Okay, I cannot ignore the fact that I am publishing this post on the day that the US presidential election awarded the highest office in the country to a man who is now widely known as a sexual predator a for his vow to restrict or even completely block entry of Muslims into the USA.
Quickly this morning I was able to recognize that – as with everything else I am currently experiencing in life – it will be in my best interest (perhaps ALL of ours) to see how this situation is working FOR me and NOT Against me. Echoing many friends and mentors, I will point out that this choice did not all come together in one day. We have been leading up to this for some time now with our collective negativity, complacency and general reluctance to fully stand up for what we believe and know to be true. I know some people have put lots of effort and blood/sweat and tears into it but as a collective nation, we are clearly quite divided. And I am certainly not innocent! I have taken too long myself to finally get it together and share my stories and the things that are dear to me.
I see this election outcome now as an opportunity to be inspired, to organize and unite with Americans and international communities alike. I have no idea exactly how to do this. I suppose I will figure it out along the way. I will start by opening my mouth and raising my voice right here. Singing my song for everyone to hear.
On that note:
The following is a reflection on ways feminine spaces in Islamic culture have taught me about community, trust and support and the importance of pushing limitations and boundaries.
Living in Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates over 10 + years from 2000-2010, my continued relationships with the cultures through my marriage to a Moroccan man, my love for Arabic language and the Arab – Muslim friends and acquaintances I have grown close with around the world exposed me to the magic that can happen when women regularly gather together to work, live, raise their children and go through life inwomen-only spaces.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know this thought is loaded with politics. I know that some of this separation of women and men in Arab-Islamic societies has been a way of controlling and keeping women down. I know so much of it is unfair – BELIEVE me! I have been down that road. I rejected and resisted entering these women-only spaces for a very long time. For several years, I barely dipped a toe in – the hammam (public steam bath) in Morocco, which I visited only once in my first year in Morocco and at the weddings and parties I was invited to in those first couple of years – I stayed close to my male friends with only a brief nod in acknowledgement of the women who were sitting on the opposite side of the room. I feared those spaces. I thought being with the women would somehow make me smaller and even restricted. And I acknowledge that from valid perspectives in certain contexts, this is exactly what it would be.
However, there is a realm I had never imagined. A level of collective, supportive feminine consciousness that nurtured my soul and taught me how to be a member of a group – something I had never known as an only child to a single mom in the USA, moving from state to state every few years of my childhood. I was very good at being alone, justifying this with a prideful independence. That independence has served me extremely well. In fact, it facilitated my inclusion into the female collective I now describe.
In the UAE, I worked inside Abu Dhabi public schools where all staff are female through primary school and in high school male and female students are separated into different schools with male staff for the boys and female staff for the girls. For three years, I went to work every day with only women. The security guards and a maintenance man here and there were the only exceptions. These men had to announce themselves – standing just outside of a doorway with eyes averted – before entering a room, giving the women inside time to cover their heads and sometimes even their faces before he entered.
Inside those rooms I was welcomed. My otherness was recognized and acknowledged but for the most part did not hinder my inclusion. My deep interest in and experience with Arab/Islamic culture and my willingness to listen earned me their trust. Every day we shared food and coffee, stories about our husbands, children and lifestyles. (I did not have children yet so they loved to offer their wisdom about what to expect in the future – some of them were a bit worried about my age (I turned 30 the first year) and the fact that I still hadn’t had a child. They were fascinated by my knowledge of yoga and meditation. Some of them were even so brave as to join me in group guided meditations in the school gymnasium – though they weren’t so sure this was an activity approved by Islam.)
I was invited to come to their homes, developing am especially close friendship with one woman mentioned in the previous post. Through her, I was able to witness and participate in cultural and religious gatherings: weddings- which are also female only in the UAE, the men’s party taking place on a different day or in a different location – birth celebrations, trips to the mosque, or lazy Sunday afternoons hanging out watching Egyptian soap operas and drinking more tea and coffee.
