Sandcastles and Snowmen: When Personal Stories Become Tools for Support and Education

In her recent book, Sandcastles and Snowmen, Egyptian writer Sahar El-Nadidelivers what she calls “a personal search for spirituality.” By combining her personal stories and experience with the main pillars and teachings of Islam, El-Nadi tries to give her readers a glimpse of her perspective on what Islam is.

Sahar El-Nadi is a writer and an international speaker who focuses on advocating tolerance, integration, inclusion, and respect of diversity. She is the person behind the initiative “Don’t Hate, Educate,” launched in 2006. In Sandcastles and Snowmen, El-Nadi tackles different aspects of Islam, such as its basics (What is Islam? What are the main pillars? What is the ultimate goal of a Muslim?), manners and ethics in Islam, human rights, women’s rights, gender roles and equality, politics and democracy, arts and culture, in addition to many other topics.

There are many parts of the book that touched me in a personal way, especially when El-Nadi talks about women’s rights and gender equality. In this chapter, El-Nadi writes that she believes a woman is a free spirit, and for gender equality to take place,

“women should have a completely free choice to do what makes her happy. Society should be able to support her and respect her choices without pushing her to fit in to a pre-set frame. She should not be pressured to be just like all the others or else lose her self-esteem.”

Having lived a year in the United States, and coming from the Middle East, I have faced several strange looks from people because of my head cover. Sometimes I have had to explain what Islam is because most of the people here believe that it is an extremist religion that supports violence and treats women in a bad way. Such stressful incidents have made me think several times about taking off my headscarf, to just look like everybody else, so that I don’t have to receive the strange looks, or answer weird question. But reading stories Muslim women working against any attempts to undermine their roles and make them look like followers to men, such as El-Nadi’s book, gives me the strength to hold on to what I believe, and step up and act in a brave manner to represent Muslim women in my community.

Last week, I accompanied my 6-year-old son to a scout’s camp in Houston. In one of the games, the boys had to run away from their parents, who had to catch them. I was the only covered lady in the whole camp. The coach asked me specifically whether I would be able to run. I was amazed by the question, and said: “Yes of course, but why are you asking me in particular?” He pointed to my head cover and said: “I thought you as Muslim women cannot run because you are not allowed to do so!”

The answer surprised me because I thought we live in the information age where people know about almost everything in the world, but apparently I was wrong. So, after the game was over, I sat down with the coach and explained to him about Islam and how there are several misconceptions about Muslim women. As I was reading through Sahar El-Nadi’s book, I found a quote that summed up the explanation I gave to the coach. She says:

“I have decided to veil not just for religious reasons, but also for an ethical reason: I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in this world. I did not like how some women misinterpreted the veil. Instead of just criticizing them, I wanted to show a better example. I also wanted to prove that it was nobody’s business what I wore since I was still the same person with the same mind and soul, whether my body wore a veil or a bikini.”

The book talks about many other elements that are important to a Muslim’s everyday life. Some of these aspects are touched upon by the writer from a personal perspective, while others are discussed using references and examples from history. Since the book has a personal touch that El-Nadi tried to add to her writings, I believe it would have been better if she just concentrated on certain aspects of Islam, rather than being so ambitious by talking about Islam and different sectors in our lives, such as science, business and politics. For example, when El-Nadi discusses Politics and Democracy, and especially the part about “Religion’s Role in Public Life in the Middle East,” her discussion only scratches the surface of this issue. Such a big discussion requires books and long essays written about it, and it is unfair to attempt to address it in so few pages. The Middle East is a complicated region that has witnessed long struggles, and seen so much change in the last 100 years, let alone in the last 1500 years.

The same thing applies to the chapter on “Science in the Quran.” El-Nadi gives a brief introduction on how the Quran discusses certain scientific phenomena. Again, I think such a discussion should be more detailed, and does not fit well in the whole context of the book.

In the book’s introduction, Sahar El-Nadi says that “the book is for the global reader to inform and inspire and to help break barriers and encourage communication across divides of race and creed.” I believe that books like this one, and other works by Muslim women speakers such as Yasmin Mogahed, are important for Muslims as well. I think it could give many women a charge of confidence to act according to what they believe in, because at the end of the day, we have different levels of courage and persistence in sticking to our beliefs.

I really wish every woman, and every Muslim woman in particular, could share with the rest of the world their thoughts about the struggle they might be facing because of what they believe in. I think such stories and experiences are one way that we can strengthen each other, and give support to one another. This reminds us that we are not alone in this world, and that there are also other women fighting to prove themselves.


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