“Never feel that you’re selfish when you’re asking for what you want.”
“Never feel that you’re selfish when you’re asking for what you want.”
Afaf Baltaji, a young lady with grace, smile, and wide-open shiny eyes. A lady, who by 17, made a journey that some don’t achieve in a lifetime. A woman with strong values, big dreams, and a firm mission: „to help girls and women to realize their worth and how to love themselves”. Afaf lives in Tripoli, Lebanon; a beautiful city by the seaside. And though the scenic view might make us believe that she is living the dream of teenagers, Afaf lives in a society where women’s life is darker and more challenging than it should be. From one side, they feel the refreshing sea breeze. While on the other, they live in a society, where poverty line is excessive, where women are struggling for basic human rights and where the culture is so overly male-dominated that women’s voice is quieter than a loud whisper.
Just a few days before our talk, Afaf started her very first online platform. Souls Over Bodies came alive with a mission to help young girls and women to see their worth even if their culture wishes to shadow it. And this is where we met: out there in the virtual reality. For now she shares quotes, poems, and philosophical thoughts to serve her purpose, and that is to raise awareness and to help. It was a treat to talk with this young lady, who believes that we are all here to be no less than happy.
Virag on behalf of MCL: So, tell me how did your idea about Soul Over Bodies and the dream to help others come up?
Afaf Baltaji: This is something that came from my personal experiences and the way my life has been. Seeing how women around me are not being appreciated, heard or respected. Watching them getting through all the struggles and how their life passes by started to bother me. They don’t even realize that they worth more, that they could be happy, or that it could be any different at all. And this unhappiness then goes from generation to generation.
MCL: It’s surprising what you say: if this attitude or view on life passes among generations what made you different? Where was that point when you started to question what you see? When did you begin to feel not OK with all that you’ve been taught?
AB: I got out to the world you know, and I started to realize that things could be different: that I don’t have to be unhappy or disrespected all the time. I saw other people, who were traditionally less involved or who weren’t from my country. So first I thought that maybe it’s simply that some people get a good life, and some just don’t. But then I got to know and discover myself in depth, started to figure out my abilities, my calling and realized that we are all the same. We all have the same rights, and we all deserve to be happy. So I decided that I am not going to let this happen to me. I am going to change this. And by today I know that this is not selfish.
MCL: Do you think your changed view on life is thanks to the fact that – as opposed to previous generations – you speak good English, you have the internet, social media and thus, a whole new world opening up for you?
AB: Yes, absolutely, you’re right. I really do have a social life and not only my family. I have great friends whom I go out with, a very special friend, who is my biggest support and yes, I have the Internet, where I see how life could be.
MCL: Is this kind of struggle of women rooted in the culture of your country or do you feel it’s something personal to you specifically?
AB: No, it’s absolutely cultural. This is the way we are raised: that unfairness is normal, that men have power over women. And you as a woman don’t have the right to speak, to have an opinion or to enjoy freedom. These are part of our culture; I was raised just the same way. But you know what? I realized that women are actually much stronger than men. Men can yell, scream and disrespect you, but this is not power. Power is the women’s strength and sacrifice, patience and care. And this is the type of power that inspires me.
MCL: Let’s talk about inspiration and Souls over Bodies a little bit. It’s very fresh and currently still in its baby form; but how did the name come about?
AB: One of the biggest things I’ve accomplished so far is loving myself. As a kid, life was tough for me. I met people, which made me feel unworthy and made me believe that I wasn’t good enough. So I reached a point when I started hating myself and felt that maybe they are right: I am just not enough. Then came my journey: I started meeting myself and asking why they treat me this way. Now, I know: I am not bad; actually, I am good. Once I arrived at this point, I began to see how girls around me are uncomfortable in their bodies, the way they look and the ways guys treat them. Souls over Bodies is the expression of this journey: your soul is more important than your body. It doesn’t define you how your body looks but rather how your soul is: how kind you’re, how patient you’re.
MCL: You say: “I just love myself.” I must admit that it astonishes me. Many of us never even arrive at this level of self-awareness and self-indulgence. Tell me how did you manage to come to this point?
AB: It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t something that I read in a book or happened overnight. I was 15 and as I said I reached a point when I was too hurt and really at the edge of giving up. Then I started to look into myself and get to know who I really am. It has been an incredible journey for me, and I would like more girls to reach this point: to love themselves and not care about how other people see them. I want them to experience that it’s amazing to be confident with yourself: people start respecting you, and you start thriving for happiness. But some people think it’s a selfish behavior. I think it’s our right.
MCL: How do you think you could help women? What are your plans with Souls Over Bodies?
AB: As I get a little older I would like to meet people who are in a similar situation as I am, personally. They might feel they are in a place where they can’t be who they really want to be. I want them to know that it’s just temporary. But, of course, I know it’s hard when you live it every day. They need courage. And I think it’s crucial to start this with young girls, my age girls. Because if they start adult life without loving and respecting themselves, they would just get into this vicious circle and get more and more disrespect and be OK with it. For now, I have this online account but of course I want to make it bigger, to make it as an excessive project and not only posting photos and getting likes. But I am not yet sure about the path, though. For now, I let life unfold for me.
MCL: What is your message for women out there? What is your message to us?
AB: Never feel that you’re selfish when you’re asking for what you want. You’re worthy, you’re important and the world wouldn’t be the same without you. Never be scared to get out of places where you don’t feel happy. You’re the most important.
MCL: What is your biggest challenge today, at age 17?
AB: Not to have help around me. So often, the struggle is to convince myself to get up and believe that it’s going to be a good day, and things can be different. To hope – that’s challenging.
MCL: Any special person who inspires you?
AB: A TV-show character actually: Brook Davis from One Tree Hill, whose story is very similar to mine. And in the end she made it. I just keep on re-watching it, and it makes me feel: if she can do it, so can I. (She smiles brightly – ed).
MCL: If you could turn back time, what would you change? Would you like to be born somewhere else or would you choose Lebanon again?
AB: I would just ask for the same things again: the same place, the same family, the same culture; to go through the same struggles and all that. I might not like the life around me but as a person I just love myself and this whole ‘being here’ made me achieve this. I’m just so very proud of myself.
MCL: What is happiness for you?
AB: I am not dreaming of big career, money or fame. If I should name my dream, then it’s to be with a man, whom I love and who respects me. Knowing that my children would get a different life, and they don’t have to go through what I had to. Having security with a respectful family: that is happiness for me. Happiness for me is love.
MCL: What are your plans after high school?
AB: I am going to University to study interior design.
MCL: You sound very confident about your choice (another rare thing nowadays among teenagers); why interior design?
AB: I have been drawing since a very young age. I drew whenever I got a chance; I just loved it. I love art, and I always had this sureness in me that I have to do something with art. And that is how interior design arose.
MCL: Do you believe that we all have a calling, or as you called it: sureness? A thing, which it’s not you, who chooses it, but it chooses you?
AB: Yes, I do believe. We all have a calling or perhaps even callings. And for me, these are art and the Souls Over Bodies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Virag was born in Hungary but currently lives in Belgium. A former ballet dancer, who after leaving the stage started to build up her life #2. While being a diplomat and a communication & marketing coordinator, Virag slowly started to give in and listen to her heart. That is when she started to write and gave birth, first, to her own blog, and then to several published articles. She believes in honesty, openness and that women are the strongest creatures on earth. More about Virag…