From Saudi Patriarchy to Ph.D., Meet Our Baddie of the Month: Hasnaa Mokhtar

Muslim Girl loves to bring attention to women of strength, knowledge and conviction. Baddies such as Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad, AJ+ Producer Sana Saeed, 14-year-old veiled Muslim convert and professional ballerina Stephanie Kurlow and, earlier last week, the first Somali-American Muslim State Legislator Ilhan Omar have all been featured as part of our #MuslimGirlFire series because of their amazing accomplishments in life.

Recently, the editors sat to discuss a line-up of women we wanted to focus on for future features and we realized that our very own writers have amazing voices and stories that we wanted to share with our readers. They represent the very essence of #Fire in their dedication of reclaiming our narrative as Muslim women by telling the stories that the world needs to know from the very voices who truly understand and represent them.

Today we introduce you to Hasnaa Mokhtar, our #MuslimGirlFire of the month who recently celebrated her one-year anniversary with Muslim Girl.

Born in Arizona, Hasnaa grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Her ability to convey a message through her words is amazing and fierce as she dissects issues of feminism, cultural expectations and political nuances of Muslim women in America and abroad.

Stories such as The ‘Nudity’ of Western Feminism, Let’s Talk About the Problem With Masculinity Within the Muslim Community, I Was Raised Under the Grip of Saudi’s Male Guardianship System, and Hijab or Not, Sexual Harassment Has Nothing to Do With Dress Codes were all written by Hasnaa and provided provocative, in-depth analysis of the issues of Muslim women today. We suggest you visit this link to see all of her published work with Muslim Girl. You’ll find it extremely enlightening.

Muslim Girl: What was it like growing up for you? You grew up in Saudi. What was the dynamic for girls and women there when you were young?

Hasnaa Mokhtar: I grew up in Saudi Arabia where my family is originally from. When people usually ask me what it’s like to live there, I always say it’s neither impossible, nor very convenient. The first things I learned in life about being a young girl, and later a woman, were through the patriarchal religious interpretation of family members and school education.

At school, textbooks and teachers taught me that Islam for women meant that I am obliged to cover my face, adhere to harsh rules, and be a good Muslim wife — and that’s it.

I was constantly groomed for my higher purpose in life: the obedient, soft-spoken, ladylike future wife with refined chef skills. It was confusing and mind boggling. Not that there’s something wrong with getting married. I am now a proud wife and mother, but that’s only one facet of my identity and what I stand for.

At school, textbooks and teachers taught me that Islam for women meant that I am obliged to cover my face, adhere to harsh rules, and be a good Muslim wife–and that’s it. I zigzagged between meeting those unrealistic ideals and completely rebelling against the norms.

Things have changed a lot for the generations to follow, yet misogynistic ideologies still linger within the social fabric and system. Despite how tough it was, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I now know God always has a better plan for me and I am a firm believer in “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

We understand that your upbringing has influenced you to be vocal about women’s rights. Can you explain how that became personal for you?

Indeed. Growing up feeling less, incomplete, dehumanized, sexualized, demonized, controlled…it made me so angry. I channeled the fury through my writings as a news reporter in Arab News–one of the oldest English language newspapers in Saudi Arabia. I wrote about the exploitation of migrant workers and injustices women struggled with in the country including sexual assault, physical abuse, discrimination and injustice.

Growing up feeling less, incomplete, dehumanized, sexualized, demonized, controlled…it made me so angry.

This article I wrote in 2008, for instance, illustrates the hopeless situation many abused women in Saudi Arabia face. My experience as a Saudi citizen marrying my current Egyptian-Canadian husband also influenced me on being vocal on women’s rights.

When did you know you had a voice to be reckoned with?

I didn’t think my voice mattered, exactly. It was more about telling the stories of unheard voices of distressed women and oppressed people. When I wrote articles about the exploitation of and injustices committed against migrant workers, some employers were intimidated in fear of public shaming and resolved the matters with their employees.

Nothing boosted my morale more than receiving a phone call or an email from one of the people I wrote a story about to tell me that their issues were resolved. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. But the experiences made me realize the power of utilizing my profession to give people a voice.

You are working toward you Ph.D. Tell us about your focus in your program. Why did you choose that field and what has been your biggest challenge as well as your greatest triumph?

I am a doctoral student in an interdisciplinary program at Clark University. In 2013, I was accepted at the International Development and Social Change program to pursue my master’s degree. At the time, I wasn’t sure what my focus would be until one day as I sat in the Gender Analysis of Power and Conflict class watching Peace Unveiled–a film featuring Afghani women advocating for political participation.

When the producer asked an Afghani man about women’s rights, he said: “Women belong at home. Islam says their voices are sinful, and they were created to serve their husbands.” At that moment, it hit me: this man echoed the culture of extreme religious patriarchy that I knew well.

I was intrigued to understand how could people misuse and abuse Islam to perpetuate patriarchal, oppressive social practices and beliefs against women? How could atrocities be committed against women and justified in the name of God? And so, I became passionate about studying the intersection of culture, religion, gender and violence, learning theories of feminisms, gender analysis, the construction of masculinities and femininities…etc.

At that moment, it hit me: this man echoed the culture of extreme religious patriarchy I knew well.

However, the lack of discussions that involved religion in classes and the lack of Muslim women’s representation in our readings was frustrating. As I was struggling to make sense of and navigate all of this, the director of the Women and Gender Studies knew I was a journalist and she asked me if I could interview one of the department’s professors about her participation in the Women Lead to Peace Summit held in Geneva in 2014.

After writing the interview, I pitched it to the local magazine and it was published, which reignited my passion for writing–especially that academic writing can be extremely pretentious and boring. That is when I saw Amani (Muslim Girl’s founder and Editor-in-Chief) in an interview with The Huffington Post and learned about

What advice do you give to our readers who are trying to find their place or find their voice in the world?

I offer these two quotes:

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Rumi


“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch

I am still trying to find my place in the world. I believe the search will end only when I die. But what makes the journey worthwhile is the ongoing struggle to challenge myself in becoming a better human being; to let go of my judgmental, possessive mentality, and to hold myself accountable for my actions before others do.

I am still trying to find my place in the world.

One of my best friends once said to me, “We always fail to self-reflect but we’re so good at pointing fingers.” I couldn’t agree more. I wholeheartedly believe that we cannot change our situation as a local or global community unless we start with taming our inner demons. It can be an extremely tough, painful, long and ugly process, but with it comes the true meaning of life: living both inwardly and outwardly. mgheart

Muslim Girl hopes you found this interview to be inspiring, as Hasnaa continues to inspire us every day.