Arwa Abousamra is a Saudi Arabian-born Palestinian. She spent most of her childhood in Saudi Arabia and the United States before permanently migrating to Australia with her family in 1989. Arwa published her first book in 2011, an autobiography titled Tea with Arwa. After recently completing her Masters degree in Interpreting and Translation at the University of Western Sydney, Arwa now works as an Arabic Interpreter in the medical and legal disciplines. She is also highly involved in schools delivering sessions to students on belonging and volunteers as a scripture teacher. Arwa was married to ex-Bulldogs player Hazem El Masri and they have three children, Lamya, Zayd and Serene.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a Saudi Arabian-born Palestinian, the third child of a family of seven. I spent most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia and partly in the United States. My family first migrated to Australia in 1985 and after a short trip back to Saudi Arabia we arrived in Sydney for the second time in 1989, and have been here since then. I became an Australian citizen in 1990. I completed my HSC and continued a tertiary education at the University of Western Sydney, completing a Bachelor of Arts major in English literature. I was married to NRL legend Hazem El Masri and we are proud parents of three children, Lamya, Zayd and Serene. Our public profile allowed us to be supporters of many charities and community-based activities such as the White Ribbon Foundation, Camp Quality and Youth Off the Streets and the McGrath Foundation.
I have been described by people who know me well as an ‘old soul’ and I find that humbling. I tend to agree with it because I am definitely a spiritual and religious person. I also look for knowledge from other people’s experiences in life and I am in constant thought about the world we live in and the hereafter.
What motivated you to write your first book Tea with Arwa?
I wanted to share my Australian experience with other Australians. For me it was also an extension of that famous Arabian hospitality, which is deeply rooted in my family life. I felt that if people were allowed in and welcomed into my life, they would better understand how a Muslim lives in Australia and how being Muslim and being Australian are a comfortable fit and that Islam is a part of every aspect of my life.
The book is the story of my life and my family and how it is we came to call Australia home. I tried to make it accessible to the reader by sharing foods and dishes that are directly linked to poignant moments in my life — celebrations and some that have religious significance. Cooking and eating these dishes reminds me of these moments which I believe so many people experience. I also believe that eating the foods of another country is a personal act of diplomacy and eating is one of the universal things all humans do so through it we relate to one another. And through that we realise just how similar we are.
You now have a very public profile and have become an influential role model. What are the challenges and rewards of this?
I don’t see myself as an influential role model but rather as a proud Muslim woman and I know many of them here in Australia. The public profile is a lot more pressure than people realise. It means that without you putting your hand up for the job you now represent a large group of people that is so diverse within its own community. What I try to do is be me and with that I make a commitment to Allah to practise my Islamic faith to the best of my ability and hope that people identify with me and see how similar we are. The challenges that come with that are many but the rewards are heart warming; to look into the eyes of a stranger and see a deep respect is priceless.
I’m extremely proud of being a representative and a voice for Islam and will never shy away from being identified as a proud Muslim Australian woman.
When did you first put on the headscarf and what does that mean to you?
I decided to put my veil on in the year 2000. The veil to me is an extension of my being; I can’t imagine myself without it. It’s an expression of my modesty and I find it liberating. To me it was a religious and feminist decision. It is my right to decide how much people get to see of me not anyone else’s. One of the challenges was to try and show people that wearing the veil doesn’t mean that you stop functioning like a normal person. It doesn’t stop you from living life; you live life while respecting Islamic guidelines. It was challenging seeing people look at me differently, more so in a hostile way or assuming that I didn’t speak English. It seems to have become offensive these days to be visibly religious due to the negative images we see of people of any faith in some of the media outlets, and I think that makes a big difference. On the other hand there seems to be a magnetism for people who are genuinely curious about your faith, and they can identify you easily and ask questions.
Islam is most definitely a feminist religion contrary to what is misrepresented in some of the media. The respect and importance communicated in the Qur’an about women and their rights is overwhelming. There is an entire chapter in the Qur’an titled ‘Women’ but not one that is titled ‘Men’. Men and women are equal in Islam; there are unique rights and obligations for each but it is your takwa (your consciousness of Allah) that puts you ahead of another, not your gender. There have been many Muslim women who are pioneers in the history of Islam. This history tells of the many women who were a vital part of Islam, some who fought alongside the men in battle, some who advised and others with their bravery helped Islam’s continuance over the centuries.
I believe the true nature of Islam is peace, kindness and justice, and most importantly to submit and worship one God, Allah. My faith is the foundation to life, and the Qur’an is the manual that guides every Muslim in this life. Without it I am lost. Therefore my belief and commitment to Islam will never waver.
Can you tell us about the outfits you wore to the Pride of Australia Awards and the Dally M Awards in 2009 and the impact they had in the media?
My main concern when choosing an outfit is that I am doing my Islamic dress justice and nothing else. It was far more important to me to be comfortable and within my religion than to be fashionable. I like styles that are elegant and respect a woman’s body rather than exposing it – timeless designs that appear simple but are rather the most complicated in their making. I don’t wear anything I don’t own so borrowing an expensive dress that I can’t afford, or would never spend that much on, is something I would never do. I believe that the media were more interested in seeing what I was going to wear, rather than in me! And I think they might have been surprised that you can still look beautiful showing less skin.