Nebila Abdulmelik


I recently sat down with Nebila Abdulmelik, a 25 year old woman who has lived in Harare, but is of Ethiopian heritage. She did her university studies in the United States of America and at the moment she is doing some work with an NGO in Kenya. She shares her views on what it’s like being an African  woman who belongs to the Muslim faith.

 I assume you were born into a Muslim family? If so why have you chosen to stay in the Muslim faith and not converted to another religion?

Yes, I was born into a Muslim family but I have stayed on this spiritual path because I really believe in the principles of Islam. We believe that all people are born Muslim and when someone of another faith becomes a Muslim we call it reverting, not converting, because they are coming back to their original faith. For me Islam is definitely my original faith and I believe in it with all my heart.

To some people the head covering that muslim women wear is considered oppressive. What’s your take on the issue of wearing a head covering?

Actually in my immediate family I’m the only one who still wears a hajib, so when people think a person is forced by their family to do so it isn’t always the case. Shortly after 9/11 my family kept telling me to stop wearing my hajib. I was studying in the USA and the anti-Muslim sentiment was very high. But that made me want to wear it even more because I wanted to stand up for what I believe in. However I do think wearing the hajib is a personal choice and that it should not be enforced. The reason Muslim women wear it is because we are striving for modesty. To some women wearing only skirts or revealing only their faces is modesty. To others only showing their eyes is being modest so they wear the full abaya. For other women modesty can be displayed when interacting with men and lowering one’s gaze whe speaking to a man. Everyone woman has her own interpretation of modesty and I think that every woman who wears a hajib should do it because it’s their own choice. If it’s forced on someone, the whole essence of choosing to be modest is lost.

As a young woman who has chosen abstinence until marriage, your relationships must be quite difficult because the average young person is having sex and you’re not. How do you handle this?

I think that’s probably why I haven’t been in many relationships. Being in a relationship with a guy is a challenge especially in this day and age where being a virgin is considered abnormal and old-fashioned. But the truth of the matter is that I feel good about myself for being able to have the kind of self-discipline that enables me to value my body. I am proud of myself for being able to do what many young people have failed to and I know that I will one day get married to someone who appreciates that strength in me.

How do you feel about the media’s portrayal of the Islamic community? Do you agree with those that say the media actually perpetuates the belief that all Muslims are terrorists?

I definitely think the media is contributing to the stereo-types about terrorism and it really is disappointing to see them continually portraying Muslims as militant, suicide bombers. I think we need to look at the way in which terrorism is defined because it is always viewed as ‘them’ and never us who commit terrorism. What pushes militancy over the edge is the so called counter-terrorism measures which are being carried out, because they are in themselves acts of terrorism. People think terrorism started with the Islamist militants on 9/11, but it didn’t. Terrorism was there before, Sri-Lanka and Japan there was terrorism was happening with Islamic militants involvement. Countless numbers of people lost their lives post 9/11 and they continue to die in airstrikes and the like, but that is never called terrorism. The same applies to the Israeli-Palestinian situation and when a cafe is bombed it’s called terrorism. But when a person’s house is destroyed or when you deny a person of basic services like healthcare, education and even denying them of water it’s never called terrorism. The way in which terrorism is viewed is very narrow and the media is responsible for perpetuating that perception.

Have you ever been discriminated against because of your religion?

Yes I have been discriminated against on several occasions. When I was in the USA one of my professors was evidently treating me differently to a point where I started being given bad grades even when I knew I had done well on an assignment. I eventually spoke to that professor about the problem because the prejudice was really affecting me negatively.

People are always misunderstanding who I am and even here in Harare I get people thinking I am an arab because I am Muslim. My Ethiopian heritage also makes me a target for misidentification. I went to an Open Mic Comedy Night at the Book Cafe a few nights ago and some of the comedians took the mickey out of us. The one guy came up and said “It’s great to have some Indians in the audience…” Then the next comedian came up a few acts later and said “It’s great to have some coloureds in the audience…” I’m just as much African as they are, and when people see my hajib their assume things about me.

How do you think people of different religions can come to a peaceful understanding and appreciation of each other?

I think we need to realize that all religions share the same basic principles and that if you look at the 10 Commandments, they can be found in almost every religion. We may have specific things which we differ on, but we can choose to focus on the common ground that all religions teach. All religions teach people to be more loving, caring and compassionate. All religions teach people to look after their family, neighbours as well as orphans and the underprivileged. If we focus on this common ground, then people of different faiths can learn to live in harmony and co-operation.

As a believer of the Islamic faith how do you feel about the many Islamic Militant groups that are involved in killing innocent people in different parts of the world?

I think it’s really sad that some sick and twisted individuals are using Islam for their personal motives. Killing is such a huge sin and it’s disappointing to see some people using the Quaran to justify such acts of horror. I think if we go back to basics like we said, all these acts of violence have no justification. Islam, like all other religions, teachers about loving your fellow man.