Nadia Oweidat: Freedom Begins With One Idea

"I grew up in tribal Jordan, ever since I was a child I loved reading. I think maybe science will one day discover there's a gene and I have a huge mutation of it or something because having access to other ideas, different worlds, really fueled my sense of curiosity and made me want to live a full life, a way more full life than what I had access to as a woman in a Muslim community, a girl whose value is not really seen beyond basically becoming a wife one day, cooking and cleaning and having children."

Dr. Nadia Oweidat was a Class of 2017 Smith Richardson Fellow at New America. She holds a Doctorate in Philosophy in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford. In addition, Nadia holds a BA from the University of Jordan in English Literature and an MA from the University of Wyoming in International Studies. She is one of 25 international students to be awarded the prestigious Weidenfeld Leadership Program scholarship, Dr. Oweidat was also chosen in 2014 by the American Italian Council to participate in its Young Leaders Conference in Italy. She is currently working on a book on social media and positive change among Arabic speakers. Her doctoral research focused on the challenges facing liberal Muslim intellectuals who attempt to update Islamic thought and bridge the gap between modern values such as secularism and women’s rights and Islam. Prior to her doctoral studies, Dr. Oweidat worked as a Research Associate at the RAND Corporation where she led several research projects. In 2007, she initiated and co-led a research effort to look into works by Arabic-speakers that counter violence and extremism, including fiction, non-fiction, cartoons and film that advance values of tolerance, pluralism and the ability to deal with ambiguity without violence. Dr. Oweidat also initiated and led an analysis of the grassroots Egyptian reform movement Kefaya. In addition, she has conducted research on Islamic extremism and counter-terrorism strategies, the ideological evolution of al-Qaeda, Salafi jihadi networks, jihadi strategies in Iraq, Iranian ascendancy in the Arab world, and radicalization of Muslim youth.

She has appeared on various Arabic and English networks including BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera Arabic, Al-Arabiya, BBC Arabic, France 24, National Public Radio, and now including Wyoming Public Radio!

Thank you for your time, Nadia. You have an amazing story!

Nadia Oweidat (00:00):

I knew there's a different world out there from the books I used to read as a child. My parents, try to discourage me, try to stop me from having these ideas, but try all they might, you cannot stop a young mind from being curious. And after two years of a lot of family struggle, I basically was allowed to go to university because they did not want me to go to university. In fact, every school grade year was a struggle because my father thought even primary education is too much for a woman.

Emy DiGrappa (00:35):

Hello. My name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why? We learn about passion purpose and the human experience, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is What's Your Why?

Emy DiGrappa (01:07):

Today, we are talking to Nadia Oweidat. She is an assistant professor at Kansas State University, a senior Middle East fellow at New America. She holds a PhD in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, and a master's from the University of Wyoming. Welcome Nadia.

Nadia Oweidat (01:27):

Thank you for having me.

Emy DiGrappa (01:29):

And I want to start out because I find your journey to the United States so amazing, and just an important part of your story. So why don't we just start there and talk about your personal journey from your country of Jordan?

Nadia Oweidat (01:43):

Sure. So I grew up in tribal Jordan, ever since I was a child I loved reading. I think maybe science will one day discover there's a gene and I have a huge mutation of it or something because having access to other ideas, different worlds, really fueled my sense of curiosity and made me want to live a full life, a way more full life than what I had access to as a woman in a Muslim community, a girl whose value is not really seen beyond basically becoming a wife one day, cooking and cleaning and having children.

Nadia Oweidat (02:25):

There was not really any recognition that as a female I may want to self-actualize in different ways, intellectually or artistically, that aspect is, honestly growing up was entirely absent from my culture, but I knew there's a different world out there from the books I used to read as a child. My parents try to discourage me, try to stop me from having these ideas, but try all they might, you cannot stop a young mind from being curious. And after two years of a lot of family struggle, I basically was allowed to go to university because they did not want me to go to university. In fact, every school grade year was a struggle because my father thought even primary education is too much for a woman.

Emy DiGrappa (03:15):

So then what exactly, because you knew you wanted to do something more with your life, and you felt like you were being stunted in your growth in a sense, but you just had so much more of a dream for your life. So what was your journey from leaving Jordan and coming to the US?

