When I was a kid, idea of being a superhero thrilled me. For some kids it was Batman or Spiderman; for me it was Superman. Setting aside that they’re all male figures, what struck me the most about Superman wasn’t only his sense of righteousness, bravery and strength, as much as it was his ability to fly. Without notice, without restraint, he’d take to the sky without a care in the world. For weeks, I wore my little Superman suit everywhere, feeling, living that same spirit of freedom I admired so much.
One morning, I wore my Superman suit to school. Stomping the playground with fists on my hips, I made my way to the classroom. For a few brief but wonderful moments, I was the superhero of my first grade class. My reign as a superhero was cut short by the evil Ms. Suhair. She was the Kryptonite to my Superman. With one pass of her disapproval ray, in her syrupy sweet, super villain voice, she said, “tsk, tsk, tsk…Nofe, don’t you know that a proper Qatari girl can’t be Superman?” The sense of power that came along with the suit immediately vanished.
She became one of the first of many voices who tried to define my role as a Qatari, Muslim woman. Most often, it seemed, the messages were of things I could not do rather than of things that I could; jobs I could not hold, choices I could not make and travels I could not take. Superman’s boundless power and freedom would not be available to me. I had been born into a place and time where, for me, doors seemed to be closed rather than open. Years later, I understood why my teacher had forced me to take off my Superman costume; she believed that she was preparing me to put on another costume, my abaya.
My story of putting on the abaya inverts my story of taking off the Superman costume. This time instead of people telling me who I couldn’t be, people started to tell me who I had to be.
When I made the decision to wear the hijab, my tenth grade friends reminded me that it also meant I got to wear an abaya. Like most Qatari girls, for me wearing an abaya was a lot like wearing high heels. I was declaring to the world that I had grown up. That Thursday night, I followed my mother into the women’s majlis proudly wearing my matching sheila and abaya. I claimed my seat among the women for tea and grownup conversation. In the years that followed, those grownup conversations began to paint a picture of the life I might someday lead. In the stories I heard, societal expectations restricted Qatari women.
I started to learn that being a woman meant I couldn’t have an equal voice in society. What started out as a positive symbol of womanhood unfortunately began to change. It seemed as though wearing the abaya was synonymous with disappearing under it. Let me be clear here. I’m not talking about covering my hair; that was a decision I made as an expression of my faith. I’m talking about the abaya as a representation of the limitations placed on Qatari women.
As I have grown, so has my world. People throughout the region are asserting their presence, reclaiming their rights and demanding that their voices be heard. In my lifetime, Qatar and the women who guide her have undergone long-awaited changes. Women have emerged as leaders and role models. H.H. Sheikha Moza championed Education City—without her vision, we would not be here this evening. H.E. Sheikha Mayassa, our keynote speaker, drives the philanthropic and arts initiatives in Qatar. Hessa Al Jaber leads one of the most prominent organizations in Doha. They, along with other Qatari women, have begun to change our path.
We don’t need to take off our abayas to make some startling proclamation of our liberation. We need to strip away the self-imposed and culturally imposed misconceptions of what it means to be a Muslim woman in Qatar. Wearing the abaya should not mean disappearing under it. We can express our cultural pride and actively participate in our society at the same time. Wearing the abaya does not have to mean we can’t wear our superhero costumes. We can and should wear them both.
At Carnegie Mellon, we learned to do just that. Four years ago we all came in wearing the costumes we thought we had to wear, each of us acting out the roles that our cultures had prescribed for us. In the years since, we have preserved the best of those traits and shrugged off the worst. Prof. Al-Malki’s Writer’s Craft and Prof. Kaba’s Identity, Statehood and Nationhood encouraged us to express ourselves and stretch our views, to break through our own barriers. All of our classes dared us to set higher goals for ourselves. As friends and classmates, we’ve challenged each other every chance we had, whether over a business ethics debate or a competitive game of تابو. Carnegie Mellon exemplifies what I hope our future will look like: a place where we can create and compete while we celebrate our core values.
As we proceed to the next stage of our lives, we shouldn’t aspire to be the grade school teachers who tell little Qatari girls stories of limit. We must be the moms and dads who tell daughters and sons that they can be any superhero they choose to be. We must be the educators who tell their students stories that empower them and set them free. From our minds and from our hearts we must tell each other stories of equality. Our work is not yet done. Instead of recreating a past built on restriction, we will help to create a future built on freedom and opportunity.
Class of 2011, I hope and expect that we will all come back one day and share the story of the future we have created together. Congratulations to you all.