Samah Hadid, 27
Lives: New York City
Grew up: Sydney, Australia
Nominated by: Rachel Hills
Samah Hadid is an Australian Lebanese human rights advocate living in New York.
She’s a warm, funny and candid woman who loves to tackle serious things. So far, those serious things have included stints at the UN, UNESCO and Global Poverty Project among others. And before you get intimidated (I certainly was), know that Samah is actually not all that different from you and I.
The 27-year-old has faced rejection, felt the weight of other people’s expectations and experienced self-doubt. It’s just that in spite of all of this, she simply keeps speaking up. Even when the world appears to be begging her not to be different, brave or opinionated. She just keeps moving forward.
This is Samah’s story on growing up in an Islamic community in Australia, how to be recognised for your intellect rather than your religious beliefs and what power means for women.
What are the values and the principles that drive you?
Social justice is a big part of my life and where I like to contribute. I’ve seen a lot of discrimination growing up in Australia, I received a lot of racism as part of my own community, but I’ve also seen it with Aboriginal communities in Australia and on a larger level globally.
So for me it’s political, it’s personal and it’s a way that I can give back to society.
Freedom is another thing. Growing up in a very conservative community I didn’t feel like I had a lot of freedom of thought, or freedom as a woman.
I wore the hijab for nearly 12 years but I still upheld the idea that I can be Muslim and have other identities. I wanted the freedom to explore that but I didn’t find it in my community.
Then, when I went to the Middle East for the first time in 2010, I came across the most amazing women. All sorts of feminists. They really challenged a lot of my ideas about being a Muslim woman within Islam and what it really means to have freedom of choice.
Going to the Middle East I realised that my God, there are women that are far more progressive here than women I’ve come across in Australia!
What did they teach you in particular?
Growing up as a woman you can be forced to take on this identity as a religious person and not embrace other parts of your identity. Going to the Middle East I realised that my God, there are women that are far more progressive here than women I’ve come across in Australia! I really admired that.
What was it about the western brand of feminism that didn’t gel with you?
Feminism, in all of its brands and facets, has been unable to take form in Australia because of this really strong patriarchal thinking that is reflected in our media and in our politics.
I also think that the feminism that does emerge tends to be quite white. It alienates a lot of women of colour and women who are from minority backgrounds.
The other thing is that when you do try to speak out as a woman of colour, or a woman from a religiously diverse background, you’re pigeonholed in this one monolithic type of feminism. I was seen as the Muslim feminist and I wasn’t confident with that.
I wanted for people to define me by my thoughts and my intellectualism and my character, but given the politics of today that just doesn’t happen.
I get what you’re saying. I’m interested in you as a spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women but I’m also interested in you as just a go-getting woman who wants to have a positive impact on the world.
Well this is why I took the veil off after 12 years of wearing it. I became the walking hijab [laughs], and that for me was really demeaning because I had so much more to say. I wanted for people to define me by my thoughts and my intellectualism and my character, but given the politics of today that just doesn’t happen.
So what would you say then is the biggest misconception people have about you?
There are a few. One is, yes, that I’m this Muslim feminist. That’s wrong, because my feminism goes beyond just a religious identity.
The other thing is that people see all my successes and think that my life has been without fail. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I have faced a lot of rejection and I’ve failed a lot of times throughout my life. But we don’t often talk about that. When you do fail you feel pressured to keep it to yourself and find resilience by yourself. And that’s really impossible to do!
What are the things you’ve struggled with?
When I was working in the UN, a place that’s seen as this beacon of hope and this lofty institution, I was not comfortable. I’ve had other professional roles too, where I have not really believed in what I was representing. That’s why I made a choice to leave those roles, which were rather senior and great experience for my age. I just did not feel authentic. Now I feel far more comfortable in what I’m doing and I feel like it’s closer to my purpose.
Have you always felt like you’ve had this strong internal compass guiding you?
I feel like I have had that since I was young. Growing up with Islamic values, I think the positive side of that upbringing is that it highlighted the need to be self aware and to practice self awareness every day. To know your intention on a daily basis, but also for that broader life story. It’s really stayed with me along the way.
Do you think that’s where resilience comes from?
