Woman ‘In the City’: Finding Yourself in a Sea of Strangers

Sat across from my very-unapologetically-himself friend, I listened, wide-eyed, as he told me why he likes things a little (read: a lot) rough in the bedroom.

“I’m a control freak every other minute of my day,” he’d said with a flick of his wrist as he ashed his cigarette on the floor of the fancy Greek restaurant we were dining in, “acting all helpless and obedient in the darker hours is my escape from my badass, controlling self.”

In a much, much more PG way, that’s exactly why I’m the biggest fiend of 80’s and 90’s Rom-Coms. You know, the ones with the disheveled, sad, quiet girl who gets snatched out of her despair by [insert: Richard Gere/Hugh Grant/Rob Lowe]. Seriously, plop me down in front of Pretty in Pink, Bridget Jones’ Diary or Pretty Woman, and I’ll happily tune the world out for 2 hours (with the help of a lot of ugly-yet-therapeutic sobbing). But the one thing I learned through all the laughter and tears of watching those movies for the better half of my life? Do not be anything like the women in those movies.

From a very young age, I knew that succumbing to the rules and barriers set around me just because of the way my chromosomes were formed in my mother’s womb was utter bullshit. I owe this mentality to the owner of said womb herself, who showed me how to carry the world on your shoulders and still walk like a ballerina. So waiting for Prince Charming to get me out of my sorrow was a big no-no in my book.

…That said, it really can be difficult to figure out the way to own your individuality when there is SO much pressure, inspiration, noise (on and offline), and expectations placed upon your shoulders. Whether it’s the way you’re supposed to look, the way you’re supposed to act, the age you’re supposed to be married and settled down at (for an Egyptian like me, this trumps every other expectation), or the career path you should follow. This is true to every person alive on this truly loud universe, but more so for all the women. We are, without a doubt, subjected to an immense amount of scrutiny from everyone around us, even (unfortunately) from our fellow females. 

I remember being on a mini-holiday three years ago with friends-of-friends who knew as much about me as I did about them (first names, if even that), when one of the girls looked at me and mused: “you are such a hippy, Lara.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. I wasn’t sure whether that was said as a backhanded compliment, or a straight insult. I wasn’t sure why I was wedged into a template that I knew didn’t fit me. I smiled and said thanks anyway, questioning whether I should have ditched the flowy blue dress I had put on that day and the camera I held in my hand for a more conventional pair of denim shorts and an iPhone.


Identity has always been something I struggled with, and part of it had to do with how I refused to grow like ivy stuck to the wall of safety. Comments like that used to feel like a big fat nail in the tyre of my momentum, halting my progress through life and leaving me pondering “who AM I?!” for a good day or two.

I won’t lie and say I’ve found some miracle cure and transformed myself into an empowered sunflower with a big middle finger stuck up to all the #haters. I do still get very affected by all the opinions and expectations around me, and lie awake questioning whether life would have been so much easier if I had succumbed to the most prevalent, and most commonly accepted, template of being a woman.

I often have conversations about this with my sister Lama, who always says we’re stuck in an abyss between Western and Arab mentalities. We want the conventional in a non-conventional way. We want independence and monogamy, simultaneously. We want freedom, but on our terms. And man oh man, is it HARD to navigate.

It is also a blessing in disguise. The things that make us uncomfortable are, more often than not, the things that make us stand out- in a good way. Think back to high school. Think of the things that made you feel weird; the things that you felt needed to be hidden deep down in the alcoves of your suppressed personality traits. Do they stand out now? Are you proud of them?

I absolutely despised my skin colour. I hated my Arabic dialect, so different to all my other non-Egyptian schoolmates’ Arabic. I hid my writings in my journal and swore that no one would ever see them. I wrote a book, published it online, and used a pseudonym so that none of the other pupils could find it and read it and see how soppy and romantic I was. I watered down my faith. I hid, I suppressed, I erased pieces of myself.

Years later, my work mentor/friend told me how, as you grow older, you learn that the only way to live life to its full potential is to give less f***s. And let me tell you, if there is one thing he is right about, it’s precisely that.

It’s so easy to allow yourself to be brushed with the same hue as everyone else. It’s even easier to struggle and panic and cry and slam doors on your way to finding out exactly who you are. It’s also encouraged. The path to self-discovery is never, ever one devoid of self-doubt. If anything, the former can’t happen without the latter.

Allow the feeling of discomfort in your chest to guide you past your limits and the limits of society, the city streets, and the murmurs from your aunts over “when in the world” you’ll settle down and have kids already.

You don’t need to go out and plot to abolish the patriarchy in one day either (unless you really want to!) Own the little things. Own your dialect, your accent, your freckles, your purposeful walk, your sisters-not-twins eyebrows.

Then move on to slightly bigger things: own your hobbies, your interests, your choice in podcasts, films and TV shows. Own your fashion sense. Own your all-black outfits and don’t let them tell you to wear rainbows.

Then, when you’re ready, go out and own your voice, your identity, your aura; own every word you say and only be apologetic when you bump into someone on the street or accidentally cut in line at the supermarket. Do NOT be apologetic for speaking your opinion; for standing up to the people and things and purposes you believe in; for being you.

Who knows, maybe, one day, we’ll all be sunflowers with perpetual middle fingers held up to the haters. 

. This post is part of the Coffeee and Chaos ‘In the City’ series about life, love, and everything in between. Check it out here!

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