Doing it Our Way
It all started out quite innocently, really. Another conversation with a close north african friend of mine about the obsession of the Arab societies for marriages, about the pressure young women have to endure to get married and about how families meddle into relationships and private affairs (one of the greatest laughs of my life has been when listening to a Human Rights lecture on the Right to Privacy while seating next to an Iranian friend and reaching the conclusion that this right was definitely not one we’d be able to enjoy any time soon, but anyway).
My friend was going through a rough patch of peer and society pressure about marriage, and asked me with a somewhat drained voice to write something about the constant ache that is being an Arab young woman, not wanting to deceive and disappoint your family, while keeping in mind the oh-so-unimportant fact that we only have one life, a life that is our very own ( and very unique) to live, while being faithful to everything we hold dear as Arabs.
At the time, I only nodded, lost in thought, remembering something I had read in the foreword of the very moving and thought-provoking book Bareed Mista3jil. Although the book is a collection of testimonies from lesbian, bisexual and questioning women, about their experiences and day to day lives, to me it went far and beyond the sole issue of sexuality in the Arab World. Having left the book in my house in Lebanon (two houses, two lives, being pulled apart quite literally and figuratively), I won’t be able to quote it precisely, and apologise in advance to the authors. The preface introduced the book and made an attempt at explaining how Arab young women should reclaim what is rightfully theirs (their bodies, their lives) while keeping what constitutes an integrated part of their identities, their mentality and traditions as Arabs, things such as the almost sacred importance of family to us. The foreword stuck with me because I remember thinking “This is exactly it. I want to be able to live my life on my own terms, without turning my back to everything I love and respect”.
This calls for an explanatory example. As a Lebanese young woman brought up in Europe, I’d know all about feeling torn in two halves. Growing up with Lebanese traditions and mentalities at home while being confronted with other points of views and ways of doing things at school and at friends’ places, I’ve spent most of my life trying to not disappoint my parents, not have them worry too much about me, while adapting to where I had been planted by the Lebanese Civil War. More often that not, I couldn’t go out until dawn at 16, unlike most of my friends, and, being on the whole brought up as a Lebanese, I soon acquired the reputation of the Girl-With-Stalin-Like-Parents.
I can’t count anymore the numbers of times I have heard the sentence “Well, why do you bother so much about your parents? Just tell them that you do what you want with your life, and if they’re not happy, just break all ties with them, they’re not allowed to tell you what to do”.
Ah, but see my friend, this is where you’re mistaking. As much as sometimes I wanted to break free from my parents’s will and sometimes over-the-top concern for me, I could never look them in the face and tell them to go to hell altogether.
I simply can’t break all ties with them, and most of all, I don’t want to. I just couldn’t explain that my parents were not Stalin’s minions, it was just that they were worried about me, it was just that they were bringing me up the only way they knew how to do it: Lebanese style, pre-war. Most of my friends who come from similar backgrounds shared the same stories as me: how they went to see a psychologist who told them to stop speaking to their parents because they were too interfering, how they got shocked stares at the very mention of them still living with them at the age of 25. I myself regularly get the patronising “Oh! This is adorable!” as if I were a three year old each time I say that I still live with my parents even If I’m engaged, and got a very nice advice by a lovely French doctor who told me that I probably shouldn’t be living with my parents anymore, even though that didn’t have anything to do with our conversation.
It’s true that Arab societies put intolerable pressure on women: we have to be the honour-bearers of our families, we have to remain virgins until we get married, we have to actually get married and so on and forth. These are concerns that should definitely and unquestionably be anyone else but our own. A woman’s virginity is her own business, as is the age she wants to get married, if at all. It relates to our private life, to our right to privacy if you wish, and it’s something we need to remind our families every so often, and build our confidence to be assertive enough to say it out loud. We might make choices that are against what is traditionally accepted in our societies, and we have to be able to enjoy these choices and not let external pressure compromise them.
However, wanting to enjoy our private life doesn’t mean that we have to become copies of western women, doesn’t mean that to be free and standing on our own two feet, we have to leave behind our “Arabness”, our beliefs, our traditions.When I read French feminists figures like Elisabeth Badinter being “devastated” by a veiled young woman standing in the regional elections on a left wing list, I really wonder. This is a young woman confident enough to engage in politics, commited to her country’s future, and all that people see is a scarf on her head. I thought that feminism was first and foremost about giving women enough confidence in themselves to achieve whatever goal they have set for themselves, not about harassing them about their attire.
It’s simple, isn’t it, yet so hard to understand and above all, to explain to strangers, who might see us as submissive little things if we don’t turn our backs on what they consider to be reactionary parents or customs.
If we don’t like something in our societies, and if we want to change it, fleeing by renouncing what makes us won’t help a bit. We are allowed to speak up, to advocate for whatever we deem appropriate to change what we think is an unequal situation. Using our voice, our mentalities, and not taking any pity and/or scorn from people who might think their way is the right way.
Granted, the line is very hard to draw. I’m not talking here about harmful practices or abusive situations, where the emotional or physical integrity of a person is threatened, but rather about the day to day, widely accepted and internalised Arab mentalities that women are questioning today.
And so to you, all the psychologists who told us to cut off all relationships with our parents, all the well-intentioned people who shook their heads in disbelief at our “situation”, shrugged at our veils and laughed at our daily phone calls to our mothers, we thank you. We thank you for the advice and concern, we really do. But we’ll deal with our own issues, our way. It might not be the same as yours, but who’s to say which way is better than the other?