Nadia Oweidat (03:38):

I've always felt that my life is a gift for me, it's not for my family, it's not for my culture, and if truly God wanted me to be their slave and just do what they want me to do, completely self negating any desires of my own, and completely negating any curiosity, I thought if truly, if the divine wanted that for me, it would have brought me with a remote control so they can control me easier because even I couldn't control my passion for life, for knowledge, for science, for getting to know the world. When I went to the University of Jordan, I did a lot of things that were unheard of. I've never even met since then a woman who's done what I did. I became very quickly financially independent. I created my own job. I was very entrepreneurial. I even rented an apartment, a two bedroom apartment, and again, it took a lot of determination and persistence and to leave home.

Nadia Oweidat (04:40):

But I remember my apartment was 150 JDs, but I rented each room to foreign women, 400 JD. So I basically lived for free. And I was very, very wanting to have my life be my own instead of somebody else's, and being in the university, teaching foreigners Arabic, I get to meet a lot of, and I still have a lot of these friendships, they're still in my life even after 20 years. So I was able to be in an environment that cultivated that and enabled me to have access, again, to a people from all over the world. My best friends were from England, one from Italy, one from Ireland. And again, these people are still in my life, still enrich my life, we're still in touch.

Nadia Oweidat (05:21):

So why did I choose to fight so much, to be free, to be educated? Because I looked at the alternative and it wasn't a life I wanted to live. In fact I thought, what a waste of a life, because all women do is just sit at home. They cannot follow their curiosity, their passions, and it should be honestly a crime to prevent a human being from living the life that they believe they're called to live. But a lot of people fear, I don't know why I didn't fear. I honestly decided that I want to live the life I want, or die trying. So if they killed me because I'm too defiant, fine, death is much better than being essentially under house arrest my entire life. That is not a life I wanted to live.

Nadia Oweidat (06:10):

I saw my mom living it, I saw my aunts living it, I saw my cousins. They were not happy. They were very ditter about their lot. They accepted it because they believed in the system. I didn't believe in the system for a split second. I had access to the world through the fiction I was reading, world literature. So I knew there's a world out there where people play by different rules. And I wanted to be part of that world where I am in charge of my life. I decide if I want to be educated or not. I decide if I want to travel or not. I decide what topic I study. So yeah, knowing the alternative is unacceptable, I had no way to go except forward.

Emy DiGrappa (06:56):

And so you were actually studying at a university?

Nadia Oweidat (07:00):

I was, at the University of Jordan. Correct.

Emy DiGrappa (07:02):

And then what put you in touch with Wyoming? Why Wyoming?

Nadia Oweidat (07:07):

So a couple of things. One is, I studied English literature at the University of Jordan, and I remember, I didn't know much about America except what I was reading in my books, but I've never traveled out of Jordan at the time, but I remember for example, reading Declaration of Independence, and I was so touched by the sentence, "The right to pursue happiness." I wanted that right, to pursue happiness. I may or may not get there, but I wanted that right. I believed I have the right to have that pursuit. So since I was a first grader, literally I was bumped up a whole grade because I knew how to read and write early. And I figured out in my mind, I don't know why I did that or where I get idea from, but I figured out that I'm going to get my PhD early too, I'm way behind schedule. But there was not a woman in my 1 million member tribe who actually had a PhD.

Nadia Oweidat (08:01):

So I don't know why I had that idea. The only thing I can think of is that basically my uncle had a PhD and he went on to hold very important positions in the Jordanian government, including secretary of youth. He was secretary three times, and he's a member of the upper house of parliament. So maybe, in my mind, I didn't know yet that as a female I don't have the right to have the same dreams. So I wanted to do my PhD ever since I was a child, and to be highly educated, and I loved books, I loved learning. So it was very much my passion. And Wyoming, honestly, it was a huge coincidence or a blessing, or I don't know, life sometimes has a lot of things we cannot explain, but I had other opportunities that were coming my way, like one in England with the British Council, others elsewhere America.

Nadia Oweidat (08:55):

But I honestly, I had a very dear friend at the University of Wyoming, one of my students, maybe my first love you can say, and he introduced me to the University of Wyoming. I get in touch with the professors and the professors and I hit it off immediately. We had such intellectual chemistry. And the head of the international studies department was Dr. Garth Massey, he was phenomenal mentor to me. And professor Marianne Kamp taught Middle East history and Islam. And again, she's a phenomenal mentor and I'm actually writing my first academic book, I'm finishing my first academic book, and I'm dedicating it to my academic mentors, and one of them is professor Marianne Kamp.

