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In Conversation With Salma El-Wardany: Misogyny, Heritage, & Body Positivity

by in Identity on 8th March, 2019

Welcome to amaliah.com’s ‘In Conversation With’ series!

We’ll be inviting Muslim women on social media from across industries and across the world to have some interesting conversations with Amaliah about their field of work.

Being established in their profession, these women have offered to provide us all with a real insight into areas we’ve all had questions about, on everything from how they got their foot in the door, to what it’s like practicing their faith alongside their livelihoods and passions. We want to understand the women behind the crafts that they are known for. We have been fortunate enough to get our hands on Salma El- Wardany for a quick sit-down on life as a writer, identity, misogyny, and body image.

  1. Amaliah: Tell us a little about yourself…

Salma: I love cake, perhaps more than anything. Tea and cake is my favourite pastime and I don’t think there’s a more delightful way to pass the day than with a pot of tea, a slice of cake (or three) and a good book. Libraries and bookshops are the happiest places in the world for me and if I could get a job that took me around libraries, bookshops, and bakeries, I think I would be in heaven.

2. Amaliah: What is your profession?

Salma: Does art count as a profession? I like to think I create art through various mediums and one way or another, that is how I live. On a less romantic and fanciful note, I own my own marketing business, write articles, essays and novels, as well as writing poetry and performing spoken word around the world. Whatever I’m doing, I’m always creating something in order to feed myself. It might be marketing strategies and creative campaigns for clients that pay my bills and keeps the tax man happy, or, it might be performing poetry and writing commissioned pieces, both which feed me physically and nourish my soul.

3. Amaliah: What is your ethnic background? How do you navigate strengthening your identity coming from a mixed background, living in London and being Muslim?

Salma: I’m half Egyptian, half Irish, born in Cairo, raised in the North East of England with a Pakistani stepfather, who I have always considered my dad, and now I live in London so really, I don’t know. I’m from many different ethnic backgrounds and they all exist in some part within me. I wish it was as easy as just answering that I belong to one, but the blood I come from was apparently a restless one and there are many threads of their wanderings in me. I don’t know if I have managed to strengthen a single identity in me, but I think perhaps through my own wanderings I have strengthened the notion that it is okay to come from many places and my identity is whatever I self-identify with. That might mean I feel my North African roots more strongly one month, and the next month Pakistan could be blooming within me.

4. Amaliah: As a writer how do you use your words to empower women?

Salma: By being as honest and open as I possibly can. Even when the raw truths hurt me and make me uncomfortable, I write them out loud anyway. I know that so much of womanhood is coated in silence and that it’s a control mechanism, and so I am trying to break that silence, one poem or essay at a time.

5. Amaliah: What message do you feel it is important to relay about body image for women?

Salma: That your body will change, and it’s supposed to. As we grow and hold more responsibilities, greater sadness and more life in our bones, our body will change to carry the weight and that is a good thing. You cannot go through all of life with the weight and knowledge of a forty-year-old woman in a twenty-year-old body. That’s not to say you will necessarily gain weight and become much larger than you were before, but your hips will change, your waist becomes a different shape and we should let it. Our bodies are just adjusting to this life.

6. Amaliah: We often see you surface the trolling comments you receive, some from the Muslim community, as a Muslim woman, how do you reconcile your faith and body image?

Salma: I used to wear the hijab. For six years. During that time my faith wasn’t very strong in my heart, my prayers were few and far between and I felt bound by rules and obligation, duty and compulsion and ultimately, punishment if those rules weren’t obeyed. That was Islam to me. When I moved to Cairo after university I found a different version, a softer version. Faith bloomed strongly in me and my prayers became regular and I was less bound by the fire and brimstone theology so many Muslim communities perpetuate. So I took my hijab off, not believing it was required in my religion but was rather a choice. When people send me negativity about my lack of clothing or that I’m not covering up as a Muslim woman ‘should’, I remember that my faith was strongest in me without my Hijab and that the outside doesn’t change my faith. It is always there regardless. And ultimately, he cares more about whether I remember him every day and pray to him every night as opposed to whether I’m wearing shorts or not.  

