Palestinian feminist vlogger Layla Hzaineh is a force to be reckoned with. At almost 20 years of age, she is fighting on behalf of Arab women, calling out regressive views and smashing the patriarchy ... one viral video at a time.
Hzaineh has taken to social media to tackle pressing issues facing women in the region, challenging societal norms and patriarchal concepts that are often under-addressed or tabooed, such as sexism, harassment, and domestic violence.
Her videos are viral and have garnered lots of support and attention on social media since she got started.
In an interview with StepFeed, Hzaineh spoke about her journey from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) school to one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, her battle against the patriarchy, her big dreams ... and her love for Mashrou' Leila and belly-dancing!
It all started when Layla decided to call out a sexist Youtuber
Hzaineh kick-started her vlogging project when she came across a video by Jordanian Youtuber Yousef Al-Khateeb, who blatantly suggested that women bring sexual harassment onto themselves through the clothes they wear.
The regressive rhetoric was not news to her, but she just couldn't hold her tongue any longer.
"I was furious because I got sick of hearing the same biased and backward views over and over again and watching them receive so much attention and praise," Hzaineh told StepFeed.
So, she posted a video in response to Al-Khateeb's, knowing that it might "shock most Arab men".
"In my society, men are not used to girls standing up, speaking their minds, and rejecting the misogynistic norms. They are simply not used to being challenged and having their authority questioned and even threatened."
"We teach women to shut up from an early stage, until they believe they don't have the right to speak."
According to Hzaineh, the widely-practiced and commonly-accepted notion of male dominance is one of the most pressing issues Arab women face today.
"Men grow up believing they have the authority to control their sisters, mothers, and wives’ lives just because they are men. This concept of 'agency' has consequences which translate into various forms of oppression in women’s day-to-day lives."
Hzaineh also shed light on internalized misogyny, explaining that the patriarchy runs deep within our societies, to the extent that some Arab women are unaware of their rights and in denial of the oppression they are subjected to, and therefore end up opposing women empowerment movements.
"In many cases, oppression in the Arab world is internalized. We teach women to shut up from an early stage until they believe they don't have the right to speak.
These women were taught that they were born to serve men and be good housewives, nothing more. Internalized oppression is the worst of its kind."
Who is Layla Hzaineh offline?
Hzaineh is pursuing a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies at the prestigious Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
Born and raised in Amman to a lower middle-class Palestinian family, Hzaineh attended an UNRWA school, as the lack of a Jordanian citizenship denied her entry to public schools in Jordan.
She then got enrolled at the King's Academy with "a very generous financial aid".
"I grew up knowing that if I wanted anything I had to work hard for it. My mother, the strongest woman I’ve ever known, has always been determined for me and my siblings to be strong, respected, and well-educated.
At King’s Academy, my aspirations kept growing bigger and bigger by the day, and with the help of my mother, my university counselor, and adviser, I got into one of the most prestigious colleges in the U.S., Swarthmore College."
As for her favorite pastime, Hzaineh enjoys reading and has lately been reading modern Arabic literature, mostly in the context of war. She is also interested in art history and enjoys going to museums. When it comes to music, Hzaineh loves singing along to Mashrou' Leila and pays homage to her Arab roots through belly-dancing every now and then.
This is only the beginning for Layla
When asked about what she aims to accomplish through her work, Hzaineh said, "I am not expecting radical changes to happen. I am aiming to encourage other girls to stand up, and fight for their rights, or at least know their rights."
She also hopes that the messages in her videos reach women across the Arab world, and eventually women outside the region.
As for her future plans, Hzaineh hopes to take her activism beyond social media by hosting live panels that encourage women to share their stories and empower them to seek justice.
Professionally, she plans to pursue a masters degree in International Law and build a career in the field of human rights in the Middle East.
Additionally, she is determined to return to the region after graduating and dedicating her life to the two causes she is most passionate about: women's rights and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
"Hopefully one day I’ll be able to fight for specific cases of human rights abuse, regarding women’s issues in the Middle East and Palestinian families living under the occupation," Hzaineh said.
"Take risks, be strong, and fight on," Layla tells Arab youth.
"Even if we don’t end up seeing any progress, we still have to make our voices heard. This will be a very long fight, and if we’re not siding with those who are fighting for our freedom, then we’re siding for those who are chaining it.
Take the risks, be strong, and fight on! Change doesn’t happen on its own."
Jason Lemon contributed to this post.