societal pressures, are the most important messages from her book, “The Greater Freedom: Life As A Middle Eastern Woman Outside The Stereotypes.” Part memoir, part social commentary, The Greater Freedom draws from her personal experience of being born in Egypt and growing up in London, alongside research and conversations with other Middle Eastern women to focus on the difficulties, misconceptions and judgements they face in the pursuit of being themselves.
For this instalment of GRL Talk, Alya talks about what compelled her to write the book she describes as “the ultimate act of not giving a fuck.”
In the introduction to The Greater Freedom you say that, for a long time, your identity as an Arab, Muslim woman never felt integral to your career as a journalist, or to a wider conversation. Why is now the moment for that to fully intersect for you, culminating in this book?
I just think we’re living in a really weird time. Brexit, Trump…there’s so much Islamophobia, so much fear of “The Other.” I feel like it’s become increasingly important to provide an alternative narrative. In many ways, I’m an invisible immigrant – and definitely an invisible Muslim. Nothing had ever made me feel hugely ‘othered’ before, so I kind of thought, okay, I’ll leave it to everyone else because this isn’t really about me. As I grew older and became more comfortable in my ability to use my words and more interested in social commentary, I began to realise what effect being “both” was having on my life. I was like “what the fuck is happening in the world and how can I not contribute?”.
I think I just got really fed up with reductive stereotypes and people being surprised when I told them I was Arab. They would always ask “well if you’re technically Muslim, why are you doing that?”. I used to have Imposter Syndrome, like maybe I’m not really Egyptian because I do A,B,C, and the media and people are telling me I can’t be [Egyptian] if I do those things.
I’m really lucky that my parents are so open minded. The fact that I had their love and support and could be so honest made me feel like, “Who am I waiting for?”. It had to be me.
You mention the sentiment “the human is always universal” a lot in the book. Is that belief the reason you chose to write a social commentary, rather than pure memoir?
I studied Sociology and Psychology at University and I’m a journalist by profession, so that interest and desire to blend has always been something I’ve gravitated towards. My dad called the other day when he was reading The Greater Freedom for the first time and said “I don’t know how you’re being so open about your life in the book.” I told him I’m not just hanging out my dirty laundry for jokes – everything I’m saying is backed up with research and quotes from interviews with other people. It really explains [everything discussed in the book] better than if it had just been me telling my life story, because nothing is being left to interpretation.
How did you find the interview process, having many of your experiences repeated back to you by other women who’d gone through the same thing?
A lot of the subjects [we touched on] were things me and my friends have been talking about for a long, long time, so taking it wider than that group felt really nice. It allowed me to make instant friendships, because I’d meet up with a stranger and we’d just get straight into the conversations. It was that that made me realise how important it was to tell my story, which helped me manage the fear of judgement. I wasn’t just doing it for myself, because so many others felt the same.
You shared your mum’s review of the book on your Instagram (she, of course, loved it!) How do you hope the book is received both by a younger generation of women growing up, and an older generation looking back?
I hope it will give people the courage to make their own decisions instead of feeling like they have to follow a prescribed path. I think that raising a child in an unfamiliar culture can make people cling to how their parents raised them and make them think what they’ve been told is correct. Someone who read the book sent me a message on Instagram and told me that it really made her think about how best to support her children instead of sticking to the values she’s inherited. I hope it’ll help the older generation unpick some of these ideas and that we can all really analyse what we’ve been told and why we think certain ways. It’s important to be as authentic as we can to ourselves.
In your chapter, “When You’re (Not) A Feminist”, you write: “for me, feminism is about choice. It’s about having the freedom to act on those choices, regardless of societal expectations and limits placed on gender.” How has that impacted you as a Middle Eastern woman?
For so long, I was told I couldn’t and shouldn’t, especially in relation to sex, so I was kind of doing things [to rebel], basically, like: “I can’t do it? Watch me fucking do it.” I feel like I have the power now and that changes everything. What I discovered is that there is no one way to be sexually liberated. As long as we’re genuinely comfortable and happy in our decisions – and they’re fully ours – that is enough. I think part of the danger of conservative cultures and families is that they make you feel like you need to rebel when, actually, if we were able to have more open conversations, everyone would be happier, safer and more moderate.
It’s like – if you fear the worst and try and over-protect someone from that, you’re probably going to get the worst when they rebel.
Exactly! I think that parents need to trust their children’s judgement more, and that we need to trust ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot about how women so often police each other’s behaviour and I feel like it’s because we’re scared of our own human needs and desires. Me saying, “no, don’t do that,” is because I kind of want to and I’m scared… so I’m stopping you to stop myself, which just goes round and round and round.
Finally, our usual GRL Talk question. What would you say to your sixteen-year-old self if you could tell her anything?
Don’t worry about what others think. Trust yourself – don’t listen to that voice that’s calling you bad names and telling you what everyone’s going to think. Know you’re a good person and act on that. Life is short, but also long. You need to be able to be happy with your own decisions and trust that you’ll make the right ones, or learn while you’re trying.
The impeccable “The Greater Freedom – Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes” is published by Little A on 1st October, £8.99. and is available for purchase here. Alya can be found on Twitter and Instagram.