#45: Sharing your story is not easy, but it is part of the healing process

A guest piece by Mena Jenna, plus, imaginary boyfriends, Kim Kardashian minus the "West" and more...

Hi, I’m Alya Mooro and you’re reading The Greater Conversation, a weekly newsletter honestly addressing all aspects of life through the eyes of a Middle Eastern / third-culture / woman / human. Alternately, there’ll be some thoughts from me, or a guest piece, along with recommendations of articles, books*, podcasts and etc worth consuming. If you’ve just subscribed, welcome! If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email to join the list.

Mena Jenna, 33, Washington, D.C

The Naseeb Diaries, a storytelling platform I created to document the lives of women who have been raised Muslim, was born from my own heartbreak. After a six-year relationship with a non-Muslim, white American man abruptly ended and I re-entered the dating pool, I was completely lost. I didn’t know how to embrace singlehood and I didn’t know what I wanted. 

As I write this, I find myself, yet again, experiencing some heartache and am forced to turn inward. This heartache feels a bit different; it is born out of a typical modern love story. A brief ‘situation-ship’ between two people with magic-like-chemistry, but we met at the wrong time and the wrong place, making us simply wrong. 

While it is painful, I know I’ll heal and will be able to laugh - and maybe even learn something from this short love story (or rather “like” story). In a week or two, I’ll realize that the pain I am feeling has little to do with that specific man and more to do with every loss I’ve ever had in relationships.

The most obvious loss is the loss of the person; the physical loss; the loss of communication; the loss of the emotional connection; the loss of a possible future. And then, there is a less obvious grief or pain that is much stronger; it is the grief of your life simply not turning out as you expected, and consistently working to unlearn and reject the expectations that were set for me growing up, that were expected of many Muslim women. 

As a Muslim, Egyptian-American woman, marriage was always an expectation early on. I wasn’t allowed to date or talk to boys growing up, or even have an opportunity to learn about different types of relationships, sexuality, or love. There also wasn’t much representation of who I could be with, other than what I saw in my local Muslim community. I can clearly remember when I was a teenager, hearing that single women in our local mosque who were around 30 were deemed  “too old for marriage.”  Your worst nightmare would be to be to be over 30 and not married. And there I was, single and 29 after my 6 year relationship came to an end. In truth, it was long overdue, and most likely prolonged because of the fear of being single at 30. 

When I started the Naseeb Diaries,  I was re-entering the dating pool and having to deal with the common challenges women face, with the added layer of being a non-practicing Muslim, Egyptian and American. The issues I was and sometimes am still facing were hard to explain to my non-Muslim and non-Arab friends. Dating became a really difficult equation to solve. Do I date Muslim men? That would be easier for my family, but I am not religious. Are they open enough? Are they open minded now and going to become religious later? A lot of the Muslim and Arab men I met questioned my independence, didn’t like how much I traveled and even asked if I would continue traveling after I was married. What about non-Muslims? Do I have to explain who I am to them for the rest of  my life, as I did in my last relationship? Will they ever fully understand me? Does that even matter? Does anyone truly understand anyone or is that a lifelong journey?

These questions led me to the  larger question of how growing up Muslim impacts our love lives. How many women have had to have secret relationships, hiding a major part of their life for years, or in some cases, for life? How many women want to be with Muslim partners, but have trouble finding progressive Muslim men? What is the experience of Muslim women who are LGBTQ? What about women who don’t want to get married at all? What about those of us who are no longer practicing? So I ventured off and started to interview my close friends and family on their experiences in dating and love. What I found was that I was naïve. 

Marriage had been such a pressure on me my entire life, and here I was making an attempt to document only the love lives of Muslim women, playing into the same narrative, that our love life is somehow more important than other parts of our life or that we are not whole until we are partnered up. There is so much more to explore and so much more to talk about. Everything is interconnected. 

Here are a few lessons that I have learned over the past few years that have helped me embrace and understand my identity, develop new approaches to loving and understanding those around me, and feel more connected to myself. 

Sharing your story is not easy, but it is part of the healing process: Growing up in a culture where sharing deep or dark parts of ourselves is not encouraged  can make it difficult for women to share their stories. Over the past few years, I have had women share beautiful and dark parts of their stories with me, not all of which have been  posted. It is not easy, and oftentimes can be scary. Many times, the women I talk to are sharing their story for the first time, and it is a healing process for them as well as for me. I was not expecting this when I started, but I am honored to hold a space for women to share their story even if it only stays with me.

