“Fall to the floor, don’t raise your head” my mother whispered at 3 am one December night after the first few bombs fell over my city. She wanted us to keep our heads down and not make a sound; she didn’t want us to become targets, it seemed as though they would shoot at anything that moved.
In 2001, the second Palestinian Uprising began. I remember being driven home from school, getting on to the main street of the city, and seeing kids not much older than myself go bravely into battle armed with stones aimed against rubber bullets and tanks.
This time it was 4 am, and my mother woke my sister and I up from our sleep to show us to the soldiers who demanded that she wake us. Shortly after, these soldiers locked my family in one of our bedrooms. Over 75 soldiers, 3 tanks, and numerous jeeps took over our property. We were kept in this room for 3 days, with limited food and water – there was additional stress in this situation due to my father’s uncontrolled diabetes.
If you weren’t male, you didn’t matter. Your voice didn’t matter, your opinion didn’t matter, your health didn’t matter, your wellbeing didn’t matter, and you didn’t matter.
Within traditional Arab families and society, females are perceived as property owned by the males in their lives, whether it be their father, brother, husband or even their own sons. In short, within these families, women were essentially born to serve men.
As I child, I realized that I was different than other females around me, I believed that I didn’t belong to anyone but God. This was further emphasized as I began my journey into womanhood; it was a time where my life began to change both biologically and philosophically.
“Oh you can’t talk to them, they are boys, what will people say? Who will want to marry you if you aren’t pure? Don’t you dare do something to shame the family name!”
My God, if I had a dollar for every time I heard one of those lines, I could start my own NGO (something I plan to do)! Back then, all I had to fight with was my voice. I began to speak up and fight for women’s rights. When I transferred to a different high school and entered my first co-ed school, my life changed furthermore. I now faced with questions I hadn’t put much thought into before, beginning with the issue of clothing. I knew if I wore the tight pants and curved button down, I would feel that I was giving in to what men wanted. If I dressed in an oversized uniform, I was portraying the notion that Muslim women did not have the right to dress in a way that expressed their identities and personalities. I was stuck, so I decided to conduct my own form of sociological research. My ‘data’ was both interesting yet predictable. When I wore the over sized clothing, I was perceived as the oppressed Muslim girl in a liberal Quaker school. When I wore the skinny pants and button down, I was perceived as an attractive distraction to boys and not a someone who lived according to their religion.
I learned that it is impossible to dress or live only for ourselves. Ideology, media, family, and schools all influence us and in some cases coerce us into conforming. Looking back now, I see that this was truly the start of my path towards feminism. In my world of Quaker school, Muslim family and Palestinian roots, in addition to the daily Israeli oppression, I slowly began to feel that life was overwhelming. It was around this time my battle with bulimia began, and was intensified as I continued to search for different meanings of self and identity.
In the fall of 2010, I began my first semester at college. At the beginning of my second year, I quickly learned that my new roommate was a pro-Israeli Jewish girl named Liz. Initially, I was worried about this and I took a step back to think of the chances that out of the entire student population at UVA, one of the two Palestinian students would get a chance to room with someone I would have otherwise not met or gotten to know. I slowly comforted my thoughts and worries by thinking of the value an experience could have on my education, my life, and my view on personal and sensitive issues. I wasn’t disappointed. Until then, I had allowed stereotypes and preconceived conceptions cloud my judgment. At first, there was some tension, mainly due to the fact that I perceived myself as the victim of occupation and Liz perceiving “her people” as victims of life. As Liz and I got to know each other, and began to share stories, we began to understand why we couldn’t truly walk in each other’s shoes when it came to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – I had lived through it while she read and learned about it through media outlets. We came to agree that the Palestinian- Israeli conflict had been my life whereas for her, it was a political statement. In a few months, I began to realize that my voice and my stories could bring change, both for me and for others.
Soon after I began to see things this way, I began to speak up about my experience as a Palestinian to almost anyone who was interested. I spoke at events, I had coffee-dates with strangers, and I spoke with my professors. I also began to speak up in situations where I would not have in the past. These proactive steps increased my willingness to share and to care. The family I come from is very “hush-hush”, a culture where no one discusses war, occupation, mental illness (or illness in general), or sex openly, not even with my family members. To speak up was out of the ordinary. I slowly began to use my voice to vocalize my struggles as a Muslim Palestinian female to other students, becoming an activist by telling my story.
“Please ask mom to take you to the ER, Muna, PLEASE” pleaded my sister on the phone after I had taken over 50 pills to try and end my life for the second time. As I spoke to my sister on the phone I began to calculate the value of my life. Do I help people? Maybe. Do I care for people more than I care for myself? Yes. Do people care for me? That one was a hard one to answer but having someone beg me to save my own life gave me hope that maybe the answer might be yes to that one too. I ended up in the ER that night and was then sent to a behavioral center for a few days. My doctors knew I needed to be on a mood stabilizer that eliminated my hypomania, which they believed caused theses depressive episodes. So that is exactly what they did. They kept me for observation for a few days and I began to see the difference in myself. For the first time in a while, I began to clearly see the answers to the questions I had once asked myself. For the first time ever, I began to heal.
