Identity politics. This sister-term only attained sisterhood in my life as I neared my late twenties. Once upon a time, my identity wasn’t political and I thought politics was something around partisanship and some electoral campaigns … was I ever mistaken. There’s glory and grace in finding culturally-imposed restrictions and overcoming them, breaking them apart then choosing what matters. My adulthood was mainly about challenging the things that I had always been told – the things I refused to accept. From my upbringing that was engulfed in colonial influence, to my career choices, my educational sphere and my social practices, everything had to be re-examined. Each one of these elements (my social circle, my career choices, my upbringing, my education) was both the building block and the destruction force I needed to form an identity that I embraced wholly – and an identity that’s inarguably my own. The multitude of crises around that unlearning process never end. That’s alright though.
THE POLITICS OF HAIR.
Not only was I raised to believe it in the messaging around me, but I was taught to see my hair as problematic. I was told that my “difficult-to-manage, kinky, weird and not-very-elegant” head – in other words – that my naturally growing hair can’t be a source of pride. In fact, I was expected to see it as a burden … a pain that required elimination by straightening, controlling and concealing. In my community of family and family friends, subtle and seemingly humorous remarks were made about my messy hair, my not hireable appearance, and about the classlessness of my curls. And it was all said as explicitly as possible. I was told to straighten my hair for anything that required some form of formality; weddings, graduations, jobs … anything that earned “acceptance”. In more ways than one, it was an emphasis that my identity at its realest was informal, inauthentic and probably undesired.
That line of thought had no alternative in the world my family grew up in, especially because their country proudly celebrated women who are white-passing at best, and accepted olive-skinned, “gently” tanned at the least. We were neither.
That illusional spectrum of beauty was one where my family and myself had no place, certainly not as a minority group of darker-skinned southern Egyptians. Egyptian society was loud and clear in what it saw fit to be beautiful, irrespective of its non-white, African history. The Egyptian ideal of beauty was anti-black. As a result, the only standard of beauty was that of the straight-haired, fair-skinned Arab women, which my family and myself obviously were not, but were taught to try to resemble in any capacity. By straightening our hair, and by dying it as a means to give it some twisted, western appearance of elegance, and even as far as changing it if by any chance it happened to be in its natural state, the so-called “holding it together” before it goes crazy. There are women in my family who refuse to show their hair anywhere or to anyone unless it was flattened to a so-called “perfection”, there are women today who still think that who they are needs correcting. And that’s a heartbreaking truth especially when these women share my blood. It’s a systemic paradigm I am fighting to crash to its death, albeit the fight alone is a hard one.
It’s a fenced-in notion, an outcome of years of colonial influence and a socially upheld practice that tells you that you need to work against your nature. Despite the identity that you own, it tells you to love yourself conditionally, misguiding women to believe that aesthetic “betterment” is a process of self-erasure. That practice is so permanently destructive – so regressive – that those who had to live through it and understand its dangers spend their lives fighting for their truth, for the integral wholeness of their identity, for the power of their appearance, and for their hair to be as loud, as space-occupying and as non-conformist and resistant to “straight and linear” lines of thought as possible. That’s why my hair is a political statement long before it becomes a fashion statement. Plus, it was mine before any false notion of acceptability. That’s why identity politics are as essential as breathing to me. I had to learn to love my identity, when many people innately embraced theirs.
While the self-movement is a work in progress (more so in the last decade), the influence that plagues whole societies and countless generations in North Africa and elsewhere exists, and it needs demolition. The phenomenon that taught women that aesthetic proximity to whiteness is the acceptable practice, in fact, the only practice, very much resonates in the narratives of the generations that preceded mine. It taught them to ascribe to a systemic polarisation that places straight hair and white skin in framework of superiority and as an ideal of beauty.
DARK SKIN, WHITE RHETORIC.
For the majority of my life, my identity, the Black-Arab-and-Arabish-Black female, was placed somewhere far enough in my mind that it never needed addressing, but remained close enough in a twisted, comfort zone of understanding, like being aware enough.
In other words, I never had to identify myself or explain much; because I spoke enough Arabic, looked African, had lived almost my entire life in Canada and never needed to go to Egypt to relive any my traumas, also saying I was Nubian never needed an explanation when talking to another black person and so I seemed to function “just fine”. My conscience had more questions though, and it was a matter of time before my identity erupted into being. That old place of basic functionality that I created was an unsafe place, it was a system of evasion within the confinements of whatever was familiar enough. I thought, “I know who I am, but do I really need to talk about it?” and that statement became the placeholder for most of my worries and my crises, which as a I got older, exploded into existence.
