There are few things Omnia Hegazy is afraid to say — or, for that matter, sing. The half-Egyptian, half-Italian 26-year-old grew up questioning the suppression of women in the Muslim world — first across the dinner table from her dad, and now as a rock singer-songwriter onstage. A self-described "band geek" and outspoken feminist, she studied music production and business at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts before independently releasing her first EP in 2011.
Titled The Jailbird, it dove headfirst into Islamic cultural norms surrounding female modesty, with lyrics like "Cover your face before you poison all our souls." Two years later she released a second EP, Judgment Day, which began with a song about a girl forced to give up her dreams of going to medical school for an arranged marriage. Much of her work, including that piece, is based on people she knows.
While an occasional hate email arrives, she says the media's compulsory focus on vitriolic responses from the Muslim world is misleading. The vast majority of Muslim listeners have praised her work. At one show, a fully covered woman with nothing but her eyes showing approached Omnia and said, "Thank you for saying that; I always thought that, but I could never say it."
Reinforcing acceptance in the Muslim world is important to Omnia. "I've had so much support from Muslim organizations and Arab organizations," she says. "Even if they don't always agree with me, they've supported me. That says a lot." Now working on a new project with her twin sister that's not political, she's ready to move past challenging religious norms. But on Muslim Women's Day, I talked to Omnia about her start in the music world, the meaning of modesty, and why belonging is overrated.
Abby Haglage: You grew up in New York City with an Egyptian father and an Italian mother. What was that experience like?
Omnia Hegazy: There's always a mixed child syndrome of "Oh, do I belong here? Do I belong there?" You don't quite fit in with the full-blooded Egyptians, a more conservative culture. But we don't have an Italian last name, so we weren't really treated as Italian, you know? You're just in the middle. Because of that, I gave up on the idea of ever fitting in because it wasn't going to happen. It was like, "Well, I guess you have to be your own person now because you're not really going to belong anywhere." Eventually, I embraced that. I used to dread standing out, but then as a performer I started to see it as powerful.
AH: When did you first realize your love for music?
OH: I was really young — there are videos of me at age two singing nursery rhymes! My sister and I grew up in the New York City public-school system, and my parents weren't musical, so that's where we were exposed to music. I played clarinet in fourth-grade band and then violin — I was a band geek. I don't think I ever really would have become a musician had it not been for New York City public schools. I think that's a pretty amazing thing.
AH: Agreed. So your music sort of fearlessly covers taboo topics in the Muslim world, like the treatment of women. I read that you first started writing about this after visiting Egypt with your dad.
OH: Yeah, I grew up in an Egyptian mosque, so I experienced inequality — women were separated from the men and our space was smaller. Then when I went to Egypt it was all the things I experienced in the mosque but intensified. That led to the feeling of "I need to write about this." A lot of people didn't like it. They said, "Why are you airing our dirty laundry? We should discuss these problems among ourselves instead of talking about them in front of Americans." But I was just really expressing myself.
AH: It's interesting that you chose to express that by combining a typical rock sound with a Middle Eastern one. Was that intentional?
OH: Yeah, I took a few lessons in Arabic music theory because I hit a wall with Western music and because of all the themes that I wanted to address. The album kind of happened [through] the actual study of Arabic music. I thought, Let's combine Middle Eastern music with Western music, and let's talk about some things that really piss me off.
AH: You can feel that in your music, this feeling that women aren't able to express themselves. I like that particular lyric in "Grace": "I'm not an object but a woman. Don't you see it would do some good to learn the way to talk to me?" Do you think that a lack of dialogue is part of the problem?
OH: Oh yeah. In the Islamic community, there's a lot of gender segregation. There's a neighbor that we have upstairs in our apartment in Egypt that just won't even look at me because I'm a woman. He won't even look at me! There's a verse in the Quran that says you're supposed to lower your gaze rather than stare rudely at a woman. You could interpret it as a [somewhat] feminist verse because it's about male self-control. People [with literal interpretations of the Quran] take this to mean that a guy is not ever supposed to look at a woman. I think that's absurd. How are you ever going to hear me if you won't look at me? That made me really angry. I'd be in the room with him and be invisible. It was maddening. You think this is respectful, but it's actually disrespectful because you're completely disregarding me because I'm female. If you can't look at someone, how are you going to talk to them?
AH: Very true. Along those same lines, in a video for the Moral Courage Channel, you said that at the height of Islam it was "diversity of opinions." Do you think that's been lost?
OH: I think at one point in time, when my father left Egypt, it was the point of view that hijabs or headscarves and covering the body was a choice. It's interesting now because of the influence of Saudi Arabia in the region. Saudi Arabia has spent a lot of money supporting certain ideologies that we know as Wahhabism, and with that comes a conservatism that has really spread across the whole region. The choice to wear hijab has become not a choice to wear a hijab. It's become, "Oh, this is something you eventually just have to do," and I disagree with that.
AH: So you think that's a different interpretation of Islamic teachings?
OH: Well, when I read the Quran for myself, I didn't see anywhere that said that you must wear this by the time you reach this age or that you must wear it at all, actually. The hijab is mentioned eight times in the Quran, and it's not in reference to wearing a veil. That's more of [a] cultural [thing], I believe. I don't think that it's mandatory — I believe that quite strongly. A lot of women who I really respect will disagree with me, but that's just my interpretation of it. I read the Quran and it's supposedly God's word — and it's pretty specific. "You should do this, you should do that." If it wanted you to do that, I feel like it would have said it, you know? That's not mentioned.
AH: What do you find problematic about that ideology?
OH: I don't really agree with this idea that the more of my body that I cover, the more holy I am. A lot of people make it so, and I just don't agree with that. I think that modesty can mean a lot of different things. To me it means humility. Islam, at least the religion, deals a lot with socioeconomic status and saying that just because you're rich, you're not better than a poor person. To me, modesty could mean that, you know? No one is better than another person because of race, because of gender, because of class. [What makes you a better person is] how you treat people, your deeds. To me, that's what modesty is. It's about humility.
There's a lot of women and Muslim girls who will totally disagree with me. A lot of women feel that wearing the hijab is basically separating themselves from the male gaze. "I'm freeing myself from the male gaze." If that liberates them, good for them — I have nothing to say about what a woman wears. I'm not telling anyone not to wear it, I just want my choice to be respected as well. You have your agency, I have mine. Whatever liberates you liberates all of us. That's how I feel.
AH: So what projects do you have coming up now?
OH: I'm in a band with my twin sister now, and we're trying not to be defined by [religion]. I'm just trying to get back to the music. My previous records, I was all acoustic with a guitar, like folk almost, and now I'm doing electric guitar and trying to shred and do the rock thing — you know, soul-rock-pop thing. I'm just trying to be a musician again because that's how it started and that's what I want to do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Abby Haglage is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Glamour, Marie Claire, and Elle UK.