I think it is. That is one form of resilience. But I’ve seen another form of resilience throughout my work in the humanitarian field, which is just astonishing. You see people who are afflicted by war and natural disasters and they have this amazing sense of resilience that is based on survival. They are moving forward no matter what. That, I think has influenced me even more so.
I also wanted to talk to you about power. Do you feel powerful? And what do you think makes women feel powerful?
I think there are different forms of power. There’s power that we can exercise as a collective; I really adhere to that. I’ve seen that in the Middle East and I’ve seen it fail but I still believe in that approach. I was there in the Egyptian uprising, I lived through that revolution and I saw the power of individuals coming together as a mass and calling for their rights and their freedoms. I’ve also seen women organise themselves collectively and rise up against sexual violence.
There’s also power on an individual level where you rise up against your doubts and the criticism you may receive. I can say that I’ve lived through that and have empowered myself actually to keep going.
As women we’ve come a long long way with different forms of feminism, but there’s still that dominant patriarchal power that seems to just grow and grow. It seems to have multiple heads! [laughs]. I think that’s where we need to find commonalties within our feminism, that we have strength in numbers and not try to push one form ahead of the other.
Let’s just recognise that women are fighting against different struggles. All forms of that fight are valid.
What is that common ground for you?
It’s in acknowledging that there are different forms of patriarchal power. Let’s just recognise that women are fighting against different struggles. All forms of that fight are valid. We shouldn’t place a hierarchy over feminist causes. There is value in different approaches and we’re all in this together—as simple as that sounds.
I can see that you’re pretty fearless. Is there anything that makes you afraid?
I don’t know [laughs]. I’m laughing because I am—I don’t know if it’s fearless—but I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen a lot of suffering, so when you see that your personal fears kind of dwindle away. I do have fears about the risks that I’m taking and where I could end up if I get arrested or detained as an activist working in really hostile situations. That’s a fear I do have.
Perhaps a better question might be, what do you now know about fear that perhaps you didn’t earlier?
A lot of it is in our heads. We hyper inflate fear and it’s not often based on reality. That’s what I understand. For instance, I had a fear of putting on my hijab. I was really worried about what my parents would say. They didn’t actually want me to put on the hijab to begin with, so there was this fear, because I was quite young, of introducing the idea to them and telling them it’s going to happen.
When I had that conversation with them, yes, it was difficult, yes I faced a lot of backlash, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought. So I think we need to give ourselves a break sometimes. And realise that, okay, there’s healthy fear, and then there’s unhealthy fear where it holds you back as an individual. And that’s what you have to get rid of.
You don’t want anyone to know but it’s so important you reach out to others because you’re not alone in any of your fears.
And it probably then comes back to what you were saying about self awareness. If you can just sit with that fear then you can gauge what kind of fear it is.
Yeah, exactly, and voicing it out loud really helps. That’s part of the fear. You don’t want anyone to know but it’s so important you reach out to others because you’re not alone in any of your fears. There are so many others who are feeling the same thing.
I totally agree with that mismatch between what we’re afraid of internally and the reality. I think a similar thing happens when we think about what we’re capable of. For the most, part I think we’re unable to grasp what we can do.
Exactly, but it is also externally influenced. One of the misconceptions about me is that I am so successful. And I think having that over my head was fuelling a lot of my fears about taking risks. But I’ve really let go of that and I feel so liberated as a result. I don’t have to live up to society’s expectations, whether they’re good or bad. I live up to my own.
Don’t deny that really strong, annoying voice in your head that tells you you are right to speak up.
To wrap up, I wanted to flick back to when you were a kid. What would you tell your younger self if you had the chance?
I recently wrote a letter to myself, actually! [laughs] I was part of this series, Women of Letters, and the theme was a letter to something I’ve lost. I wrote a letter to my sixteen-year-old self, feeling as though I was treated differently to my brothers because I grew up in a very conservative and traditional household. I told myself in that letter to embrace all the experiences. Don’t deny that really strong, annoying voice in your head that tells you you are right to speak up. And don’t be so afraid of being different. Embrace that because that’s what will make you stand out in the end.
That’s brilliant advice for anyone.