Nadia Oweidat (09:41):

She has since left the University of Wyoming to go to Indiana State University. But when I was there, she really was a phenomenal professor, spent hours and hours with me and engaging with debates and really indulged my curiosity. And now I'm a professor and my instinct is right, she went way beyond the call of duty in how much dedication she really gave me. And I believe in the importance of saying thank you to those who really go out of their way for you.

Emy DiGrappa (10:12):

And so this book you're writing, what is it about?

Nadia Oweidat (10:16):

My book is about the obstacles to reforming Islamic thought basically, it's a very academic book and there's a lot of attempts to reform Islamic thought, and I'm looking at the challenges to such reform efforts. I also started another book, which I hopefully will resume working on in September, in the fall, looking at the role of the digital space. Again, bringing ideas of liberalism, ideas of human rights and maybe the universal declaration of human rights, and I really believe in the universality of these rights, and I want to draw attention to those in my culture who are still there, who really believe in that as well, and who are making efforts to root that in the Middle East, because as we know, the Middle East right now is full of violence, full of instability because the ideas being circulated, tyrannical ideas, ideas of political Islam that are very destabilizing to the region and we need different set out ideas that do not allow for tyranny, do not allow for oppression.

Emy DiGrappa (11:28):

And so how does your passion for obviously studying the values taking place in the Arabic world? How do you see the radicalization of Muslim youth as part of that?

Nadia Oweidat (11:43):

There's a lot of investment in radical ideas. There are a lot of schools spreading hate and misogyny, and extremist versions of Islam. There's phenomenal investment. This is how you get tens of thousands of people from around the world, no matter where they are, but they are exposed to certain set of ideas, and they're nurtured to really follow these set of ideas, but if we the only focus on what's wrong, that's what we're going to be focusing on. What's wrong. How is it wrong? And what I know experientially is that the solution is also in part in the Middle East. There are people who are trying to counter these ideas with practically no funding. A lot of them truly have passion only to fuel their efforts, and some have very, very modest budgets. And yet the impact they're having is amazing in fact, and I believe they are the future.

Nadia Oweidat (12:40):

If we want a better future in the Middle East, if we want more stability, less refugees leaving, then we definitely need to invest in the solution, not just in the problem. And this is where I'm coming at it from is that let's pay attention to the solution. There's a lot of books about ISIS, about terrorism, about extremism, about political Islam, but how many books are there about the solution, about the people who are trying to root liberal ideas, practically none, there's really very, very few attention, effort and research that is directed to those who are doing good.

Emy DiGrappa (13:15):

What is really stands out in your mind when you came to the US in terms of the media and how the Americans view the Muslim countries and their culture, and what do you think is right and wrong about that?

Nadia Oweidat (13:31):

Of course, like a lot of people all around the world, I consumed American media. I know I believed in a lot of American values before I ever stepped to in America, before I ever met a westerner. So in a way there's a lot of us who are global citizens, no matter where we're born, no matter where we grew up, we're global citizens because we engaged with a lot of American ideas and we love them. We want to live by them. And regarding the impression of the media, or the American people, I had the good fortune of living in various places in the US, including most recently in Kansas, I'm currently in Washington DC.

Nadia Oweidat (14:12):

I think there's a lot of fear because you see all the violence and instability, and this is legitimate, there absolutely is violence and instability, but I find that a lot of people once they get to know you at the human level, and get to meet people from the Middle East at the human level, especially if there's shared values already, that they're really open, they're really curious, so that all the media reports that scare people, they don't scare them enough, most people, I think, they don't scare them enough that they wouldn't even contemplate talking to somebody from the Middle East, because they look different.

Nadia Oweidat (14:52):

Of course we hear about the most extreme cases, but I know experientially that the US is one of the most tolerant places on earth. It's a place of immigrants. It is studied in Europe as an example of successful integration, but sometimes if you hear the media you think there's a lot of violence against immigrants, and I think a lot of it is exaggerated honestly. I talk to a lot of fellow immigrants and many of us lived elsewhere, like in Europe, and in our regions of birth, and we marvel often at how open the US is. And I think there's not enough attention, again, to what is actually working most of the time, and too much highlighting of what is not working.

Emy DiGrappa (15:39):

And I really am curious because as a woman coming to this country, and of course this year was the celebration of Wyoming being the first State to give women the right to vote. Right? And in this country women feel like they have a long ways to go before they have equal pay as a man, for example, how does that compare with what you've experienced?

