Tala in Lebanon, 2007
By TALA ESSAYLi
My definition of a modern Arab woman is a resilient woman that does not let a man dictate her life. She is capable of choosing her own path in life and is not obligated to live by the book. As an Arab-American woman, I have seen the positives and negatives associated with the culture, socially as well as through my personal experiences.
Culturally, there is great importance put on family, thus a feeling of forever having a home you can turn to. However, privacy is not something that is easily given to you in an Arab culture. Parents always pressure you to be more open with them, but your openness is always met with some sort of negativity or backlash, which caused me to become a very closed-off person. I didn’t feel like I could tell my mom anything because she didn’t provide the comfort I was looking for. Arab parents tend to only be able to talk about topics they are comfortable with. With my mom, it went as far as me not being allowed to watch the sex education videos in elementary school because she was so afraid of allowing me to grow up and become curious about new conversations. Everything I found out about my body and about relationships came from my childhood friends. Having the sex talk and discussing the changes that my body would undergo was never mentioned by my mother.
Growing up in a place like California, I had always imagined my teenage life to turn out a lot differently because I expected the strictness of my parents to have only been something that had to do with me being a child. Once high school came around, I realized that the typical teenage things that came as normalities to all my non-Arab friends, like having a boyfriend, sleeping over at friend’s houses, and going to parties, having sex, were not something I was allowed to experience unless I lied about it. My friends always had a hard time trying to understand why I couldn’t leave the house and hang out with them at any given time. Strict parents raise sneaky children and as an Arab American teenager, it required that there be a lot of skill in being stealthy. It left me feeling like I missed out on a lot of things in high school because I could only get away with lying about so much. I felt I could make up for it by moving out for college, but once again I was met with a brick wall from my parents’ inability to give me the independence I desired.
The strictness and lack of privacy in teenagehood reflects onto adulthood with backlash faced once an individual decides they want to move out and be on their own. We are met with guilt and hostility due to having a need to cultivate self-growth outside of our family and wanting to seek independence. In my parents’ eyes, I was saying that they’re bad parents and that I want to move out because I couldn’t stand them when that’s not the reality of the situation. It is very hard for them to conceptualize the fact that becoming your own individual and wanting to live on your own did not mean you didn’t care about your parents. This has made it extremely difficult to bring up the topic of moving out around my parents because they feel as though me living under their roof is the last kind of grasp they have on me as an adult. The guilt that comes with this backlash is due to Arab culture’s emphasis on the responsibility of children taking care of their parents, so to them the only reason you should be moving out is if you got married and had a family of your own to take care of.
I hope that the future of Arab / Arab American women is met with a lot less restrictions and standards that they are expected to live up to. Males in the Arab world are not expected to be nearly the perfect children that women are expected to be. I hope that Arab women can make their own choices in life and grow up with less fear of what their family members will think of them. I believe that Arab American women at the end of the day can’t be expected to please everyone, because cultural expectations aside, this is their life and one’s happiness is more important than the peace of mind of others. In the end, you will realize which value in life holds the most importance to you. A good person comes from the morals and values they hold in life, not the culture they grew up from.