Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 September 2020

Alya Mooro attempts to give Middle Eastern women in the UK a voice with 'The Greater Freedom'

Journalist Mooro explores how citizenship, culture and community form the complex and layered identities of Middle Eastern women in the West in her new book

Ayla Mooro says that she is an 'invisible immigrant' and 'invisible Muslim,' since she doesn’t appear like the stereotypical characters of these labels. Courtesy of the author
Ayla Mooro says that she is an 'invisible immigrant' and 'invisible Muslim,' since she doesn’t appear like the stereotypical characters of these labels. Courtesy of the author

Dressed in an elegant black jumpsuit, Alya Mooro sits on a brown leather sofa at The Union Club in London while reading from her debut book, The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes.

Her outfit is by Jordanian designer Nafsika Skourti – a fitting choice for the occasion, as in both her social commentary and this book, she has been vocal about her desire to support and campaign for modern, middle-ground Middle Eastern women.

Throughout The Greater Freedom, Mooro expertly weaves together personal anecdotes with research and statistics to compile a book about uncovering her identity as an Egyptian-born Londoner, fittingly described as “part memoir, part social exploration” by Amazon, its publisher.

In my opinion, true happiness and independence are achieved when we are true to ourselves, not once we prefix our names with ‘Mrs'

“Where are you from?the author is constantly asked, as an inner dilemma ensues about whether she identifies more with her Egyptian heritage or British citizenship.

“I am both and neither,” she concludes to the reader. “Having to compartmentalise one’s life is “strange” and “unpleasant”, she writes. Instead, she explores the ways in which her western culture and Egyptian heritage influence her outlook on life.

As a fellow female journalist with Eastern heritage, also raised in the West by moderately liberal parents, I found myself relating to many of Mooro’s experiences, questions and ambitions – not to mention the fact we both were Avril Lavigne fans before turning to hip-hop and are both awake by 7am, crafting lengthy to-do lists, feeling a burst of accomplishment once each task is ticked off.

Ours is a generation of second and third-culture women who are numerous, and in her book, Mooro’s stories are intertwined with discussions with fellow “hybrids”, or Middle Eastern women in the UK – anonymous sources referred to as Samira, Dunya, Mariam and Haifa, who hail from Egypt, Oman, Iraq and Kuwait.

“It’s a style of writing I’ve been doing as a journalist for years, providing alternative narratives and telling the stories that are not in the mainstream, ones that are true to myself and the people I know,” Mooro tells The National. “I’m a big believer that the world is changed by examples far more than it is by opinions, so I wanted to give a human face to the conversation and in doing so, hopefully humanise the issues addressed and make them more relatable.”

'The Greater Freedom' by Ayla Mooro. 
'The Greater Freedom' by Ayla Mooro.

Mooro says she is an “invisible immigrant” and “invisible Muslim”, since she doesn’t appear like the stereotypical characters of these labels. While she touches on topics of faith, she doesn’t delve into them deeply. “I don’t particularly care to wade too far into this subject,” she writes, calling it “sticky” and “nuanced”. She says Chapter 10, titled “When you are ‘technically’ Muslim”, was the most challenging to write.

“I woke up to the fact that I was a feminist slowly and then all at once,” she writes, and though much of her book highlights social injustices rooted in her own culture, The Greater Freedom isn’t by any means a literary attack on her religion or ethnicity. She points out that in America, women were allowed to vote only in 1920.

“It took around two years to write The Greater Freedom, from inception of the idea to publication. I turned 30 as I finished writing the book, which felt very poignant, as writing had enabled me to unpick so many of the ideas and ways of being I had adopted almost by osmosis – from what I term in the book the ‘invisible jury’,” referring to the greater Arab society, who in her experience, equate the prospect of their children being westernised to them being “ruined”.

This invisible jury contends that Muslim Arab women should marry Muslim Arab men, as opposed to those of other religious or cultural backgrounds, and ensures ‘marriageability’ should be the top priority of Arab girls. Readers learn that in the UK, the average bride is 35, but in the Middle East, one fifth of girls are wed before they turn 18. “Regardless of other achievements or accolades, women in the Arab world are expected to first fill the roles of wives and mothers before all others,” writes Mooro. Needless to say, this contrasts starkly with the ideals embedded in her European upbringing.

Numbers and statistics add weight to Mooro’s words. Only 24 per cent of women in Arab countries work outside the home. Divorce rates in Egypt have risen by 83 per cent in the past 20 years, while in the UK, 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce. Her writing is also interspersed with colloquial Arabic words and phrases: readers learn that the word for an unmarried woman in Arabic is “ahnes”, which is a branch that withers and becomes useless.

Marriage doesn’t top Mooro’s list of priorities. “I was never the girl who fantasised about marriage and children. It sounded like a jail sentence to me … despite what Beyonce preached, I never believed he had to put a ring on it in order to prove he liked it,” she writes. “In my opinion, true happiness and independence are achieved when we are true to ourselves, not once we prefix our names with ‘Mrs’.”

Mooro frequently diverts to social media, where she conducts polls and interviews on platforms such as Instagram. Through Instagram’s Stories feature, she asked her Middle Eastern followers if they felt pressure to marry – more than 80 per cent said yes. “Being active on social media has always come very naturally to me – and to many of my generation,” Mooro tells me. “It felt like a no-brainer to engage with my followers about the subjects I was tackling and to get their opinions. Demographically, many of my followers are Middle Eastern women who live around the world, so it made perfect sense to tap into that pool of people.”

Throughout her book, Mooro bares her soul. But though it all may make her vulnerable to her culture’s “invisible jury”, Mooro describes her writing experience as “cathartic”.

“I don’t really feel like the experiences belong to me, any more,” she says. “They belong to the reader and to the book now; they exist as bridges to the points I am trying to make: that we should all be free to make our own choices, and to have the greater freedom – whatever that may look like.”

Updated: October 28, 2019 06:31 PM

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