Maha could be a character on “Orange is the New Black,” with her rotten teeth and her life story of abandonment, love and abuse. But Maha served time in a Lebanese prison, not a U.S. one, and she wears a headscarf framing her snow-white skin. I met her a few days after her release from a three-and-a-half-year sentence, last month in Beirut. This story is not about her crimes and imprisonment but about what enabled her to be released from prison and the personal choice she was forced to confront.
In Maha’s case, life has been a series of misfortunes. She was given up for adoption by her biological mother, and her adopted mother died two years later. This left her in an orphanage where she encountered all kinds of abuse. By the time she turned 18, she had escaped from the life that was forced upon her to create a new one. She got herself a job, she rented an apartment and she fell in love. She wanted to create her own safety in a hostile world.
When she left the orphanage, she took on the headscarf, in the belief that this was her Islamic duty. This would make Maha no different from many young women in the region who believe that the headscarf is a mandatory obligation of religion, a concept that has dominated mainstream public perception in the region as of the early 1990s. But as the man she fell in love with was into partying, drinking and drugs, she took off her headscarf and joined him on the party scene. Maha was certainly not the only young woman who took off her headscarf a few years after putting it on. Many young women have made the switch from believing that it is mandatory to seeing it as a tool that allows freedom of movement, giving the impression of piety when that’s advantageous for one reason or another,and being removed as suits the wearer. The decision often reflects the various stages a woman in the region is going through at any given time in her life.
Maha’s story is unique though. Over the years of drinking and drugs, she ended up selling drugs to help pay the bail for her boyfriend, who was involved in drug operations. Within days of her joining in the drug-selling business, the police captured her and she went straight to prison. She was in her early 20s when that happened, and she was shocked upon her arrival in prison. “It is another world. You meet people you never knew existed before. You learn of weird stories and weird behaviors. I was so scared the day I arrived. I knew I had ruined my life and I had to focus to save myself from the prison drama. And two opportunities did indeed help me find my way back to myself and eventually get released from prison.”
One was a job embroidering bags for a local Lebanese company called Sarah’s Bag, which produces beautiful women’s purses reflecting Lebanese and Arab culture. As part of the company’s commitment to social services, it employs women prisoners, giving them a sense of purpose, an opportunity and a new path as they prepare to leave prison. The work was a salvation for Maha, who busied herself day and night by focusing on the embroidery and isolating herself from the social dynamics surrounding her in prison. (I carry a Sarah’s Bag; these days, I try to buy products with meaning and purpose.)
But that is not the end of Maha’s story. Another group showed up while she was in prison—a religious group. Maha was too afraid to name them but she spoke of the things they told her about the torture she would be encountering in hell, how she would be hanged from her hair for days under a burning fire, and how she could repent and spare herself from punishment for all of her sins. All she had to do to repent was to resume wearing the headscarf. Maha was persuaded, since her wearing of the headscarf came with a bonus: the religious group would pay half of her bail payment for an early release from prison.
When I asked Maha whether she embraced the headscarf from her heart or to get the money, she paused and then said, “I am not doing it from my heart. And the things they told me I don’t think I buy. But I am vulnerable at the moment. I needed anybody’s help to get me out of prison so I can get a new chance of rebuilding my life. I had to take the religious group’s offer, and if wearing the headscarf is what it takes, then I shall do it. But if I am to be honest about my belief, no I don’t believe all the things they told me about what God would do to me if I don’t wear it. . . I think God is much more merciful than that.”
Sarah, founder of the bag company, paid the remaining funds for Maha’searly release. But unlike the religious group, her funds were not conditional. She asked nothing of Maha and knew nothing of Maha’s story. All she saw was a vulnerable young woman in prison who needed an opportunity to begin rebuilding her life.
Maha may not be the ideal woman—not in Lebanon and not anywhere else. But she has wrestled with herself to find her own voice, like so many other young women in Lebanon and the wider Middle East who are facing a choice: join an extremist religious group that has many fear-driven mandates over women’s personal lives, or find job opportunities that give them a future without passing judgment and let them forge their own relationships with God.
Every initiative to create a job for a woman in the Middle East will accelerate not just economic change but also political change. The Mahas of the region are vulnerable indeed. What they need are practical solutions for a path forward. And women elsewhere, who enjoy economic and political freedom, and want to do their part to calm tension in the region, can buy bags from Sarah’s Bag, or support other job-creation initiatives in the Middle East. Right now, Maha is trapped between two worlds. But one day she may get to make her own decisions about how to practice her religion — out of sincerity and not fear and a sense of obligation. She can only do that when she has economic agency.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including best selling memoirBetween Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.