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.