I was raised to know I’m different to men. It has been instilled in me by pretty much every single family member, both here in the UK and back home in Libya. Whilst I understand why my parents have decided to carry on their culture, traditions, and ideologies down – it’s just the way they were raised – I have to acknowledge that my generation is not living in the same context. Both my mother and father were born and raised in Libya; an environment where all of their family and friends were also growing up with the same culture and traditions. So, gender differences were normalised and never particularly questioned. But I am a second generation immigrant; the only life I have ever known is here. I have been raised within two vastly different cultures and in turn, I’ve struggled with my identity. 

The first time I realised I was different to the other girls at school was around the age of five or six. Our school organised a trip to the local farm – a trip that involved staying overnight. I came home from school that day so excited to give the slip to my mum to sign so I could go, but to my disappointment, she said no because ‘we don’t have girls staying away from the home’. I would hear this phrase a lot for many years to come. 

It continued into high school. Already a strange and difficult time for teenagers, it was made all the worse by my reality: I couldn’t do the same things as my friends. I wasn’t allowed to go out late at night, or go to sleepovers, and I had to fight tooth and nail for months on end to be allowed to go to prom. My friends tried to understand and sympathise, but they carried on, living their lives like a typical teenager would; making mistakes, going to parties, and getting with that boy they swore they never fancied. I was so angry at my parents for isolating me and making me feel so different and alone at a time that was already weird and confusing. I tried hard to understand their point of view, but in a world that was teaching me more and more about female empowerment and gender equality, it was proving difficult. 

I never really thought about what being a woman and a Muslim meant until I could compare my own experiences to that of my younger brother. I am six years older than him. When he was younger, he was also confined within the same rules as my sister and I, and I naively assumed we were all the same in the eyes of our parents.

I recently moved back home, and my brother is now eighteen. I started to see how differently he is treated. He can go out regularly and stay out late, and my parents won’t particularly question him on where he is going or who he is with, like they tend to do with their daughters. 

Now twenty-four and having learned a lot about feminism and gender equality, I tried to question my parents. Their response was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. My mum simply answered with, 'it’s because he’s a boy.' Whilst I was raised to know there was a difference between us, the lack of attempt to bend the truth or sugarcoat it still floored me. The fact was there: my brother is treated differently simply because he is not a woman. He will be able to marry whoever he wants, move out of the family home when he wants, and move abroad if that is what he wants. He is allowed to want.

I believe that Islam itself is a wonderful faith and something I wouldn’t change. Islam doesn’t teach gender inequality. It teaches the opposite. Women should be treated as equals to men, nothing more and nothing less. This is commonly distorted by Western society; regurgitated to the masses as the stereotypical view that Muslim women are in a constant state of oppression and victimisation. This is absolutely not the case. Unfortunately, there are Muslim women who are oppressed and are victims of a patriarchal system that manipulates the teachings of Islam to justify these actions. However, this is not the norm. The rules I have grown up with are not a product of Islam, but rather a product of cultural and traditional ideologies of womanhood in the Middle East.

It does appear to be improving, both personally and generally. My parents have definitely made progress since my teenage days and that is a success in itself. I have come to realise that I do not have to choose between the British part of my identity and the Arab part. I am a happy mixture of both, and that is a good thing. I have also realised that I am far from alone in my experiences – both my treatment due to being a woman, and in the context of religion – and it is so refreshing to see more and more articles and books being published on this topic, including impressive works such as It’s Not About the Burqa and The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write.

This allows us to enter and access the mainstream and to educate others on what it means to be both a Muslim and a woman today. I really do believe that Muslim women have a special strength. Like all women, we must face a society that is inherently sexist and patriarchal, but we must also face a racist and increasingly Islamophobic world. In a world that is always telling us no and pushing us down, we are strong, facing it head on with pride.