There were women who got a wistful and faraway look in their eyes, asking me what it felt like to be on the beach in a bikini. There were other women who stifled laughter when they asked me why American and European women felt okay going jogging in the street in their underwear (shorts and a sports bra/tank top). As my interest in Islam began to grow, and when I eventually declared my own belief in Islamic practice (while meditating at a yoga ashram on a Thai Island – that’s another story), there were some who wondered about my sincerity – asking me to recite various parts of the Quran – which I did – and others who worried for me and my decision not to wear the hijab – not covering my hair as they did. Still they welcomed me, every day. They embraced me. I prayed in mosques in rooms full of women at times savoring the profound collective energy of a group feminine meditation. At other times I found myself in mosques suspiciously empty in the women’s room – indicating that for many women their duties inside the home or other cultural (patriarchal) restrictions related to womanhood required or made it easier for them to just pray at home.
Women in these cultures often shared the care of their children. In Morocco it was not uncommon to see breastfeeding women feeding the infants of their cousins or sisters. I met grown men who introduced me to their “milk brothers,” – a close friend who was otherwise unrelated and had been breastfed by the same woman (one of their mothers, another woman all together, etc). I have had Moroccan mothers on long train rides pass me their infants to hold while they ran to the toilet or got up to stretch or rummage through their bags for food, a diaper change, etc. In the UAE more women had foreign housemaids to mind their children but the Emirati mothers were never far away and in the beginning I would lose track of which child belonged to which woman since all of the extended family freely blended together and women took responsibility and care for all of the children.
And at the risk of rambling on – how awesome is it that there is a separate – much shorter line for women at the bank and the DMV!?!?!?! (Some of them with curtains so you are totally free from the leering eyes of men! Yeah there are leering men all over the world!)(Yeah, I’m stifling a joke about the new president elect.)
I left the UAE and returned to the USA in 2010, when I was still pregnant with my first child.For many reasons the last six years of living in the US and being a mother have been a strange and challenging transition. Something I have missed most about living in the Middle East/North Africa is that sense of community. It has been lonely at times raising my kids in the USA where it can be very natural for Americans to isolate themselves in the hustle of the lightning-speed of the daily grind. I have fantasized about all of the community I would have had available to me in mothers in Abu Dhabi or in Morocco that sometimes only translates to text messages with other overly busy, overworked, overtired American mom-friends over here.
What to make of this? In my personal experience, I have been fortunate to explore my American feminine consciousness as highly independent, a solo traveler, a rebel in some cases, a trail blazer. All of this has beautifully led me to see and know some complementary, harmonizing aspects of Middle East and North Africa feminine consciousness. I learned what it looks like to belong to a group, to steep myself in feminine energy, issues, and practicalities where before I tended to avoid understanding what it is to be a woman.
Reaching beyond the limits of my comfort in these ways has incited a personal expansion, a deeper compassion and understanding for others than I could have developed if I had insisting on clinging to what I thought was comfortable – what I thought was the “right” way. And in turn, I have inspired others to challenge their own boundaries – as in the case of the women who adventured into yogic meditation with me, those who dared to learn to speak English with me, invited me into their homes, allowed my different ideas to spur conversation a their dinner tables.
I regard all of this as deeply significant at a time when my original country – the USA – and the rest of the world – is in dire need of unity, healing and a renewed sense of connection – with the self and to others. There are plenty of illusions, distractions, falsehoods disguised as truths that parade through our lives. We latch on to those – recognizing differences and allowing fear to dictate our responses to those differences at the encouragement of media, politics, and others with questionable, selfish agendas.
What is possible when you push the limits of your perceived boundaries?
What is revealed when you pull back the veils of perception and assumption?
What’s left when we strip away labels, “shoulds,” and attachments to identity?
Honestly, the simple answer to this is: Truth. Love. Purpose. Potential. Literally everything is possible when we remove limits and fear.
What will that look like for you? What will you do?
“Recognize the other person is you.” -Yogi Bhajan.