In February of 2012, after withdrawing from the University of Virginia for the 2nd time, my parents, my deans, and my sister urged me to see someone to talk to, so I did. I began seeing a therapist and psychiatrist on a regular basis. In the sweet month of March of that same year, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. I sill remember the day my therapist asked me if I thought I was bipolar and I remember answering “do I look crazy to you?” I guess the joke was on me. A few weeks after having this conversation, I began experiencing intense and rapid mood swings. The best was to describe these mood swings is like you are on a bike ride and the weather is nice. You enter a forest and things are great, you can smell something sweet and you want to follow that smell, so you do. You cycle as fast as you can to reach that sweet smell’s origin, but instead you get pulled deeper in the forest and it begins to rain and pour and you notice that you are lost, out of breath and it is getting dark, too dark to see. Living with Bipolar II is a bike ride switching from pretty summer sweet scented weather to cold winter scary dark weather. It is a constant ride. Describing my illness in such a way wasn’t always the case – it is truly something I have come to learn. I found that putting my disorder into words and metaphors helped me better understand my disorder, accept the help I needed, and continue living. It also re-emphasized the ways that stories change lives. It was at this point when I found that I had a passion and a calling.
In May of 2012, I decided to enter the world of blogging. I began with Tumblr then moved to WordPress. I used these to tell my friends and family that I have been dealing with severe depression for the past 2 years and the effects this had on me, academically, mentally, and emotionally. I made a promise to myself to not hold anything back and speak my mind. I was determined to use the most crucial thing I had – my voice – to bring light to the things that are important to me. I wanted to bring change to my life and those around me. So I began to write and almost a year, 350 posts, 3 blogs, and over a total of 80,000 views later, my life has changed 180 degrees.
As I began to write and share my story with over 1300 followers on Facebook, Tumblr, and WordPress, people began to take notice. I began receiving emails from friends and fellow peers explaining to me that they were experiencing something similar, that they had experienced something like this in the past, and to thank me for sharing with them and helping them so the same. I slowly began receiving similar messages from people I did not know. I wrote about life as a Palestinian and shared my stories with the world. I spoke up about issues Muslim women face in the modern world. I shared what it is like to be a liberal feminist at a Southern school and what it was like to live with a mental illness and the ups and downs that came with this. I began to tell others of the other disorders I have dealt with, like eating disorders, and I began to speak up about issues that didn’t directly affect me but I cared for. I began to make the best use of the greatest thing I was ever given, my voice.
The writing helped me heal, and gave me a voice. During this time, I discovered a new way to communicate and one that I love and wish to pursue. I began a photo blog and created themed photo-shoots that represented issues young adults could face in college. I also began a fashion blog for the modern Muslim woman. This all helped me grow as a person. What helps me to continue to grow and heal however are the reactions I have received from my fellow peers and followers. In our world of social media, I believe that my ability to combine text and photographs in a way that can help others heal.
This realization started the night I posted my first post; a fellow UVa student messaged me informing me he was dealing with the same emotions I was and he was very thankful to hear someone speak up about it because he never could. He now had a voice, and he had someone to talk to, and I made a new friend. This past January, after sharing that I was dealing with Bipolar II, I received an anonymous email from a follower to thank me for sharing but to also help her share her story. This follower’s sister took her own life in 2010 and left nothing behind to explain the reasons why. After her sister’s death, this follower was informed that her sister had bipolar II disorder but could find no one to talk to or understand. She went on to inform me that she had dedicated her life to help the mentally ill and was learning how to live with her own diagnosis of bipolar. Below is a line from the message she sent me.
“Every time I receive an email notification that you have posted something I smile because I know you didn’t kill yourself. I wish my sister were as strong as you are. Maybe she would have been alive today receiving e-mails from strangers thanking her.”
It gave me hope on my hopeless days and made me believe that maybe I was helping others cope with their own loss. I shared her story on my blog and Facebook page and the response was overwhelming! People were no longer holding back and they began to email me and inform me of their own personal issues and saw me as a friend and someone to reach out to.
This February, a day after I was released from the behavioral center, a rape victim also contacted me. She was a fellow UVa student who found my blog through Google. She wrote me to thank me for changing how she felt and saving her life through my own strength. Through my blog, she found the strength to tell more and more people about what she had been through. I have come to see what many mean when they say that by helping others we help ourselves.
I have lived through many battles in my life but I have emerged stronger and more tolerant and understanding of others and myself. I now have the creativity and drive to seek a place that will nurture my talents. I believe that my future will be filled with greater light and a greater sense of awareness of the talents I have to offer. I think the stories I will get a chance to share about life will be inspirational, artistic, and above all, life affirming. I hope that you feel the same.