When I was 20…
… I dreamt of becoming a music composer. An air stewardess. I wanted to travel the world. Become a doctor, or a journalist, or maybe a fiction writer.
When I was 20, I had dreams, and hopes and visions for myself.
And then I got married.
Those are not words I read in a badly written book, or heard from some second class cheesy movie.
Those are words I’ve heard many times over from Middle Eastern women of all social backgrounds.
These confessions are not easy to get from many women as they seldom walk around complaining about missed opportunities or regrets. Even after we asked them quite straightforwardly what were their hopes when they were younger, they opened up to us with no trace of anger or bitterness about what could have been. They simply stated the facts with an air of placid resignation, as if they themselves had become to consider that their 20 year old past selves had foolish dreams, dreams they did not really believe in, convinced as they were, and still are, that by getting married they had accomplished what they were supposed to, or rather, what society had expected them to.
Even though the atmosphere in our little gathering had been quite cheerful, I felt like crying.
After the conversation, I kept thinking over and over again about all the suppressed thoughts, all the frustration and all the missed opportunities these testimonies referred to, losing myself in endless monologues. Was I wrong in considering that these women had sacrificed themselves for their families or their husbands’ careers? That they could and should have been given the chance to accomplish whatever goal they had previously stated for themselves? After all, they did seem quite happy, when sharing with us, they simply laughed, somewhat derisively at the suddenness with which marriage had brought their projects to an end. This whole conversation hence got me thinking about many different things: first of all, was this phenomenon something that only used to happen to our mothers? Were younger Arab women free of the pressure to get married? I didn’t really have to give this question much thought: true, younger Arab women are more and more given the opportunity to study, to go abroad to complete their studies and get better job offers, but from my own experiences, as well as many of my friends’, the “Far7a elkbire” our tetas refer to is rarely our PhD, but, more often than not, the day where they’ll see us in the big white dress.
The pressure is there, creeping in our subconscious, but to me we are not victims. Times have changed, even with the ever present feeling that women are only accomplished when they get married, and we CAN refuse to give in. However, what my friends and I are witnessing (and here I’ll speak about Lebanon, the example I can say I know) is more and more young women reaching the conclusion that they have attained an age where they want to get married, draft a list of “Things to Look For in A Husband” and start what I like to call The Hunt. They’re not looking for love, mind you, they’re looking for Marriage, which makes a huge difference. They would like to meet somebody from the same social and religious backgrounds, with enough money and degrees to make them proud, with a nice car and nice looks, and there you go, book us Eddé Sands so we can start the wedding arrangements. When our mothers got married because society’s pressure was too much for them to bear, but also because at the time you could not even question it, their daughters, who could question and refuse it, internalised it so much they took it to a whole other level, making marriage an obsession in which they lose themselves. Alas! Getting married for the wrong reasons (for social status, for gaining freedom your father doesn’t grant you) is the fastest way to make yourself miserable for life. Perhaps this situation stems from a lack of change in the way girls are brought up by their parents: in a way, all the advancement achieved in women’s rights loses its impact if parents don’t shift the socialisation of their children.
I’m generalising here, and I’m fully conscious that a lot of young women get married for love and on the basis of common interests and values and refuse to settle for less than a suitable companion with which they’ll grow rather than a husband that’ll also be a stranger. On the same note, arranged marriages in some communities in the Middle East are unavoidable for women, who can’t question their father’s authority. I’m not speaking about these women, but rather about the average Middle Easter city girl, who has had opportunities in her life to do things for and by herself.
This conundrum also got me thinking about the very meaning of empowerment of women. What do we mean when we say that women are “liberated”? To me, it meant simply (maybe, I’ll admit it, a little too simply) that women are self-confident and able to make their own decisions in life, whatever those might be. I placed choice and inner strength at the forefront of my definition. “Liberated”, in my opinion, did not refer to the ability to wear a mini skirt in public but rather to wear it if you want to or not wear it if choose that you do not want to. However, after some time spent working with women and after talking to the other half of this blog, I’ve come to realise that these elements were just not enough. Inner strength and confidence is paramount, but it is also true that in order to be able to cultivate and exercise this strength, there has to be an enabling environment for women, with laws that encourage women to participate in the public sphere and to work. As a woman, it is my personal duty to go and study (again, if I want to), get qualifications and a job. However, I won’t be able to get a job if I’m not protected by my government and by regulations against discrimination in the workplace, I won’t be fulfilled if I see that I’m overqualified and underpaid for what I do and I’ll go crazy if laws in place don’t enable me to be a working mother.
Discriminatory laws and regulations will eventually get to my confidence, rendering me more vulnerable to the socially encouraged concept of marriage-to-gain-my-freedom, rather than myself-working-my-ass-off-to-gain-my-freedom. And then marrying the person that I truly chose, or not marrying at all.
The work for empowerment of women in the Middle East needs to be done at many levels: advocacy should be done at the government level to change discriminatory laws (hats off to our Syrian sisters and brothers who have recently successfully fought back a project law that would have set the status of women some years back), awareness raising should be made within the society on the need for women to shift the mentality of female fulfilment through marriage and lastly, we as women need to keep questioning ourselves, our choices, and what we really want for our own lives. After all, nobody but us is responsible of our own happiness.
I’m still thinking about this whole topic, and would love to hear from you…