Iman Omar | Friday, August 24, 2018
This summer, I participated in the study of the United States Institutes program focused on global women’s leadership at Saint Mary’s. Through this program, I got to live and work alongside women from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Kurdistan.
Going in, I was extremely excited to meet and interact with these women to learn more about their backgrounds and countries. Over the course of six weeks, we shared languages, food, dance moves and stories. Learning from and listening to these women I was both inspired and humbled by their struggles as young, dedicated women living amidst war and autocratic regimes. Not only did it put into perspective my own various privileges, but it also opened my eyes to the importance of dialogue and solidarity between people from different cultural and religious backgrounds.
As a Muslim woman of color from South Africa, I struggled a lot with identity and spirituality while being away from home. At Saint Mary’s, I was self-consciously a ‘minority,’ and so I always avoided the topics of religion and politics on campus and never wanted to stand out as much as I already did. Engaging in these conversations and debates with women who come from countries where laws prevent them from talking about these topics and where some of them cannot even express their identity as women fully and freely made me realize that I have no excuse to be silent and willingly ignorant about the world around me. What I found when engaging in these discussions was that, although we disagreed on certain things, being able to actively listen and grapple with another person’s point of view allowed me to open myself up to accepting differences, not only in others, but in myself.
In South Africa, we have a saying that has become our motto post-apartheid: “ubuntu.” Ubuntu is the concept of “I am because you are.” Upon reflection, this saying is very beautiful and, frankly, one of those inspirational quotes you’d find on Pinterest, but what does it actually mean? To me, ubuntu means sharing; it means listening, engaging, respectfully disagreeing and fundamentally uniting. Ultimately, Ubuntu is embracing the difference you bring to the world and connecting to the differences of others around you.
In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” This summer pushed me to embrace my own difference in the world and to truly share my opinion with others even if it may be controversial or taboo in certain spaces. Living and working alongside women who are truly dedicated to uplifting their communities despite enormous challenges inspired me to share how I see, experience, feel and live in this world. It made me realize that to truly work toward a better world means to open myself up to the differences of others, as well as to embrace the differences that I bring to the world. For we can truly only be human together.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.