Student Spotlight: Anwar Mhajne
Words are important. When an individual is given the language to describe themselves, and thus advocate for themselves, the individual is given power. A special power that (if used correctly) is followed by an outpouring of truth. From this truth flows everything.
Anwar Mhajne—Graduate School Dean's Fellow, PhD candidate, podcast-listener, writer and feminist—was denied, for a long time, the proper language to describe herself. Growing up in a conservative Muslim city in Israel, the notions of female empowerment and revolution did not exist for Anwar. "Feminism and critical theory is not taught in Arab schools. I was never introduced to its vocabulary. I didn't have the words to articulate and analyze my experience as a woman."
Studying in Beer-Sheva, Israel
When the time came for college, Anwar moved south to the city of Beer-Sheva, Israel to earn her bachelors in medical laboratory science at Ben-Gurion University. It was there that she was first introduced to the political and progressive—one could even say, dangerous—language that would lead to a deep interest in government and women's rights. This came about by means of an unfortunate but eye-opening scenario: a bombing in Beer-Sheva by the Hamas (a Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist organization).
Anwar was sitting outside with a friend when they heard the sirens. What followed was a large explosion. The ground beneath her feet began to shake. Her college city had become a target amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She fled, physically unhurt, to the bomb shelters with friends. As they sat patiently waiting for the violence to ease, they quietly discussed politics amongst themselves. The bad situation had, somehow, created the tiniest bit of good: a platform for the conversation Anwar had been searching for; an exchange of words regarding human rights. Revelations would follow. "My life has always been affected by the intersectionality of gender, politics, and religion." She would soon choose to alter her path, once again.
Choosing University of Cincinnati
Anwar's undergrad experience in Beer-Sheva included a good friendship with her roommate, a Cincinnati native. "She was there for a few months to learn Hebrew. She and I grew close and when she heard about my interests she suggested I apply to the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at the University of Cincinnati."
She applied and was accepted. "I studied transnational feminism, including Islamic feminisms, and feminist international and comparative politics. Joining the program was a life changing experience because it changed the way I view the world and articulate my experience as a gendered political subject."
Her endeavors were and continue to be a compelling and radically good journey. But that is not to say anything has come easy. "My first year was very difficult in Cincinnati. I had to adjust to the culture, the city, and the system. I had to be fluent in the language, and navigate the intense load of course work and writing academic papers in English." But Anwar, despite the odds stacked against her, prevailed. And prevailed gracefully. After completing her master's in women's studies, she now is in the process of finishing her PhD in political science.
Within her academic triumph she has learned in what ways to give her words the utmost meaning. What proves this, maybe the most, is her dissertation.
Extending from her roots in women's and gender studies into her doctoral undertakings of political science, Anwar's dissertation addresses the marginalization of Islamist women in state-society politics. More specifically, she investigates political opportunity structures and how they shape Islamist women's political participation in Egypt, and in turn how Islamist women's political organizing reshapes the aforementioned political opportunity structures. These women—often referred to as The Muslim Sisterhood—their interactions, and ultimately their resistance movement against Egypt's shifting political situation (specifically between 2010 and 2014) serve as the center of Anwar's dissertation. She even researched their organization extensively on-site and in the flesh—while she couldn't get a visa to Egypt due to the shaky political climate, she visited Turkey last winter to collect interviews with exiled members of the Egyptian Muslim Sisterhood.
Furthermore, her dissertation and research's purpose serves to reveal women's political influence. A political influence that—despite the efforts of certain suppressive forces—extends beyond both the umbrella of the household and informal politics, and into the vast arena of formal politics.
"I want to understand how the role of Muslim women's political and social participation could lead to peace and democracy... I want my research to challenge misconceptions and build bridges between different cultures, communities, and individuals."
The Future, Women's Rights, and Coffee
All that being said, she plans to take her accomplishments even further. Researching and teaching remain two of the things she is most passionate about. "I look forward to designing and working on research projects as well as planning my own courses. My goal is to conduct research that has policy and practical implications. I want to conduct research that will take me back to the Middle East as much as possible."
In the meantime she likes making to-do lists, drinking dark coffee, and is currently reading Leila Ahmad's book, "A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman's Journey". Her favorite passage from the book thus far strangely echoes her own journey for knowledge and progressive change: "And I know now that the point is to look back with insight and without judgment, and I know now that it is of the nature of being in this place, this place of convergence of histories, cultures, ways of thought, that there will always be new ways to understand what we are living through, and that I will never come to a point of rest or of finality in my understanding."
With words comes an outpouring of truth, and from this truth flows everything. We write down our words and in doing so we give them an everlasting power, a compelling voice living in ink and evading the decaying powers of time. Anwar Mhajne found the words best fit to articulate her experience as a woman: Graduate School Dean's Fellow, PhD candidate, feminist, leader, and friend. More so, she found the right words to describe the change she wishes to see in the world.
Follow her journey on Twitter, @mhajneam.
Written by Danniah Daher, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office