At first sight, Dena Mekawi’s Instagram message to our magazine would have passed as one of a bunch we get now and then, and they would normally go into the editorial cycle to decide whether or not the story would fit in with one of our monthly themes. But the Egyptian name, along with the impressive titles associated to it caught my attention, and I thought of taking another look before passing on the message.
“Dena Mekawi,” I googled; and the first result was a website under the name of “Style and Resilience,” along with a bio of the founder, Mekawi, who “used her experience of self-discovery as an Arab American to work collectively with private sector and mainstream media to diversify voices in underrepresented communities” using her media and lifestyle website to achieve inclusivity within mainstream media. The website also carried a series of videos featuring Mekawi standing behind a UN podium, hosted on TV shows, sitting at UN discussion tables, and even featured as a Miss Arab US contestant.
“My name is Dena Mekawi. I am an Egyptian first-generation American. Growing up in America, I have always felt like I had an identity crisis. I was always ashamed of telling my peers my nationality and my religion due to the stereotyping that existed, so I lied and told people that I was Italian. But I went home and realized that I was trying to hide from my identity. I had self-esteem issues that stemmed from the bullying and the desire to achieve ideal beauty standards. This is why I spend my career [as a] self-esteem educator,” Mekawi introduced herself in the first video, as she moderated the UN International Day of Peace in 2016.
I found myself relating to her from the very first moment: She is Egyptian, accomplished, and more importantly, she looks strong; the kind of strong I have always wished I could become.
A social entrepreneur, Miss Arab US contestant, UN representative, the thought that jumped to my mind after a little stalking was: “A success story in the making.” Needless to say, I rushed to answer her message and schedule the interview.
Controlling the narrative
From the struggle for identity to the power of rejection, Mekawi’s challenging path has inspired her mission to advocate for women’s rights and empowerment and to be a voice of Arab and Muslim women struggling with social misconceptions in Egypt and abroad.
I am an “advocate for women empowerment … I use my voice and experiences to break barriers of what it means to be a Muslim woman, especially living in America,” Mekawi, 27, says. “I have used everything I have gone through from mental health issues to depression to be the voice of not just Arabs, but all those who feel underrepresented.”
Mekawi narrates how her parents came from Egypt to America on their honeymoon and decided to settle in that very different society, full of cultural differences and identity challenges for their later-to-come boy and girl. Mekawi and her brother became first-generation Americans destined to juggle the social and cultural contradictions, as well as the struggle to fit in, physically and ideologically, as Arabs in a western society.
“I think the struggle for me was not feeling like I belonged in America, because as a first generation, there is always that barrier of trying to conform to the American lifestyle versus what your family back home was taught … Also, being ashamed after 9/11 of being Muslim and Arab,” Mekawi explains. “As a first-generation American, you are seen here as an Arab and when you go to Egypt, you are seen as an American,” she says with a laugh, as she recalls her upbringing. She says there was also the challenge of navigating cultural differences with her dad, societal expectations versus what she really wanted, and body and appearance issues. “I was always curvier than my peers,” she recounts.
Even little things like going to junior prom would have ignited a tense family situation due to the constant battle between the moral code her family grew up understanding and the lifestyle she was exposed to as a teen. “It was a struggle … I felt alone because there wasn’t any girl going through a similar situation or a role model to talk to or relate to and discuss various issues with,” Mekawi recalls.
“Yes I am Egyptian, but I am also Italian,” she would tell everyone to escape from the challenge to fit in as an Arab in a western society. She then finally had a breakthrough when a group of girls from different ethnicities decided to celebrate their cultural diversity through different acts, dances, and so on in a high school international festival. Mekawi, of course, took part with the belly dancing team, celebrating all-Egyptian heritage.
“The power of storytelling and learning that there are other people like you was very helpful … it was a moment for me where I started developing confidence and really understanding where I am as a person … And my journey started from there,” she tells us with much confidence.
Strong and determined, Mekawi took her identity struggle and turned it into a mission. Her different, yet beautiful, curvy body that at one point dragged her into a depression ended up shaping her career, as she is set to advocate for more realistic and representative media images. The longing she had for a role model has inspired her to lend a helping hand to any Arab or Muslim girl who might be going through the same battle.
