“When you describe yourself to someone for the first time, how do you define yourself?”
I think there is a stark contrast before coming to William and Mary and after coming to William and Mary because I came from a hometown that was very small and 90% white. Throughout the majority of my high school career I was the only Muslim in my school. Whenever someone would ask me where I was from, I would never say, “Oh, I’ve lived in Virginia my whole life.” Instead, I say, “I’m from Egypt.” I never noticed that until I saw an Aziz Ansari thing where he was talking about the same thing. He would say, “I’m from South Carolina” but then the person would ask, “No, where are you really from?” I didn’t even realize that was what I was doing. Coming here for orientation, they stressed that people shouldn’t ask “where are you from?” and keep pressing. I was doing that my whole life and I didn’t even know. So now I respond, “Oh, I’m from Michigan” and stop there. I say I was born in Michigan, and lived in Yorktown my whole life. Now, I’m more open to the idea that I don’t have to always be on the defensive. Describing myself now, I don’t have to be promising that I’m normal.
“That’s really interesting. Are your parents from Egypt?”
Yeah, so my mom was born in Philadelphia and my dad was born in Egypt. My grandpa came here, got his PhD, and my mom was born here, and then they went back to Egypt after my grandpa got his PhD. Both my parents met in Egypt and they finished their Masters there before coming back to the US for their PhD’s. My dad went to Northwestern and my mom went to Michigan State. Both my parents are professor at [Christopher Newport University], and that’s why we moved to Virginia, and I’ve lived here my whole life. They grew up in Egypt, but my parents both have very strong Michigan accents. People from Michigan are lazy and don’t pronounce half the letters in a word. The word mirror sounds like “meer” and clothes is more like “cloze.” They are just as American than anyone you’ll ever meet.
“What do your parents teach?”
My dad teaches inorganic chemistry and nanochemistry, and my mom does electrical engineering, so they’re very science-y.
“Is that what you want to do?”
I grew up with it, so for a while I thought that was what I wanted to do for a long time, and I did a lot of stuff with science. I went to international science fairs and I did all this research with science, but I actually hated it. I did so much and I learned so much that I can honestly say I know a lot about chemistry, but is not what I want to spend my life doing.
“So what do you want to do?”
I want to go into accounting. I want to be an accountant, public accountant. That is the path, and it probably won’t work out that way, but it does, that would be great.
“What year are you?”
I’m a freshman, so I just finished my first semester.
“That’s exciting! How did it go?”
It went really well. I had a really good first semester. It was especially nice because I had a not-so-good senior year. I know a lot of people who had a hard first semester, so I feel lucky.
“That’s awesome! Did you find a group of people here that helped to make it easier for you? Or did you really enjoy classes?”
The biggest part of my college career so far was that I got into 7th Grade Sketch Comedy. They have a show the very first week of classes, and I went to it with my roommate, and I was like, “Why do I feel like these people are my best friends? Why do I feel so connected? Why do I feel like I should be onstage with them?” I don’t have too much theater experience, I did marching band, and played in the pit for musicals for four years, but I have experiences with acting and public speaking. I went to the audition, and somehow got a callback, and then somehow got in.
“What role has 7th grade played in your college experience thus far?”
7th Grade has been a miraculous beginning to my college career. I am supported by people who have instantaneously become my best friends. I never truly knew what a good friend or good support group was until I met my best friends in 7th Grade. These are the people who have supported me in every aspect of my life, and it has only been one semester. They come to any events I run, any performances I have, or even visit me at work. I am astounded at how quick it all happened. When I first saw them perform, I felt like this instant connection to all of them and felt this dire need to be up there, with them. I felt so comfortable telling them this right after I found out I got in. I think the most incredible part about being in 7th Grade has been the ability to write sketches and [the ability to be] positive, creative, and innovative – even when everything seems like it’ll never be positive again. Going to rehearsal after November ninth was challenging and heartbreaking at times when I couldn’t find myself able to be positive, to write, and even to laugh. But one of our members reminded us by saying “Out of all the times we need to be funny, this is one of those times where finding laughter and humor is most important.” That really stuck with me; knowing the importance of humor in darker times has been honestly the most rewarding lesson of being in 7th Grade. Without them, I don’t know where I would be today. Honestly, I don’t want to think about who I would be if I didn’t have them in my life.
