Logo SAVE - Sisters against violent extremism

21. June 2005

Manal Omar ©WwB


Manal Omar © WwB

Manal Omar talking

Iraq - “I cover my head, but not my mind”

Edit Schlaffer in a very personal talk with Manal Omar, Country director of Women for Women International Iraq about her life: how she grew up, why she is covering her head, about her aims, fears and wishes.

Please read some abridgements out of the talk:

I am Palestinian, grew up in the United States and could now even consider myself to be Iraqi. Even though I cover my head and have a more traditional appearance, it is not reflectant of my outlook. I believe this to be an important point to note, since Westerners typically develop assumptions as to the why and how, which therefore requires further clarification. I would describe myself to have been a quite normal American child. I was on the debate team, the basketball team as well as very active in extra curricular activities.
Throughout my teenage and college years I was always involved in various sports. My choice to wear a veil was a conscious one and born from the belief that it was part of my heritage and therefore made a contribution to me as a person.
I always claim that I cover my hair, but I do not cover my mind. I am just as active as anyone else, especially when it comes to making myself heard. The veil does not limit me in terms of expressing and sharing my opinions with other people.
In fact, it was one of the things I really believed in covering. Growing up I was witness to a time in which everything was about fashion and appearance. Subsequently, you were defined by your body type or your bra size, and that is something which I have always absolutely rejected. I wanted people to get to know who I was in terms of my personality.
And so when I started looking into the Hejad, I came to realise that if I cover my head, then men have to get to know me before they can judge me. Inherently I would not be judged by my appearance but rather by what I had to say - which I felt very comfortable with.

Women are just seen as mascots

Ever since I was young I was aware of the different gender roles. I consider myself to have been lucky to grow up in a liberal home. This is something I appreciate even more now that I am working in the Middle East where many girls are forced to cover their faces. I therefore believe the element of choice to be crucial. Whether Saudi Arabia or Iran where women are forced to wear it, or Turkey and France, where they are forced to take it off, it is the element of choice which is not given. Women are very educated in life even if they lack a formal education. The women take on the responsibility in life to take care of the children in all socio-economic levels. They should therefore also have the freedom to make their own decision with regard to the veil. I believe that the great importance given to physical appearance is superficial and frustrating. Whether it is the scarf, or the mini skirt or the dress, everyone immediately looks at the physical, but no one looks at the content. This is reflected when looking at whether women are being paid equally, or whether they have equal access to education - this is the content. So when women in the Middle East it is not about the veil, it shouldn’t be about the veil but that is what it has turned into. We have to be careful, and this is typical of national debates, women become the mascot. As it is visible, whether it is in Morocco or anywhere it always the veil because we are the visible, women are the cultural symbols.
Woman wearing a veil have become the mascot of conservative women. During the Nationalist Movement in Egypt, the first thing that the women did when they walked on stage, was to take of their veils. This was a way of saying: “We are moving on from the traditional and into a modern period”. Nowadays however, particularly in the European and Western cultures, you find people who are saying: “we want both…we want to be able to hold on to our spiritual belief and enter the modern world”.

I personally believe you can do both and it should merely be a matter of choice. I have travelled all over the world, taken many risks many men wouldn’t dare take, but my choice to wear the scarf has not limited me in any way. My mother struggled so hard to give us opportunities and bring us to this new country called America. However, when I decided to wear the scarf she was very angry and felt I was restricting the options that she struggled to make available to me. But then she saw that I did not change and that I still played basketball. I began wearing the Hejad during my junior year and continued to play basketball for 2 more years. Instead of wearing shorts I wore sweatpants.
My coach was a man and a little bit disturbed that I was covered from head to toe, but as long as I still made my shots and played well he was more than happy. In fact in my final year I got an award for “Most Valuable Player”.
This made many people realise that the scarf was not ever going to stop me from achieving my goals – a common misperception that follows the stigma of the veil.

I wanted to understand the world

Ever since I was a child I loved and appreciated international diversity. I grew up in the southern United States in South Carolina. I was very different because I have brown curly hair and brown eyes. Being Palestinian I grew up different from all my classmates. I was brought up very nationalistically and therefore I was always aware of the Palestinian struggle for independence. For me, it was not just news, it was my life. This interest was further enhanced when I joined the debating team to debate about issues relating to International Relations. Instantly I knew I wanted to study International Relations. My parents were a bit concerned, since according to their beliefs a smart child should become a lawyer, engineer or a doctor, but not not enter into Social Siences. That is basically where the less gifted children would go.
After I graduated with honours and my parents were disappointed, since I wanted to pursue a career in International Relations. However, I was keen to get a better understanding of the world. I graduated in 3 years instead of 4 from George Mason, so I felt I had earned a year to travel. I went to the Middle East where I worked as a journalist, in Jordan, Lebanon and in the West Bank. During this time I was recruited by the UN to become a reporter in Iraq under the condition that I left right away. I was hired even though it was unconventional for UN standards to be hired without any prior experience ( I was 21 at the time). Going to Iraq helped laying the foundation for my career in development. It was then when I realised the missing gap – women. I felt so much was being done but the efforts were in vain since they were not joined together. This led me to increasingly focus more upon women.
I began to better understand the importance of women, particularly in development. Since the UN judges people by their level of education and degrees, I realised the need to pursue a Masters, which I subsequently completed in the United States. At that point I was working for an organisation called “International Centre for Research on Women” and later I started working for the World Bank and realised the need to approach women’s issues through economics.

Since June 2003 I am based in Iraq working with WWI. Even though security was a major concern, the women and their eagerness to make a change was very inspiring. I now feel that I am at the point where I will leave Iraq to open up further offices throughout the Middle East. I nevertheless feel that I probably took out from Iraq just as much as I gave.
I am currently country director in Sudan where we are opening up new offices. It is my vision to give women in war a voice that can be heard internationally.

I therefore strongly believe in this women for women approach, women working without borders.

Manal Omar was our guest in the end of May. In a presstalk she talked about the current situation in Iraq and presented "Windows of Opportunity", the current Women for Women International Report on women in Iraq. Read more about it.


« Back to overviewSend a friend Print article