Not at all “a pageant girl type,” she laughs, Mekawi’s first step was running for Miss Arab USA in 2013, with the purpose of “empowering and representing Arab women.” Although she didn’t win, she came back more confident and proud of her uniqueness. She now uses her voice to “empower women on a global level,” as the NGO youth representative to the United Nations, representing The Women’s National Book Association.
Working in the fashion industry, writing for Oprah magazine for a while, then acquiring her master’s degree in digital publishing, Mekawi also experienced first hand the selective and exclusive media field, which was another breakthrough that inspired her to take action. In response, she founded her media company Style and Resilience two-and-a-half years ago to create her own narrative, as she puts it.
“I was working a lot with models and people who looked one way and I was always that curvy Arab girl … I knew I wanted to see myself in magazines and in media,” she says. “When I couldn’t see that, I created my own platform and my own lane to give voices, diversity and realistic images,” Mekawi says. She also wanted to provide a platform where young ladies get to learn about stories like hers growing up, to know that other girls like Mariam, whose story is shared on the website, couldn’t go to the prom because her dad wouldn’t let her. “Growing up, [if I learned about stories like that], it would have empowered me,” she adds.
Working with celebrities and non-profit collaborations, using art, sports, fashion and music, the company aims to “strategically implement unique marketing messages to influence society, but also make sure that every race and ethnicity is really represented in mainstream media,” Mekawi explains.
A message of solidarity When asked about her biggest accomplishment so far, Mekawi first said it was becoming a representative to the UN. However, she quickly retreated and said, “it is the feeling of using my accomplishments to serve other people.”
Although still young and early on her path, Mekawi has been doing all she can to “use her voice to empower,” and call on young people in Egypt and the Arab world to uncover the power of their own voices.
As she has made sure to disseminate her story and struggle of growing up as a Muslim girl in the US, Mekawi is sending an explicit message for any girl there to seek her advice and relate to her, filling a gap that she had longed for someone to fill growing up.
She is already getting messages from girls in Egypt and abroad, asking her advice and guidance as they struggle with their identities in different ways and contexts. “One of the things I relay to girls is that they are worthy, regardless of what decisions they make,” Mekawi says.
“One girl messaged me from Egypt. She was wearing the hijab and did not want to wear it … She was struggling with what society wants you to be like versus what you want to be like at the moment. I walked her through, made sure her life was not in danger if she took any decisions and used my voice to give [her] the perspective not to be afraid to express [herself],” Mekawi narrates. She proudly recalls how she gave another girl resources about social initiatives, and “she messaged [her] later, telling [her] she founded one of the first UN model chapters in her high school.”
Having adopted an even broader mission to engage youth and millenials to become socially conscious and create a positive impact through fashion and arts, Style and Resilience also succeeded in organizing one of the first sustainable fashion events at the UN headquarters in New York on November 16, 2017. “Using Fashion as a Vehicle for Change,” was the event’s motto.
“We [only] had designers [who were] ethical and sustainable, from using organic material to their transparency and manufacturing,” Mekawi says. “The briefing highlighted some of the harms of fashion industry, how to become a circular economy and how to encourage more designers to be more ethical and conscious.”
Mekawi is also growing up as a symbol of power, representing our strength and accomplishments as Arab women through different platforms.
She was invited to moderate the UN’s International Day for Peace in 2016, alongside two media giants, Michael Douglas and Leonardo Dicaprio. “They were all in the same room with me for one reason: to use their voice to empower youth,” Mekawi says, as she describes the “most memorable moment” in her path so far.
A successful social entrepreneur, she was also invited to speak about how she created her brand by finding her calling, at the “Her Legacy Conference & Gala 2018” hosted by Columbia University in January. “When you find out you’re sharing a panel with the founder of #metoo movement, Tarana Burke. Wow, humbled!” Mekawi posted ahead of the conference.
And apart from events and conferences, she has dedicated her social media and YouTube channel to deliver all kinds of empowering messages, tackling gender equality, Islamophobia, identity and other related topics.
“I want to be a voice for Arab-American women … I want to empower, educate and create space for underrepresented communities.”