7. Amaliah: What does modesty look like to you?

Salma: I think it transcends clothing. I’m more interested in the modesty of someone’s personality than the clothes they’re wearing. Whether they’re humble and kind, compassionate and without ego. If they have modesty within them.  

8. Amaliah: What does it mean to you to de- colonize your body?

Salma: For me, a lot of it is around realigning your perceptions of beauty and acceptability to incorporate your own heritage and cultural beauty standards. For example, the Western obsession with hair removal is just that, a Western obsession. Whereas in Indian cultures hair is precious and holy and beautiful. It’s also pulling out colonial ideas and modes of behavior that are deemed acceptable and attractive. If you want to be loud and obvious and shouty as a woman, then do that. Victorian notions of propriety are still so enforced on women today.  

9. Amaliah: What message do you hope to share with other Muslim women and girls? 

Salma: That there are so many ways to be a Muslim girl and woman. That there isn’t one accepted way and if you deviate from the dominant way, that’s okay. That you can follow the community guidelines your whole life but you will never please them. It will never be enough.

10. Amaliah: Tell us about the women that inspire you…

Salma: My mother first and foremost. I’m in awe of everything she’s done in her life and her capacity for compassion. Other female poets like Lisa Luxx, Sabrina Mahfouz, and Sarah Rosangela. Their ability to constantly open themselves up in such beautiful ways and create magic with their words takes my breath away. I want to be like all of them when I grow up. And then the women in my friendship circle and family are always an inspiration. I am constantly amazed by how brightly the women I know shine and how they excel in so many arenas, and they do it all by themselves.

11. Amaliah: What would you say to a younger version of yourself with all of the things you have learned up to today?

Salma: Your identity is yours to define. There isn’t a single man on this earth who can give it to you.

12. Amaliah: Your poetry is absolutely beautiful, particularly the line “He says my skin is like gold, and I taste just like honey, I remind him that honey has healing properties, I remind myself that I can’t heal him, no matter how sweet I taste” where do you find your inspiration?

Salma: In the things I experience and the emotions that come with them. Everything I write is very raw and comes straight from an emotion, a moment, a piece of heartbreak, a fleeting thought, an unspoken reaction, a wishful thought. They are fragments of my emotions locked forever in little black letters.

13. Amaliah: What message would you want women to take away from your Instagram images in celebrating your body in all of its forms?

Salma: To love and cherish their bodies. Don’t just like them or put up with them but rather to revel in them. To speak out loud how beautiful they are and shower themselves in their own compliments and words of glory. I want them to leave my page feeling more beautiful, more powerful and more able to navigate the world around them. I want them to know that they don’t stand alone and there is an army here with them.

14. Amaliah: I saw you recently went on holiday with a few friends, do you feel like Muslim sisterhood has come through for you when going through a tough time or not feeling supported?

Salma: Truthfully, I don’t think the Muslim community has ever collectively come through for me. I have always been on the outskirts of it because of my outspoken ways and my desire to have conversations and say things they would rather remain unspoken. My mother is also a convert to Islam, and I know she has fought her own battles with Muslims as she has been seen as somehow less of a Muslim or someone who has less right to the religion, and I think part of that passes to me and my validity is questioned. It’s ironic because she’s exceptionally educated on the theology and history of Islam and is quite a scholar. She raised me to question and peel apart things, and I do that with Islam and I don’t think other Muslims like that. I’ve always wished I had more Muslim female friends as they alone understand the battles you’ve fought or the wars you’ve been through in a way non-Muslims don’t, but for the most part, they don’t seem to like me much. Lately, I’ve found an odd Muslim woman here and there and they always tell me they don’t have other Muslim female friends either. Whatever that big sisterhood is, I don’t think I’m part of it.

15. Amaliah: We often see you sharing misogynistic comments and explicit pics from men, how does it make you feel? And what can be done to combat it?