So yeah … yeah: I do need to talk about it, and I won’t finish talking about it for a very long time.
The constructing of my identity required the act of dismissing everything I had been taught about who and what I was. In other words, unlearning. I had to acknowledge that I was the product of a community of women and men who were heavily thrice manipulated, first by colonialism, then by the Ottoman empire, and then again by Arab conquest. In Egypt, Black Egyptians aka Nubians are considered a “sub” group in a country battling a crisis of authenticity and that projects that onto them by nicely telling them that they don’t exactly matter, that they were the additional ethnic group, to a “beautiful, diverse, historically rich” nation — a false promotion of inclusivity, the I don’t see colour, we’re all brothers and sisters, we’re all one Egypt, but you’re black so don’t get it twisted thing. Nubians were told they were exotic and foreign, that they dance nicely and speak an interesting language and that Egypt “so kindly” granted them a space at the very south after displacing them four fucking times. It gets worse: not only were they expected to be thankful to have existed after displacement and after the erasing of their language and history and their reduction to a minority, they also have no room to appear in the forefront of their country’s image. In some cases, the southern Egyptian male gets a patronizing “donation” of worth, that same worth where a black man is traditionally liked enough and exoticized globally but where the woman of any shade of dark is essentially invisible. I mean, black Egyptian women are non-existent in film, in political dialogue and in social discourse. Not one lead actress (only the nanny/maid, still talking about Egypt by the way … ), no southern Egyptian/Nubian woman in a place of political leadership, and not a single dark-skinned news anchor or host on any station. How the hell do you tell your daughter that she’s beautiful, and important, and authentic, in a realm where she cannot – and does not exist? That’s why the influence on my family/community and the consequences of that miseducation became so apparent to me.
So for a long time, I didn’t know who I was, the reconciliation process took an immigration journey, countless fights about societal miseducation, a handful of reality checks plus a few good rounds of identity crises. I call it reconciliation because I knew I existed, I just didn’t exist loudly. But I’m here, and I’m glad, and I’m pretty loud too. I don’t need to identify as an Arab (I am ethnically not), but I can drop a great Arabic-one-liner ripping someone to shreds if any lines are crossed in any way, or if/when it comes to the authenticity of my being Egyptian. My blackness is as present and as powerful as it can be, and I will happily regulate anyone one who tells me to stay out of the sun, even if they share my DNA.
SIZES THAT MATTER.
I left this for last because it’s global and also harmful, also because this is a conversation that many women can lead better than myself. I’ve been relatively consistent in size, although I’ve recently shed major weight because of an array of issues — that’s weight I plan on gaining back. Weight can be a win, growth is a win, abundance is a win, and self-love is a victory. It’s a triumph in a terrible world where size is somehow a calibre of value.
I’ve also been taught to abide by a system that celebrates only small sizes, the same system that fat-shames and tries to dictate who and what size is beautiful, the same patriarchal system that polices women’s bodies and tells them what is and what isn’t enough. I really dislike the word enough when it has a societal expectation attached to it and no individual choice.
I have family members: sisters and cousins, and cousin-sisters (that’s a real thing) who have been verbally mutilated, and told over and over that they’re not attractive enough because they’re not skinny, and that their size is a problem because it poses the risk of never being in a partnership — wrongfully suggesting that it’s never about what they love, but always about who can love them, a terrible, toxic circle of deservingness in exchange of acceptability (or vice versa). I’ve always been on the shorter end, and relatively curvy, and for most of my teenaged years, all the way to my early twenties, I hid my dark knees, avoided short skirts, and ran away from any attire that attracted attention because I (mis)/believed that exaggerated sizes needed to be reduced or concealed. That was a short-lived misunderstanding that my journey of self-love shattered out of existence. On some days, I can still hear the walls of societal deceit collapsing. You should see my collection of very ripped jeans, high-waisted shorts and short dresses now.
Size is greatness, it’s an importance people don’t want to accept, and it’s a loudness no one wants to hear, but my goodness, it’s a glorious abundance, and one that needs to be screamed into fruition. I’m certain that I’m not the only female who’s had to hear some numerical measure of what size I needed to be, based on the (fabricated) fact that my aunts, mother and grandmother were a fab 48 kilos when they were my age. I work in pounds by the way … so 48, 50, 70, 100 kilos mean nothing to me. Whether that number is true or not, no one’s size or image is a measure of my aspirations of weight or appearance, I grow and I shrink into what makes me happy, that’s all of me, any day, and in any shape or form that I love. Point blank period.