Haifa Beseisso, a 25-year-old Palestinian woman, arrives at our meeting in Dubai trailing layers of chiffon, wearing a pink headscarf, matching pants, and a beautiful, flowing blue robe. The clothes are her own designs, part of a statement that she works on every day as a young Muslim woman in a contentious world. For her digital show, Fly with Haifa, on her YouTube channel, she set herself on a mission to promote a new image of Islam. With her style of hijab, her statement earrings that peek out from her head covering and her big rings that contrast with the softness of her clothes, her very appearance prompts debate.
“People think of us as oppressed women” she says, referring to her Palestinian and Muslim identity. “They don’t know that when I graduated from college, my uncle brought me a world map and told me ‘Pick any country you want to see. Your graduation gift is a ticket that will enable you to see all that you want.’ Nothing about this is oppressive.” Haifa ended up going to 30 countries within a few years after her graduation as she taped her performance.
In Italy, she wore a billboard with the words “I am a Muslim,” and left a blank space for anybody to fill it as they wished. At first, no one approached her. But eventually, a mother and a daughter walked up to her and wrote “Bellissimo.”
“At the beginning, I feared people may write negative things. But eventually as more and more people approached me and started writing, I realized it was all beautiful. One man wrote: ‘I am Christian and you are my sister. Human just like me.’”
In London Haifa asked a different question. She wanted to know what they thought of her when they saw her headscarf. One woman wrote that it was “like a gift wrap. it frames your face like picture.” Some wondered why people wear black abaya (a robe that covers their bodies). “Is a woman happy if she covers her face with black?” people asked Haifa, engaging in honest conversations.
To properly address the questions and curiosity, Haifa filmed with some of her friends from different walks of life — mountain climbers, engineers. “I wanted to show the world how Muslim women are living their lives — most of them have a normal life and they do all that they want.”
Haifa says her project was motivated by her desire to counter what she believed to be a misperception: “The image of Islam is so negative these days that even Muslims are afraid of saying they are Muslims.”
But when she traveled to India, Japan, South Korea and America with her headscarf and camera, she witnessed something else. Most people, she says, were positive and curious and “when I engaged with them in conversations about their dreams and share with them my dreams, they opened up and all barriers were gone.”
“Yes, there is racism in the world. But I feel like we both are going through racism and discrimination including amongst us Arabs.”
Haifa talks about how when she first went to Arab networks about her dream to be on TV, she was rejected blatantly because she wears the headscarf. “This discrimination we find in our own countries, you know, and it is very upsetting and sad,” she said.
So as she narrates the stories of her adventures and whatever challenges she may have faced, she acknowledges prejudice as something everyone is going through, not only Muslims in the West. “When I went to the U.S., people used to stop me in the streets just to ask me questions about my culture and religion. So I wanted to go and speak of it using the language of travels … I love adventures, dive in the seas, love wearing colors and having that be the conversation … I can’t just talk about the Quran,” she explains.
She introduces me to Imtiaz, who until recently was a model in Bahrain and is now working with Haifa on her mission. When I ask them how they answer those who talk about violence and terrorism in Islam, Imtiaz jumps in and explains that “for ISIS we are not Muslim. For non-Muslims we are ISIS.”
The majority of Muslims are indeed cornered into one unfair and distorted image of what they are and how they conduct their lives. “At the beginning, we laughed at ISIS and did not take them seriously,” Imtiaz explains. But now, many of the youth are concerned and upset about how the world is depicting them, as Islam’s reputation is tainted by extremist groups.”
Haifa and Imtiaz are among many youths whom I met during my recent trip to Dubai, who are expressing a great frustration at how the world perceives them. “Why can’t anyone think that there is a diversity of views amongst Muslims themselves. After all, we are 1.5 billion people. Don’t you think it is too limiting to think that we all think the same way?” asks Reem, a 27-year-old Iraqi woman.
Haytham, a shy Syrian man says, “Islam is about behavior as the prophet explained in one of his sayings.” He explains, “Each person behaves differently. What you do and how you live your life is ultimately judged by God. It is ultimately about doing good deeds in the world and avoiding bad ones. But ultimately each individual is to behave on their own. You can’t say all Muslims are like this or that. That generalization is not accurate even amongst our own community.”
Haifa continues to fly, sometimes stirring controversy. Her own friends in Dubai have not necessarily approved of her around-the-world adventure, and some have judged her choice to wear the hijab. But on the road, many have welcomed her with an open heart.
“What people need to see is the individual that I am with all my hopes and dreams,” she says. “If we can talk about our dreams together then we can see we are all the same.”
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.