When I heard female activists pretty much ran the Arab Spring, I could not help but think that this was not a new phenomenon. Not only have Muslim women been active in the Middle East for generations, but they brought this same legacy with them to the West. However, the mainstream media does not highlight the efforts of these women often.
Ferial Masry earned notoriety as the first Saudi-American female to run for office in the United States in 2003. In this interview she describes how she got her start in the politics, as well as what her experience was like as a mother having a son in the military during the 2003 Iraq war.
You are also a woman who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and yet, you have been a vibrant community activist and political figure in California. To many Americans, this combination seems like a contradiction. Most immediately think of “victims of oppression” when they hear about Saudi woman. Has this ever been an issue for you?
Ferial Masry: I don’t see any contradiction here. I was born in Mecca. My father was a Mu’alim (teacher) and I am of the mutawaf (one who aids foreign pilgrims in the Hajj proceedings). I see people coming from all over the world for the Hajj pilgrimage. That opened my eyes as a little girl. I’d see diversity and devotion in the kingdom of God there. I was brought up embracing the world and that is what my faith taught me.
For me, traveling or going anywhere, I didn’t see anything strange. I only felt that I had reached my humanity. Being an American, I don’t see that it takes away my heritage or background. I feel that everything in my life is a plus – it enriches me. Being a Saudi, from Mecca, from a religious family, I came from a place where history is real. I lived in Europe where culture is important. I feel that it all has become part of my personality.
Can you tell us about your political experiences and what you have learned from them?
FM: I was invited to run for office in 2003. But before that I never thought I’d get into politics because I thought I didn’t have the qualities of a “politician.” What people liked about me was who I really am. They find me sincere and emotional. Everyone thought my story was interesting. [They would say] – “You are not what we expect from politicians – you are real.” So when I went into politics – it was for the principle. It wasn’t about winning.
Also, I was running at time when people were giving up on politics. But I didn’t give into apathy. I ran four times. I wanted to show people that I am ready to run, ready to be defeated – even four times. I told people that you have to stick to your principles.
I remember once I was giving a lecture and I said, “I am from Mecca, Saudi Arabia.” A man said out loud, “Oh my God, you have shattered all my stereotypes.”
And in my last presentation, so many progressives came to me [and said] – “We consider ourselves progressive, and what you talked about is something new to us.” They were shocked. If [they] don’t know, what is to be done about the people who don’t know anything about the Middle East?
Your son, Omar, joined the military and was sent to Iraq. What were the challenges of having a family member involved in a war in a region where you grew up?
FM: My son joined the National Guard in 1997. It’s funny – when he joined, I told him not to because I knew they would send him to war in the Middle East. [Nevertheless], when they asked him to go to Iraq it was a shock for me. I’ll never forget that moment when I told my son, “When you go to Iraq, I want you to be the best American, the best Arab, and the best Muslim, because that is what I taught you. I don’t want you to hurt an Iraqi.”
Then he asked, “What if someone tries to kill me?”
That was the hardest moment of my life. I could not choose between my son and the Iraqi. It paralyzed me, but I was hoping that God would never put my son into that situation. I knew my son was an American, an Arab, a Muslim. And I knew we had a duty to this country. When he went to the army it actually empowered me. When I was in the street, protesting policy, no one could tell me you are a traitor because here I am, a Muslim, and my son is fighting for this country – so you cannot tell me that I am not an American!
Of course, I didn’t agree with the war from the beginning – but it gave me the ability to say that I am an American and I gave the best of what I have to this country.
I know that when he went to Iraq, he was doing good things like educating American soldiers and he came out of it very strong. This war just showed how ignorant America is about the Middle East.
It is our responsibility here as a community to educate our fellow Americans. We are the bridge. We understand this society so we can build that road. That way, hopefully, policy won’t be one-sided, ignorant and naïve.
What motivated you to write the book Running for all the Right Reasons?
FM: I was invited to Saudi Arabia in 2005. I got a call from the Economic Forum and they said that they wanted me to be a speaker, [saying] “We want you to come speak about your experience with American Democracy in Saudi.” The prior year, Bill Clinton had been invited.
Two days after that, I got the invitation. I just couldn’t believe it. I actually didn’t do anything about it because I couldn’t believe it – until the last minute when they called and said – “we are waiting for you!”
When I was over there, a group of Saudi men came up to me and said, “You are a hero. When they announced that you were running, the people in the royal palace were all jumping and shouting.” They couldn’t believe a woman from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, was running for office in the United States.
I was covered by the Saudi media. I was not just a Saudi female candidate; I had issues to speak about. I spoke to a lot of universities as well. The American Embassy in Saudi invited me. I also spoke to the Consulate. They were very proud that I was an American.
Of course, I was trying to introduce America in my book to Saudi society. I said, “Don’t look at the differences – underneath, there is humanity. You will miss it if you look at just the outside.” I wanted to also introduce Saudi society to American society.
You are part of Global Exchange and you recently created the American Middle Eastern Women’s Leadership Coalition (AMEWC) in Southern California. What is the purpose of this organization?
FM: Global Exchange is based in San Francisco. After the Iraq War we demonstrated and we decided to educate people. We have been together for ten years now. Every month we do a presentation at a local library and we invite the public. [The presentations] are either about Islam and the Middle East, government, war, peace or economics.
The AMEWC idea came to me when I was running for office. Unfortunately, our community is not in politics because of baggage from back home. The community comes with perceptions and doesn’t want to get involved. Secondly, they feel they won’t make a difference in this country because they feel, “this country is against us, why waste our time?” When I was running for office, I always got this question – “Where is your community? Why don’t they donate?”
After I ran in the last election, a Republican opponent called and said that I was very talented and he wanted to work with me. He went and spoke to the Speaker of Assembly, who offered me an opportunity. I began to prepare a resume for the Assembly. I kept thinking of that question though – where is your community? I decided to go back to the community and I did not submit the resume.
If only we could get community together to empower people, the culture, the psychological, political, the economic – the issues that affect the next generation. If we organize we can give the best of that culture and communicate. That is why I am starting this organization.
It will be the first organization connecting community to academia. What I see happening is that academia ends up on its own, and becomes cut off from the community. I want to get Middle Eastern academia and community to articulate their community narrative.
What are your thoughts on the Arab Spring?
FM: This is the first revolution where women are making it a family affair. This has never happened in any other revolution. Women and children are dying, asking for freedom and democracy. If it were not for women the revolution would not have been non-violent. They liberated themselves and their societies from dictatorship. As a Muslim and Arab American, I believe we have to play a role in toppling the walls of fear and apathy of our women in the United States, to energize our community, to take its place in contributing in the civic life. The Arab Muslim managed to do so in spite of all the oppression, and we American Muslim women are no less!
Shazia Kamal is an Associate Editor at AltMuslimah.