We are more than our love lives: We are galaxies and our lives are made up of so much more than our romantic relationships. Our narrative has oftentimes been told for us by the media and only recently are we represented in some mainstream series. There are so many layers to the women I talk to, and as I heard and listened to their words I started to be more intentional about the questions I would ask. We are all figuring out our identities, how to practice Islam or not to practice at all, how to date and love, our sexuality, how to build a healthy relationship with our parents, how to love ourselves, how to take care of our mental health, our careers, how to fight for social justice, our passions, how to raise our children, and how to break generational curses.

We are pioneers: The women I speak with are pioneers and are setting new paths for generations to come. Many of us are the first of our kind in our families. Many are the first to be financially independent, travel the world before marriage (or travel the world at all), marry outside of the religion,  marry outside of the culture, casually date, love our bodies, see a therapist and take care of our mental health, be true to our authentic selves. We are balancing two worlds at all times and navigating a path we are creating for ourselves.

Identity is a lifelong journey: Being Egyptian, American, AND Muslim has always been a struggle. I, like many of the women I speak to, always tried to keep my conflicting worlds separate. Making sure to never combine them. Keeping things separated is exhausting --we need and crave connection – especially within ourselves. What I have learned from these women  is when we start to bring our worlds together, we are able to connect more deeply with ourselves and with others. From this, I learned that I no longer needed to fight my multiple identities, but I could breathe them all in as intersecting, they could all hold truth and co-exist.

We are connected yet different: This is less of a lesson, since part of the reason I created The Naseeb Diaries was to show that Muslim women are not monolithic and also provide a space for connection between Muslim women. We have similar experiences so we are able to connect with one another, but we carry our experiences differently, we describe them differently, and provide different perspectives to one another. I appreciate hearing stories that are new to me, that I did not experience and that allow me to expand my mindset, and I find it healing to find moments of connection. If I can help one woman feel less alone, then I have done my job.

Over the past few years managing this Instagram has been an amazing learning experience. I always find it challenging to find more space for this in my life, but I hope to continue sharing, learning, connecting, and collectively healing.

Mena is a 33 year old Egyptian American woman living in Washington, DC. She is an international public health advocate and storyteller. She is the creator of The Naseeb Diaries, an instagram platform which aims at documenting the lives of Muslim women, practicing or non-practicing, through storytelling. Follow her on Twitter and follow The Naseeb Diaries.

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This newsletter is sponsored by The Doe, a digital publication which shares unfiltered, anonymous stories in an effort to encourage conversation and engagement with new ideas. This month’s theme is Athletics and the narrative I want to share today is: Sex Segregation in Sports: A Female Olympian's Perspective

It’s an interesting read on the way gender segregation plays out in sports at the top level, with assumptions of what a woman can do vs what a man can do. “There’s an ironic twist that female athletes, even in peak health, ‘fight against’ their bodies to reach the top, but men ‘push’ theirs,” writes the author.

Read the narrative on The Doe

  • Book: Opening the Gates: An anthology of Arab feminist writing, edited by Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke. It’s a fascinating and empowering read that debunks the idea that being Arab and being a feminist are mutually exclusive, and that Arab feminism is a new idea.

  • Newsletter: "Love is not a one-way street. It requires honesty about things you might not want to recognise, which is the same for writing." Loved this edition of Conversations On Love, featuring an interview with the brilliant author Sara Collins.

  • Podcast: After last week’s edition on periods, I really enjoyed this episode of Caggie Dunlop’s Saturns Return, in which she chatted with menstrual awareness practitioner and author Lisa Lister, about period pride and period shame, the wisdom available to us in following the seasons of our cycle and more.

  • Watch: I Care A Lot is WILD.

  • I’ve found the perfect boyfriend – he just isn’t real.

  • An interesting and important read on the injustices of dating while disabled, featuring an interview with Ramy star Steve Way.

  • Therapy in the Middle East needs a non-Western approach. Related: “We are in the midst of a mental health pandemic, and I don’t think it’s treated with near enough respect.”

  • Who is Kim Kardashian minus the "West"? The answer is going to be fascinating — and perhaps even inspiring, argues this writer.

  • For International Women’s Day, my mate Tahmina Begum compiled a list of the newsletters by women of colour that are making inboxes exciting again. Lots of great suggestions in there, plus a mention of The Greater Conversation :)

My first ever cover story was published this week! I was commissioned to profile 19-year-old singer-songwriter Elyanna for GQ Middle East’s March edition and was super inspired by her work ethic.

Read the profile here


A quote from a book you should read:

“The thought struck me then, and I wondered: if a person was strong enough, brave enough, was reputation something they could do without?” - Layla AlAmmar, The Pact We Made



Thanks for subscribing! I'm Alya, the person behind this newsletter. I am a freelance journalist and the bestselling author of The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes. You can follow me on Instagram here, and Twitter here.
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