Nadia Oweidat (16:07):

Honestly, when I hear that, and I sometimes hear it from my students, Oh, we are more oppressed than anywhere else, I'm like, I don't know, because I have seen oppression and trust me, it looks nothing like this. We do have some ways to go, but we can work within the system. We can push. We have rights that most women around the world cannot even begin to fathom honestly. So, their perspective is only American and European, but the Western world is a small percentage of the rest of the world, and the rest of the world doesn't have these freedoms, not intellectually, not politically, not that I'm aware of. There's not a Muslim country, on earth, that has more human rights or women's rights than America, or even outside the Muslim world, China, Africa, Russia.

Nadia Oweidat (17:03):

We have, in America, more rights and in the Western world in general, than the rest of the world. And again, we can push for more and we are, and it's wonderful that a lot of people are constantly wanting to right wrongs in history, like slavery, but let's keep our eyes on the prize, that we are actually making things better decade after decade hopefully, each one of us can strive to be part of the solution, to make a difference, the system allows us even if it's walking very small steps with, I don't know if I could honestly speak for the African-American community for the discrimination they feel, because I can't even imagine, because I am not an African-American person. So it's wonderful that there are people pushing for equality, for more equality, more justice, more egalitarian. And that's wonderful.

Emy DiGrappa (18:05):

How do you think social media has maybe helped, or even hurt, the Islamic perspective on the world?

Nadia Oweidat (18:14):

I think it's both. It's a platform and you can find whatever you want. You can find things that are alarmist. You can find things that give you help. So social media is a phenomenon medium. And my second book is essentially on how to use that medium for more good, more stability, less violence. So it works both ways.

Emy DiGrappa (18:39):

Do you think there is censorship on social media for new ideas and new thoughts that you want to put out there?

Nadia Oweidat (18:47):

In the Middle East, absolutely. And again, one of the things I hope to achieve in my book is to really sound the alarm to American companies that are cooperating with tyrannical regimes, like the Saudi regime and other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, to impose suffocating censorship that is essentially used to silence the most brilliant minds in the region, the ones who want to spread values of tolerance and nonviolence, and perhaps a lot of American firms they don't recognize, tech firms, how helping these regimes is actually not just hurting civil rights activists, but it's hurting the whole world because they're essentially helping more unrest, more refugees, by not allowing the educators, the people who want to have better Middle East to have a voice.

Emy DiGrappa (19:43):

When is the last time you went home to Jordan to visit your family?

Nadia Oweidat (19:48):

Three years ago.

Emy DiGrappa (19:49):

Three years ago. And what was it like for you?

Nadia Oweidat (19:53):

So Jordan is one of the most liberal countries, and most stable countries in the region, thank God, and the Royal family of Jordan have way more tolerance, way better management of Jordan than honestly a lot of countries around us that have a lot of resources, Jordan has millions and millions of refugees, and yet the country is running. Can you imagine having 5 million people as refugees in America? Even a country with phenomenal resources would struggle. So for a small country with no resources, it's really amazing how this country is still running because it has, so according to Freedom House, Tunisia followed afterwards by Jordan are among the most liberal in the Middle East. So we don't have like in Egypt, like in Syria, we don't have the record of grotesque torturing of dissidents, Jordan is a lot more humane. So I am blessed to be from a country that has more humane way of treating its citizens for sure.

Emy DiGrappa (21:03):

And what do you talk to your family about when you go home? Do they recognize all the work that you're doing?

Nadia Oweidat (21:09):

No. The topic is food mostly. Jordanian food is honestly the most amazing in my opinion, in the world. It's Mediterranean food, very healthy, very good, but we don't talk politics, no. Absolutely not.

Emy DiGrappa (21:22):

Absolutely not.

Nadia Oweidat (21:23):

No.

Emy DiGrappa (21:25):

You just go home to love your family and then [crosstalk 00:21:28].

Nadia Oweidat (21:29):

Absolutely. And enjoy the best food ever.

Emy DiGrappa (21:32):

Well, that is good to hear, that you value that relationship so much that you're not going to jeopardize it by having a discussion about something you believe that maybe they don't believe.

Nadia Oweidat (21:43):

Absolutely. Absolutely. Sometimes, when people are curious, they ask questions, but if people are determined, they know what they know and they know with certainty is the right thing for them, then you just got to respect that and move on.

Emy DiGrappa (22:00):

What do you think about our US politics, Nadia?