“What else are you involved in?”
I am involved with [Muslim Student Association] and am on the executive board for [Middle Eastern Student Association]. With regards to MSA specifically, it is such a supportive and open community that brings Muslims from all walks of life and level of religiousness together through many bonding and social events. I think an amazing thing that MSA does is its ability to tie and bring Muslims and non-Muslims together, even though they could be very religious or [identify as] culturally Muslim. I believe MSA recognizes this about the William and Mary Muslim community and truly strives to make an effort to get know and bring all Muslims on campus together. In turn, they create a very strong, supportive community. The day after the Muslim-ban was signed as an executive order, a group from MSA was like, “Hey if anyone wants to just not think or get away from the media and give your brain a break, let’s just all watch a movie together.” It’s these smallest acts of consideration, support, and solidarity together that I admire in our Muslim population at William and Mary.
“What has been your experience as a Muslim American?”
My experience as a Muslim-American really has evolved over the years. I was born in Michigan and I have lived in Yorktown, Virginia my entire life. That small, primarily white, upper-middle class town has been everything I have ever known. No doubt, they faced and overcame the challenges of assimilating into American norms, but growing up, my parents really impressed upon me that I was not different. They showed me that I didn’t have to go out of my way to prove myself to be any better than the person on my right or the person on my left because I looked or prayed differently. I was who I was, and I just had to be my best self. I thank them for that, but I was so naive growing up, and I have only realized that recently.
In my hometown, my crazy hair [stood out]. Frizzy, heavy curls larger than my small 9-year-old body. I hated it for so long. I would end up wearing my hair in a braid every, single day until my sophomore year in high school when I finally learned how to use mousse, gel, et cetera to keep my curls intact. But growing up, girls would always try to brush my hair [which was painful] or they would simply laugh and say I had a “mane.” So, lots of horse jokes.
People would always ask me [during Ramadan], “Why are you fasting? Can you not eat at all? Or [drink] water? Wait, nothing? All day? All month? Don’t you, like starve?” Once a year, for 30 days straight, I had to explain to every single one of my white friends what Ramadan was. And at the time, I look back and remember feeling happy to have the opportunity to talk about Islam with my peers, to teach them. But, I see now that was not the case. People didn’t ask me questions because they were genuinely interested or because they wanted to be less ignorant. They asked questions because I, Noora Abdel-Fattah, the girl who doesn’t wear a hijab, who lives in Yorktown, didn’t fit their pre-conceived perception, ideas, or constructs of what a Muslim was or should be. “Haha isn’t like fasting basically starving?” “Wow, I can’t believe you can even sit here and be watching us eat.” Even with regards to the hijab, it was the same deal. My mom explained to me the importance of a woman’s choice and how the hijab is a powerful choice that only the woman should make and should never feel pressured to do so. [A woman] chooses herself and only for herself and Allah (SWS). The hijab gives women in Islam empowerment and agency, not to mention an incredible way to live with the chin to the sky, with pride and conviction. But, when people asked me, “Why don’t you wear the hijab?” And I explained this powerful choice in the lives of Muslim women, they would just be like, “Ahh…” because they assume the choice is not our own personal, deep choice to Allah (SWS). They believe it is a forceful oppression of Muslim women. They want to believe Muslim women don’t have agency, pride, or empowerment. But we do, oh hell yes we do.
