I thought I was a liberated, empowered and independent woman until I encountered Islamic feminine culture. Over the course of ten years living in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, I learned to recognize the vastness of possible expressions of femininity and how I had been rejecting certain feminine ways of being to my own detriment.
Everything you experience is subjective because you naturally and unavoidably filter all that you see, do, and understand through your own consciousness – your own experience of being.
The thing is that people are living in different cultural consciousness wherever you go and it is a privilege and a duty to recognize that. Even if you cannot ever completely understand it or have it – taking the time to recognize it will make all the difference.
Here’s what happens when you start to realize where you come from culturally –
- You recognize your gifts and your challenges. For those of us who are free to buy a plane ticket, pay the fees for a passport and visit almost any country we choose – this is a privilege easily taken for granted. When I began to recognize this privilege as a gift, the quality of my experiences changed. I became more open to respect and experience the cultural differences I met – even when they made me uncomfortable or angered me, in some cases. To take it even a step further, I could see that the things that made me most uncomfortable could be directly traced to something within myself that needed attention.
- You have a deeper understanding of where your beliefs come from – for example – when I noticed I felt discomfort, confusion and even rejection around the idea of creating relationships with Muslim women in Morocco back in 2000 – my introductory year to the MENA , I didn’t realize at first that this was my American culture – or my understanding of that culture rising to defend itself against the “otherness.” I slowly came to realize that Arab/Islamic feminine culture was challenging everything I thought made sense about the world. And this caused me to first reject….and later grow.
- Your world becomes bigger and enables you to make choices about what you believe, what is universal truth and what is made up of assumptions and locked into certain spaces and times. We are now in a time when the world is seeming to grow smaller. Political strain, climate change, location independent career paths and lifestyles and more factors are bringing us into contact with cultural thoughts, traditions, languages, religious and spiritual practices most people would never have had to consider even as recently as 20 years ago. For many of us, we find ourselves faced with a necessity to expand our sense of what is true. As we are driven closer together as a global population, our narrow beliefs will no longer serve us. We will need to learn to extract what is best and most useful from our history, traditions and social systems while we work together to unveil new, more universal truths about who we are and how we fit together.
I have had the luxury and the fortune to draw from the history and experiences of women in both Western/ North American and Middle Eastern cultures. These cultures – varied and diverse even in themselves – have equally empowering, enlightening aspects that can be blended to create a new consciousness allowing for more freedom of movement between a range of feminine cultural constructs and architypes.
I remember what it felt like to be in a large group of Arab women every single day at work. By this time, in Abu Dhabi, I had already been living in Morocco and Turkey off and on for 7 years. I had read deeply about Islamic history and culture. I spoke a fair amount of Arabic – though I discovered with some frustration and embarrassment that my Moroccan dialect was not so useful in the Emirates. The only missing connection had been an opportunity to spend time with women.
I worked in an elementary school where all the teachers were women – as a rule. We would spend time in the teacher’s room eating Egyptian coushery (a heavenly meal of pasta, brown lentils and a slightly spicy tomato sauce), gourmet chocolates and endless streams of saffron and cardamom spiced coffee from tiny glass or porcelain cups. Back then I did not have any children. I was newly married and all the women were curious about me and my marriage to a Moroccan man.
Over time I began to spend more time outside of work with some of the women. One of them became my UAE bestie and would invite me to her downtown apartment during the week, or take me with her to her mother’s home in a suburb of Dubai where we met with all her siblings and their children, attending weddings and birth celebrations and so on. My number one take away from all of this was the simple yet rich pleasure of belonging to a female community. Their acceptance of me acknowledged our differences. In a culture where the native Emirati women believe it is inappropriate to dance at a party – even a party where only women are attending – they still encouraged me to dance when the music started hopping and the hired belly dancers came onstage at a party. I was dancing with the Filipino housemaids and possibly some Egyptian or Tunisian women – in a minority that was a contrast to the quietly seated Emiratis. But still we respected one another.
I will never forget a day, sitting in a luxurious living room at 2 in the morning with my Emirati bestie, listening to the music still loud and booming at the tail end of a new birth party – the kids and the house maids were dancing the night away. I teased my friend about not joining us for a dance, even at a private party in her own family’s home. She looked at me then and smiled. She stated that she was only doing what her mother told her was right. She was doing her best to be a good person, a spiritual and dedicated Muslim woman. Yet, she said that our relationship had begun to show her something else. And though she did not feel the need – or even the freedom to dance, she somehow understood why it was okay for me to do so. And she loved me for it.
There we were, two women from vastly different backgrounds, looking at one another across a room in a house in the Arabian desert. We disagreed on so many things. Really. So many. But somehow we met one another where we each were. And we shared a mutual love. We were equal in that each of us was doing what we knew how to do in our desire to be strong women. We were striving to act from love and achieve a sense of satisfaction, balance and fulfillment.
This story is neither a beginning nor an end.
Stay tuned for the next post where I will talk more about how my feminine consciousness was opened, challenged and reaffirmed through the phenomenon of being “required” to exist in women-only spaces in the Middle East and North Africa. I will talk about the value and the limitations of these spaces, and how they can help encourage support and community in north American culture (and already are!).
The picture is me at an art exhibit in Abu Dhabi around the time of the above story. I won’t share any photos of my good friend mentioned here because she prefers not to share photos of her face on social media.