Salma: At this point, I just roll my eyes and take it as a given. They’re not surprising at all. I think we have to keep sharing the negative comments and situations, keep speaking out loud about these things, and mostly for the benefit of other men. When I do share the misogynistic stuff, it is always men who reply to me shocked and horrified asking if men are really like this. The women just reply things like, ‘standard’ which obviously makes me sad, but also reminds me that the men desperately need educating and we need to make them more aware. The women are already on board. We’re not the ones that need reminding.

16. Amaliah: You often comment on the importance of women talking about how they like sex, and the policing of Muslim women, what helps you to not censor yourself when discussing taboo topics in public, that family or friends may find too explicit?

Salma: My number one rule as a writer is, ‘always write for you’. The minute you start writing for anyone else, i.e worrying if this family member will see it and say something and so then you delete that specific sentence, then you’re now writing for someone else and it’s no longer genuine or true to you. I won’t ever pollute my art with other people’s standards or opinions. It has to be mine. From me. It cannot be tailored to keep my family happy, otherwise, I may as well not write at all. And believe me, I know that comes at a price. I have received plenty of backlash from my family, I just believe in my art more than I believe in their backlash.

17. Amaliah: Why do you think the internet largely has become a safe space for men to act and speak inappropriately towards women with a platform?

Salma: Because everyone is a keyboard warrior. Men get to say things they would never say face-to-face with women, but safety and anonymity are powerful tools. Plus, there’s no fear of retribution, not that there’s ever much for men anyway, but who’s going to stop them? You have to remember, the world is changing, and the patriarchy is beginning to tremble. That leaves some men uncertain and afraid and they’re not sure of their place in this new world order. For the ones unable to navigate that change, hiding in your bedroom bitching about the very women who are shaking your foundations of safety seems like the right thing to do, plus, it’s a knee-jerk reaction. Really, you have to pity the poor fools.

18. Amaliah: Do you feel your platform in part, is trying to contribute to showing the diversity of Muslim women?

Salma: I really hope so. I hope people can see the many facets to me and how I remain Muslim throughout them all. I hope people also see some of the incredible Muslim women I hang out with like Salwa Chowdhury, Tasneem Aliewi and Yassmin Abdel-Magied, all of who navigate their Muslim identities in diverse, incredible, multifaceted, glorious and colourful ways. I hope people can see us all and how very different we all are, but how Muslim we remain.

19. Amaliah: Based on your Ted talk “Burqas and Bikinis, you mention living a double life as a young Muslim how did you feel this impacted your identity? And at what point did you feel at a crossroads to stop and be who you are in every capacity?

Salma: Well it basically turns you a little bit crazy. When you’re shifting between two or three different people, and each one is so different, you never have time to effectively build up one personality and solid identity. You don’t know whether you’re a clubbing fanatic that doesn’t care or a religious Muslim who loves praying with her congregation, and no one ever tells you that you could be both. It’s a painful process, splitting yourself into so many different versions of yourself. It’s like when Voldemort split his soul into seven horcruxes. That’s basically every Muslim girl I knew growing up. Splitting her soul between school, school friends, Muslim friends, mosque, Arabic school, home life, and the list goes on and on. We have to stop tearing ourselves apart like this. I think for me when I came out of my abusive relationship and told my mum what was going on was the moment I stopped being different people. It hurt too much and look where it got me, straight into the arms of an abusive man. That was the end for me.

20. Amaliah: Do you still feel like you have to hide some things from your parents? 

Salma: I think there are certain details they don’t need to know, but I think they also don’t want to know. We both respect that. I think there are also some things you might not be ready to tell your parents, and that’s okay. Everything has its time. But ultimately, no. I don’t hide things from my parents anymore. They know who I am, and have always loved me and always will. Of course, they will worry about whether I’m praying enough and going to mosque enough and talking to God enough, but their reminders are welcome to me and just as I don’t hide things from them, why should they not say those things to me.

Amaliah Writes

Amaliah Writes

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