Salma El-Wardany is an inspiring writer, poet, speaker, BBC radio host, and business owner. Half Egyptian, half Irish, and raised with a Pakistani father in England, her heritage is diverse, yet she is incredibly Egyptian at heart. Her work centers around feminism and gender, especially Muslim women and how they change the narratives, and in doing so, their lives. We spoke to her all about women, motherhood, and feminism in Egypt.
As is the case for many of us, Salma has had her fair share of scars. “Perhaps the most notable scars are the ones I got from an abusive relationship I was in,” she says, “he was possessive, jealous, controlling and cruel, and in that relationship, I completely faded away. I think so much of my power and fight comes from these scars.” Seeing how powerful and courageous she is, one cannot help but wonder why such strong women can still fall victims of abuse. “I was loud and fearless and was basically raised by a feminist mother to be a feminist. Yet I still ended up in an abusive relationship,” she tells, “but nothing exists in isolation and often there are other forces at play. For me, it was identity and the desire to belong somewhere.”
Mothers play a fundamental role in shaping their children’s personalities. Their influence in terms of toxic masculinity and supporting the patriarchy is undeniable. “Women are often agents of patriarchy and they, too, contribute to toxic behaviors,” Salma says. “However, I don’t always like to focus on this part, because I think it’s really easy to blame women for everything. The truth is, the bigger problem is men and structural inequality,” she explains.
A strong mother, however, will raise strong daughters, “everything I am is because of the woman that raised me. I know what empowerment looks like because of her, and I learned how to fight for other women because she taught and showed me,” she recalls. It is that power to teach, which makes mothers’ impact on children so essential. “I think that’s how they do it, by showing. By never letting up the fight and always calling out patriarchy around them so their daughters and sons can see them do it and learn from it,” she tells.
As with all great power, there is also great responsibility on mothers. The very identity of their children is dependent on them,
“I think we access identity through lots of people around us, but certain people, like mothers and lovers, have a bigger impact,”
Salma continues, “I catch myself saying things and realize I may be turning into my mother. But when you’re young it’s hard to be emotionally cognizant of those identity pulls. I think a lot of the work of separating identities has to come from mothers themselves.”
Young girls are taught, by not only their mothers but society as a whole, to “be good girls”. And while that might seem harmless, it can stop them from speaking up about abuse, or even worse, rape. “So many things contribute to this, that to say it was just the idea of being a ‘good girl’ would be a disservice,” she explains, “social consequences, lack of financial independence and unsafe environments are also the reasons women are still scared to say anything about their scars. The repercussions of pointing out a scar are often too extreme, so women keep putting the bandages on every morning.”
Working on feminist issues can trigger anyone, especially women. So, it is frustrating when someone like Salma is perceived as “just angry”. “I get that a lot, but to be honest I am angry. It is 2020 and we still haven’t reached any semblance of equality,” she says, “I’ve got loads to communicate outside my anger, but my anger isn’t going anywhere.”
Finally, something that can truly provide protection for women is the law. Sadly, in Egypt, the “woman and child” laws are in desperate need of a major facelift. “So much oppression happens because women are forced to stay in certain situations. And often this is because the legal system doesn’t support them to change their circumstances. We need legislation that supports women and keeps them safe so that they have the option to leave,” Salma concludes.