Let’s just get this out of the way in the beginning, the best thing about America is not its freedom, it’s Amazon! Last year, I used to often tell my undergraduate students that “America is not a free country; it is just freer than others.”
Two years ago, I came to America in search of personal freedom and a career change. I had received a full ride to the master’s program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at a university in the Midwest. In the beginning, the experience was liberating because not only was I about to start a master’s degree (MA), I was finally free of Cairo’s rampant catcalling, and my parents’ unwavering focus on my whereabouts among other things
I had previously lived in America and certainly knew about its Islamophobia and ungodly preoccupation with race—a colonial, social construct. I did not, I do not, subscribe to America’s racial categories. I am an Egyptian, born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. I am neither black nor white. You want to call me an Arab? That’s fine, too. I came to America to define myself and my life away from Egypt. However, I soon discovered that I was not free to do that. Instead, America was slowly defining myself for me. After all, who am I to exclude myself from racial classifications when I am in the land of the free?
It started with my hair.
During my first semester, I wanted to get my hair cut. A few people told me the safest choice was to go to a black hair salon. I did not think this was an ignorant suggestion. I just thought America was ignorant because those who looked at my hair saw a headband with a short Afro sticking up and thought it was afro-textured hair. My hair has really tight curls, and when it is straightened, it is absolute silk. In addition, good hairdressers in Egypt know how to style and cut all kinds of hair. It was a weird concept for me to go to a salon in order for people of a certain skin color to do my hair.
Someone recommended a black man who worked at a salon near campus. By going, I tacitly agreed with America that I have “black” hair. The hairdresser was utterly and completely incompetent. As he was very slowly blow drying my hair, I could not stop thinking about how his blackness did not qualify him to do my supposedly-black hair. Who said only black people can straighten extremely curly hair? I was sitting there with my hair being turned into a stiff, brown broom and trying my hardest not to cry. This was all because I resembled a certain racial category and was advised to stick to it. Because if I’m not white, I must be black, right? That is the dichotomous rule that underlies American society.
It has been an otherworldly experience to be compartmentalized in America by being reduced to my curly hair and wheat-skin (as we call it in Egypt). It was like being in parallel universe where I had to abide by its illogical, rigid, and discriminatory rules that disregard the diversity of humans lest the system broke down. I risked confusing many: white people would marvel at my non-blackness and simultaneous ownership of Afro-like hair; black people would be offended at my disassociation, because, after all, I’m from Africa.
In my first year at the university, I had an African-American professor who questioned my “Arabness.” “Why do Egyptians say that they’re Arab or from the Middle East?” she asked me once, “Egypt is in Africa.” I had never been asked this question, so I had to explain something that was extremely obvious. I did not think too much of my professor’s question at the time, but I had an epiphany after my masters’ oral exam when she brought up the topic again. My MA committee members (including the professor in question) had approved all the feminist theories I was going to use in my thesis. This theoretical framework was the backbone of the paper; it was what I built my analysis on. During the exam, I was caught off guard, however, because of the professor’s critique of my theoretical framework, which she herself had approved the previous year.
I was so nervous that the entire exam already seems like an interrogation session only to be crowned by my professor’s last question/comment. She held my 15,000 words in her hand, looked straight at me and basically said:
I found something very lacking in your analysis. As I was reading your paper, it jumped out at me that you did not use any African feminists. We (which I later decoded to be African-Americans) have always felt that there is a rejection by Egyptians to be associated with Africa. The section in your paper where you narrate how a taxi driver in Cairo refused to give a woman back her change reminded me of something Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (a Nigerian novelist) mentioned in her Ted Talk. She was in Lagos, Nigeria and when she went out with a male friend and parked her car. The valet asked the man for money automatically assuming it was his car, and he was the one paying. So, there are a lot of similarities between cultures and practices in Egypt and other African nations, I was very surprised you did not use African feminists.
Instead of telling her I would keep that in mind for the future, I nervously jumped at my own defense, without thinking carefully.
I explained (again) that Egypt’s culture is predominately Arab, and that Cairo, which is the location of my research, does not have much African influence. My second reader intervened to save me. She elaborated that she does research in North Africa and can attest that the culture is distinct from the rest of Africa. The critical professor still added that Africa is very diverse, and I should have added an African feminist in my theoretical framework. I then remembered the theory of intersectionality and discussed how it had influenced my work. When my chair started shaking her head again, I realized that this had been the work of an African-American feminist, not an African feminist.
There was awkward silence in the room. Feeling the pressure to defend myself, I mistakenly said “Well, I don’t know any African feminists.” A gasp immediately escaped the mouth of the African-American professor on my left as she turned around to face me. My committee chair had thrown half of her body on the table and dramatically hung her head in shame, and the third professor had dropped her jaw. It was terrifying to watch, even more terrifying to have been the trigger. It was only then I remembered an African feminist we had read in a class my chair had taught. The drama was settled when I saved myself by saying that the reason I may have overlooked relevant works by African feminists was because my thesis was too short to accommodate them.
In retrospect, I thought of the appropriate questions and responses after the incident. What did the professor feel an African feminist would have added to the analysis that was not already there? Her example of Adichie, the Nigeran novelist, is one of patriarchy and ignoring women in the public sphere. That is something I discussed in abundance in the paper that extra sources would not have added value. Also, women in Mumbai, for example, are treated the same way. Why was I not advised to draw on the works of Indian feminists? I also realized that the professor contradicted herself. In my feminist analysis, I drew on the work of numerous feminists, including ones from Morocco and Egypt. If she believed Egypt (and Morocco) are in Africa, would that not make their feminists theorists African? Consequently, I technically did use African feminists, right?
I had been so nervous in the exam and preoccupied with proving that Egypt is part of the Arab world, that I could not deduce what she was actually asking me. She was asking me why I did not use non-Arab, black Africans. Why did I stick to those of Arab culture? The professor, unfortunately, did not have a specific “African” feminist in mind whose work would have transformed my paper. What was lacking in my paper, I wondered? What could an “African” feminist have added to the paper that was not already there? Nothing.
I do not deny my association with Africa as my critiques claimed. However, I identify as Egyptian and Arab more than African. The professor was offended I did not identify as a black African and thought that I should. She was baffled that, in an academic paper about women in Cairo, not a single black, non-Arab African feminist was referenced. Once more, I was forced to adopt an identity with which I do not identify. While the professor did not impose “African-Americanness” on me, she imposed blackness in a broader sense. Americans, it seems, cannot let me be. On the domestic scale, they have a saddening, narrow perception of humans. They cannot but see life in black and white. On the international scale, they have taken it upon themselves (following the steps of U.S. foreign policy) to define people as they see fit.
Honestly, I do not want to choose a color at all, but if I must, I choose gray.