Don’t get me wrong, I have many friends ask me questions about Islam and I am more than glad to answer all of them, but not all who ask are doing it to better themselves and their knowledge of other cultures and religions. Many just want to understand, “Why is this Muslim girl not like the ones in Iraq in the burkas?” That level of ignorance is not something I truly comprehended until I left Yorktown. I feel less idiotic and more pleased with the fact that I joined a campus in which diversity is celebrated. Orientation was fantastic in the fact for pointing out the question “Where are you from?” is a discriminatory question and should not phrased in that sense, nor should it be the first question you ask someone who doesn’t look like you. Day in and day out, I am more and more proud of who I am and where I come from, so I am always open to discussing my roots, but it was definitely not an overnight realization.
“What was your reaction to Trump’s immigration ban?”
Anger. Pure anger. When I woke up, it was mix between “Of course, just another day in 2017” and “This should not be real.” You know, [my best friend and I] were inseparable [growing up]. She always wanted to try to fast with me during Ramadan, and she always wanted to help me put on my hijab. I would teach her phrases in Arabic. Then came our senior year and the election season was well under way. She was full-blown Donald Trump supporter. And for me, it was a complete 360. I was confused, practically in daze, by her racist remarks and ignorant views. How are you best friends with a Muslim for your entire middle and high school years and still remain so ignorant to the reality of America? I would get texts from her that said, “Careful not to leave the country, Noora! When Trump is President, he won’t let you back in! Haha [smiley face]” I am still dumbfounded. I treat every person that I come into contact to with so much respect. I do not think less of a person if they are Republican, Independent, Socialist, Libertarian. I think less of a person when I am treated with blatant racism and disrespect of who I am at my very core. This ban came little surprise to me, but left me still in a boil of rage.
“What about when the ban was stopped by federal court? How did you feel then?”
Even when the ban was lifted by the federal judge, I wasn’t overflowed with a sense of relief and happiness. All I thought was, “this is the kind of action that needs to persistently take place to combat a completely unified, single-party controlled government.” And it’s true. This hard work isn’t over, it’s barely scratched the surface of what needs to happen every single day, for the next two years, until the mid-terms in 2018. It’s daunting and tiring to even think about fighting every force that leaves the executive branch, and I am worried many who are fighter will burn out. But I want every person to not stop the good fight. Fighting for what is right is worth it. It is so worth it.
“Do you have anything else you would like to say to the William and Mary community?”
I love William and Mary, I really do. But we can and should do better. It is a palpable feeling on this campus of “tiredness.” Tiredness from academia, clubs, societies, and tiredness from seeing every post on Facebook being about our executive, legislative, or judicial branch. But hey, that is our world now. And it is perfectly fine and important to recognize reality can be too much sometimes and there are moments when one needs to take a step back and say, “I have had enough for today.” I urge everyone to know their limits, especially when the world seems so sad. But we can not be angry at those who use social media and other platforms to vent and discuss their issues that is going on the world. It may be annoying, it definitely is and I acknowledge I am supremely guilty of it, but we must allow people to have their voices heard, especially when their voices are consistently marginalized everyday. People are tired of everything becoming political, but when the entire lives of minorities and marginalized communities are politics, there is very little room to judge. I do not expect my [White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant] friends to go to bed every night worrying about the fate of their minority peers, but I do expect them to ease the burden by speaking out and making things political even when they are “tired” of seeing and hearing the same things everyday. I want my allies to stand by my side when all the cameras, Facebook posts, tweets, and videos are gone. To do that is fighting for the truth and removing ignorance in any setting that has them. Is that a lot to ask for? Yes, but I have been doing that every waking moment of my life. To have things be less political does not mean we revert back to the days when marginalized people were afraid to speak out everyday. To have things be less political means minorities and marginalized people must work with those privilege in order to balance the heavy burden and commitment it takes to fight ignorance and support/defend the voices that have trouble being heard or acknowledged. I am learning and evolving everyday on how to be the best spokesperson for not only myself, but those who find themselves speaking up for themselves alone. No one should be in this fight alone, so my Tribe peers, let’s actually work together and speak for one another, not just ourselves.