I am Liberty

Leena Nasser
Jul 6, 2016 · 5 min read

Uncovering Liberty’s Untold Story

When I arrived in the United States at the age eighteen, I hoped to meet a woman who I had seen in photographs many times growing up in Saudi Arabia. She was tall, stern, and carried herself with courage. Like the women back home, she looked strong and wore a long, elegant, and flowing robe. In contrast, however, this woman was presented as the face of her nation and was photographed standing proud in front of anyone and everyone she met. My American friends admired her and spoke of her as a symbol of freedom and democracy. I finally met her on my first visit to New York City. Her name, I was told, was Liberty. What I did not know at the time, standing beneath this universal symbol of hope, was that Lady Liberty’s identity included me more than I could have imagined.

As beautiful as she was, the Statue of Liberty was presented to me with a sense of otherness. She represented freedoms that I was not sure extended to me and when I asked people about her origins, she was described as a woman of European ancestry. To me, the Statue of Liberty raised some important questions about identity. Liberty is a symbol of America’s greatness and the epitome of the rights set forth in the Constitution. What impact does her story and identity have on what it means to be an American?

A tour of the Statue of Liberty reveals only a snapshot of her history: the copper statue was designed by the well known sculpture Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who completed her construction in 1876 with the help of France and the United States. However, this abridged version misses critical pieces of her complete story, which not only deprives Liberty of her full identity, but also the country of a richer tale — one that represents the deep and empowering diversity of the American identity.

The complete story of the Statue of Liberty begins in the mid-1850s when Frederic Bartholdi, in his 20s at the time, visited Egypt and was struck by the permanence of the pyramids of Giza. A decade later, at dinner in the home of Edouard Laboulaye, the chairman of French anti-slavery society, Bartholdi’s host raised the idea of a monument, representing liberty, for the American centennial in 1876. Bartholdi was intrigued, but the next monument he was designing was meant to stand in Egypt — at the entrance of the newly completed Suez Canal. It was a statue of an Arab woman wearing a modest robe and a crown, which would act as a lighthouse and titled “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia” or “Progress.” However, with Egyptians unable to afford the grand project, the statue was in need of a home. In 1871, on a trip to America, Bartholdi entered through New York harbor and was taken by its beauty. He immediately saw it as a possible home for his latest work. Egypt’s modest copper robe was versatile and now applicable to a new story. Newly named, Liberty, she would be well suited to represent the values and ideals of America. The Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886 by President Grover Cleveland.

When I first learned of Liberty’s full history, I called one of my American Professors — astonished that her full identity had not been shared more widely. I began to introduce the idea to friends and colleagues who have studied American history or have been to the extensive Ellis Island tours. They were equally surprised and questioned me on my sources. Why had this part of such an iconic figure of American history been overlooked? Why was it unknown to Americans, and unknown to the culture from which Lady Liberty originated? As I delved further into this question, I recalled a speech at my graduate school commencement about the “sin of omission.” What impact had this omission had on American identity and what impact could sharing her full story have on future generations?

As I learned of Liberty’s true identity, her otherness began to fade as her complexity came into focus. When I look at her now, I see myself in her. I see the different belief systems from which she came, I think of the role of global connectivity in building her, and of the Hungarian immigrant who led an effort to raise the funds needed to bring her to New York. How beautiful that the woman symbolizing American democracy is an immigrant herself — a refugee who America so lovingly welcomed and made the symbol of liberty.

As we reflect on the July 4th holiday, which this year coincides with the end of Ramadan for Muslims, I hope that others see their own reflection in Lady Liberty. As a woman of Arab descent who has lived in America my entire adult life — I now see myself in her. Liberty represents the rich culture upon which this nation was built. As President Cleveland said, “We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home; nor shall her chosen alter be neglected.” We must not neglect where Liberty has come from; nor must we forget that America’s decision to welcome Liberty is what makes America so special.

One immediate step to correct the omission of Liberty’s complete identity would be to present the full story of the Statue of Liberty to the thousands of visitors who travel from around the world to stand before this iconic figure. For example, the National Park Service, who currently mentions this fact on the website, and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, could expand tours to also include mention of her complete origins. Her rich and diverse history is evidence that she not only exemplifies the unique independence of this country, but also embodies the diversity and freedoms central to its strength. I dream of a day when a child of any nationality, faith, race, or gender might stand beneath her noble gaze and say with certainty, in common identity, “I too am Liberty.”

Happy Independence Day and Happy Eid.


Leena Nasser is a social entrepreneur, leveraging education, cognitive psychology, and human-centered design to achieve social progress. Leena researches the power of identity stories one economic and societal empowerment.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

“Auguste Bartholdi.” National Park Service. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/auguste-bartholdi.htm>

“Auguste Bartholdi.” National Park Service. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/auguste-bartholdi.htm>.

Blakemore, Erin. “The Statue of Liberty Was Originally a Muslim Woman.” Smithsonian. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/smart-news/statue-liberty-was-originally-muslim-woman-180957377/>.

“The Statue of Liberty Story, From Egypt to New York.” Arab American Historical Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.arabamericanhistory.org/archives/the-statue-of-liberty-story-from-egypt-to-new-york/>.

“The Statue of Liberty Story, From Egypt to New York.” Arab American Historical Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.arabamericanhistory.org/archives/the-statue-of-liberty-story-from-egypt-to-new-york/>.

“The Statue of Liberty Timeline.” Pbs. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/statueofliberty/timeline/>.

Tristam, Pierre. “The Statue of Liberty’s Origins in Egypt.” About News Middle East Issues. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://middleeast.about.com/od/middleeast101/a/statue-of-liberty-egypt.htm>.

Wang, Yanan. “America?s Most Famous Statue Was Muslim before She Became Lady Liberty.” The Washington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/11/19/americas-most-famous-statue-was-muslim-before-she-became-lady-liberty/>.