When it comes to Hend, it’s a fact pretty universally known: once you meet her – online or in person! – you’ll never forget her.
She isn’t your ordinary Twitter user – her sardonic humor and quick wit have made her the go-to account to check out in the wake of social justice issues.
As a Libyan-American writer and artist living in Doha, Qatar, Hend’s writing has appeared on Voices of Africa and her tweets have been featured on Wired, Buzzfeed, Vox, and the Washington Post. She spoke candidly about how her work today is influenced strongly by being boxed in, growing up Muslim, dealing with trolls and her life in the real world.
How do you deal with people who try to fit you into a box on Twitter?
“The best way to break out of a box someone tries to put you in is to demonstrate how untrue that label or characterization is. This is why I use a lot of humor in my social media commentary – it’s the quickest and most entertaining way to upend and upset the well-trodden tropes and stereotypes that are constantly bubbling up to the surface.”
You have a penchant for bringing awareness to serious social justice issues with witty hashtags and conversations on Twitter. How did you first realize you had a knack for that?
“First off, from a cultural standpoint, Libyans generally have a very developed, albeit dark, sense of humor.
I don’t know if this coping mechanism only emerged as a result of decades of dictatorial rule and economic hardship, or if it has been a social attribute well before, but I’m thankful that social engagement was just the norm in my family and community.
Secondly, growing up a Muslim Arab American, the child of an economically struggling foreign university student-turned-political activist and refugee, I have never been anything other than a minority. It’s difficult enough to look different or to have a funny sounding name, but you throw in poverty, and you have a social outcast home run.
The only way I could turn the tide on those overwhelming feelings of awkward inadequacy and dis-empowerment was by acting the opposite of how I felt. Fake it till you make it was a phrase I learned later in life, but I think I had already come to that conclusion on my own.
I have never been anything other than a minority. It’s difficult enough to look different or to have a funny sounding name, but you throw in poverty, and you have a social outcast home run.
As an adult, I realize now that being in that dis-empowered position isn’t the tragedy I felt it was in my youth. Rather, it was a hidden gift, allowing me to develop a natural tendency, if not need, to empathize with anyone who was hurt, or judged, or oppressed. Today, in a far more comfortable life than what I had growing up, I feel it is absolutely my responsibility to shed light on social injustice, to be a voice for those who need it, and to find ways of shedding that light that is humble, equitable, doesn’t dehumanize or place me in a savior position.”
Trolls are a real thing online. What’s your best strategy for dealing and coping with people who vehemently disagree with you?
“First and foremost, you have to really believe with all your heart that your voice is one of a multitude and that no matter what you say or do, there will always be people who do everything from mildly disagreeing with you to wishing a terrible death for you. So when I am attacked by abusive people, I see them through this lens and am able to avoid, for the most part, falling into the trap of victimization.
As an adult, I realize now that being in that dis-empowered position isn’t the tragedy I felt it was in my youth.
Instead, I pounce on the chance to take that person’s words, position, stereotype, and re-present it, on my own terms, to my audience, to say, look. This is what I’m talking about. This is one of the problems we are facing. And this is what we can and should do about it. In this way, I’ve accomplished two things: hopefully spread some awareness, and flipped the power dynamics around, diffusing any negative influence that troll had hoped to inflict.”
Of course, there’s more to life than Twitter. What’s your life offline – and how do you keep things separate (if at all)?
“What is this life offline of which you speak? *waits for laughter to finish*
There will always be people who do everything from mildly disagreeing with you to wishing a terrible death for you.
So while I am truly my authentic self on Twitter, I have other authentic selves that I don’t share online, like my professional career, family, and social life. (Though I can’t help but share the occasional hilarious thing one of my kids say because funny kids are almost as good as cat pics.) I have always worked in the communication field and currently work as a freelance writer.”
What’s your advice for young women like you looking to make ripples when it comes to social justice online?
“First, believe in your cause. Take the time to reevaluate what the issues are to you, what the boundaries are, and why you’ve made the decision to stand for something. Then you always have to make sure you stay humble. You are one person. Maybe you’ll find wild success, maybe your voice will remain a flickering candle in a sea of darkness. Embrace your role, no matter how small.
And last thing? No matter how dark it gets, find the light. There is goodness in all people and in all places and in all situations. Look for the good. This is where humanity lives.”