Nadia Oweidat (22:05):

Again, being from a region, in general, where a lot of the dictators, they want everybody to be the same. That's not a good thing. Diversity is healthy. We are innately different. Every single one of us has a different fingerprint. It is an impossibility that all of us will think the same, be the same. So we need to accept that diversity and difference of opinion is the fact that we can be different. We can be Democrats and Republicans and whatever the next thing is, that actually is really healthy. And I really love that a lot of the alarmist reports that, Oh, there'll be civil war. None of it came to pass, that really restored my faith in democracy. But when people say, Oh, we're not united, what is unity? Under the call of unity, fascist and Nazi Germany, they basically massacred entire segments of their people because they were different. So we should be grateful. We are allowed to be different. The other's diversity means also that we can be different.

Emy DiGrappa (23:08):

I really appreciate your perspective on that, and possibly we could all take a lesson from that on just how do we talk to each other? And even if we don't think exactly the same way, how can we become open and tolerant.

Nadia Oweidat (23:24):

Yeah. Traveling gives you a perspective. I really wish, one dream that I have in the future, to have something like a guest house in Jordan where I can bring my students, my friends from all around the world to go spend whatever time they want in Jordan. And to get a feel for a different cultures, so they get to appreciate their own and have a perspective.

Emy DiGrappa (23:49):

What language is spoken in Jordan?

Nadia Oweidat (23:51):

Arabic, but a lot of people also speak English, because we watch, again, a lot of American TV.

Emy DiGrappa (23:57):

So did you speak English before you moved to [crosstalk 00:24:00].

Nadia Oweidat (24:01):

Oh, I did. I taught English at the University of Jordan before. Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa (24:06):

That is amazing.

Nadia Oweidat (24:07):

Yeah. I taught myself from TV, again, Oh my goodness, I love Friends. Yeah. I love the American TV. Oh my goodness. I actually would not watch anything else when I was even a teenager. I just refused to watch any of the local drama, anything. I just really was, nope, that's not my world. My world is that world.

Emy DiGrappa (24:28):

That's funny you mentioned Friends because I too grew up watching friends.

Nadia Oweidat (24:33):

Isn't it awesome. I want to watch it again to see as an adult in the US, what I would think about it, I honestly want to do that.

Emy DiGrappa (24:40):

Well, what are you working on right now besides your book? Tell me about the New America and what they do, and how you are involved in making change through that organization.

Nadia Oweidat (24:54):

New America is one of the most, in my opinion, phenomenal think tanks, which is why I love being associated with it. It's an incubator of ideas. If you are somebody who have a cutting edge idea, they basically support you to write your book, to make your film, to make your documentary. So it's an incubator of great ideas and they have research on every topic you can think about, from the Wars in the Middle East, to China, to cybersecurity, to American lobbying system, to women being overwhelmed in today's system, there's a book, I think it's called Overwhelmed, her office, the author, was next to me at New America. Basically it's a place where ideas that supports ideas coming to the wider community about every subject under the sun, literally. So it's a phenomenal place.

Emy DiGrappa (25:53):

Well, I think when I read about it, I was like, wow, what a perfect place for someone like you, who really is exploring all that's new and different and wants to make change in radical Islam thinking, and you're right, ideas are things.

Nadia Oweidat (26:11):

Yeah, they matter. They absolutely matter. What ideas you hold matter a lot, makes a huge difference. Nazi Germany, Nazism is an idea that led essentially to tens of millions being killed. So we need to pay attention to what ideas are actually being championed, are being supported or not.

Emy DiGrappa (26:31):

Just to end, I want to say thank you so much because you have such an interesting life and I want you to tell us what you want when you work with students, and when you think about the future, what do you want people to know more than anything about your life story?

Nadia Oweidat (26:51):

Oh wow. People can listen to my life story from my YouTube channel. I'm easily googleable, and they can decide what they like more about it or not. But what I really wish that it would do is inspire them to own their power and make a good difference in the world. A lot of people think, Oh, what can I do? You can do a lot, even a little thing matters. So I hope they can not take for granted the freedom that they have, and actually do something good with it.

Emy DiGrappa (27:21):

Well, what you just said was really powerful, not take for granted the freedom that they have. That's a really powerful thing to say. And thanks for talking to me today, Nadia.

Nadia Oweidat (27:30):

My pleasure.

Emy DiGrappa (27:39):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more go to thinkwhy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.