Beneath the veil

G. Willow Wilson traveled from B.U. to Cairo, and created a new Muslim life

(Kenneth Wilson )
By Lisa Wangsness
June 20, 2010

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In 2001, G. Willow Wilson was a sophomore at Boston University, a budding history major, and a comic book fan who wrote music reviews for the Weekly Dig.

A year after graduation, she was living in Cairo, a convert to Islam, preparing to marry an Egyptian man and adapting to a culture with drastically different values from the one she was raised in.

What took Wilson from a Comm. Ave. dorm to a flat in a working-class neighborhood in Cairo? And what was it like, as an American raised in a liberal secular family, to start seeing the world from within traditional Islam’s rules and norms?

She documents her unusual experience in all its complexity and joy in a new memoir, “The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam.”

The transition wasn’t easy. When she first arrived in Cairo, already privately committed to Islam, but isolated in one of the world’s most crowded cities, she and her American roommate were subsisting on cheese and olives, baffled as to how to buy food without American-style supermarkets. She got to know her future husband, Omar, a Cairo native and fellow teacher, when he offered to show them around. He soon became their cultural translator and close friend.

The book vividly recounts her struggle with the sexual harassment she experienced on the street, the suspicion of some of her neighbors, and the deep frustration many Egyptians feel toward the United States. But she also discovered generosity and warmth in unexpected places, and a new identity as a person bridging two worlds.

Ideas spoke with Wilson from her home in Seattle, where she now lives with her husband, Omar, who works for a nongovernmental organization that helps refugees.

IDEAS: Like a lot of people, you underwent almost a period of religion shopping in college. What drew you to Islam?

WILSON: I knew I was a monotheist-monotheist. Islam had a lot of the things I liked about Judaism, in terms of the indivisible God who is one and whole, and “does not beget and is not begotten”...but it was an evangelical religion....[W]hat also appealed to me is that to become a Muslim is sort of a deal between you and God. You don’t need to be witnessed [by] any particular priest; there’s no ceremony you have to go through; there is no test.

IDEAS: You told Omar you were in love with him when you had only known each other for a matter of weeks. At the same time, you revealed that you were a Muslim. Do you think he believed you when you said that?

WILSON: I never met anyone who didn’t. That’s not something you say lightly — you’d have to be crazy to joke about that at this time in history, as a Westerner.

IDEAS: You lived in Tura, a working-class district of Cairo. What did you discover about the so-called Arab street that you wouldn’t have known from books?

WILSON: One thing I learned [is] that there is no such thing as the “Arab street” — things are so different depending on class, location....There are extremists, religious extremists, who have very specific religious issues with us, and they try to prey upon the insecurities and fears of ordinary people and say, “You should be looking at this through a religious lens, in terms of Muslims vs. non-Muslims.” But the original frustration has nothing to do with religion, it’s a cultural and economic and political frustration that’s being exploited by religious extremists.

IDEAS: You came to appreciate the fundamentalist idea that beautiful things — women’s bodies, Mecca — ought to be hidden from view. But you were relentlessly harassed by men on the street. How do those attitudes square?

WILSON: There’s a misunderstanding in the West — people think that because harassment is bad and fundamentalism is bad, that fundamentalism and harassment must be somehow connected...but in fact they’re not. One of the big draws of the fundamentalists to me is they’re so polite, especially to women....In Cairo there is so much political oppression, and there are huge economic disparities between rich and poor, there’s so much social injustice. This creates a huge amount of frustration, and people act out — I think the harassment of women is an outgrowth of that. But it’s absolutely anti-Islamic to treat women that way.

IDEAS: Shortly after your engagement to Omar, you decided to begin wearing a head scarf. What did that mean to you?

WILSON: I wanted to do something to honor my marriage and make that relationship...different from all my other relationships. That’s something the head scarf, in a symbolic way, is meant to do in Arabic culture, it defines your relationship to your husband and the men of your family differently than your relationship to the average guy on the street you’ve never met.

IDEAS: What was his reaction?

WILSON: He was surprised. He never pressured had never come up between us. But he was very happy and touched that this was something I would bring up on my own.

IDEAS: One of the first head scarves you bought was red.

WILSON: I wanted to be able to express myself within the parameters of this symbol I’d chosen....I didn’t limit myself to what we think of here as this stereotypical black, drab [color]. The great thing about Cairo is the vast majority of women wear some kind of head scarf, but they are also very fashion-conscious. They love bright colors.

IDEAS: You wrote an essay for The New York Times that drew some criticism for seeming to glorify the “women’s car” in the Cairo subway, where men are not allowed. What were you trying to say?

WILSON: These spaces that we don’t understand in the West, that we explicitly condemn, that we don’t want to have anything to do with, that we feel superior to , are not empty spaces...people have experiences there [and] relationships there. They laugh, they cry, they go about their daily lives. There is not nothing going on in these women-only spaces in the Middle East. There are conversations and personalities.

IDEAS: When you and Omar started living together, you were freelancing and spent a lot of time keeping house. Was there a tension there because it was a choice for you, and for a lot of women those menial jobs are not a choice?

WILSON: For most women these jobs are not a choice. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t at the end of the day, even if they are a high-powered CEO, come home and pick clothes off the floor and put them in the washing machine. I think we [in the West] like to pretend that these jobs are less vital than they are....In Egypt, they’re appreciated.

IDEAS: Did you ever argue about chores?

WILSON: Yeah, we did what every couple does — “I’m not going to take out the trash, I refuse! It’s your job.”...Relationships between married people have a lot more similarities across the world than they do differences.

IDEAS: You are also a comic book writer — are you possibly the only white American Muslim woman in comics?

WILSON: For sure.

Lisa Wangsness is a Globe reporter. She can be reached at