These are/are not my people
Class of 2017
Malia’s engagement party meant wasting a beautiful Saturday afternoon indoors. My mom and I were relegated to a back corner, where we ate Costco sheet cake and nodded along politely as Malia’s mother, Alma, played videotapes from her eldest daughter’s wedding the year before.
I remember observing the girls that I’d known since childhood—my dad’s landlord’s kids, which in the Arabic community meant that I was obligated to attend every graduation, birthday, and wedding that occurred in their family. (These parties were always separated by gender—the men were outside smoking hookah and laughing uproariously while we dawdled politely in the living room). Now in their early twenties, the girls were hauntingly thin. What had once been ordinary flesh covered haphazardly in Abercrombie T-shirts was now olive skin stretched over knobby bone, draped in rich, colorful fabrics. Their thick black hair cascaded in waves down their backs, and fierce make-up highlighted their dark eyes. They reminded me of birds, preening in the hopes of attracting a mate.
I remember thinking, “These are not my people.”
I’d felt nothing but disdain for these girls as a teenager. I was a feminist, and so I could not be like them. These girls would someday marry whichever distant cousin their parents selected for them and be utterly euphoric about the prospect. I pictured their lives ten years from now. I imagined them plump and wrapped in shapeless dresses, their hair tucked away underneath a hijab. As second-generation, American born women, they might have two Masters degrees but never hold a job that requires even a college education. Each of them would have a litter of children, and the highlight of their weekends would be sitting in one another’s living rooms and reminiscing about weddings.
These were the same thoughts that once led me to reject most facets of Arabic culture as misogynistic. As a young child with selfish and simplistic notions of fairness, I hated that women had to pray in the back of the mosque behind the men, or could serve themselves food only after the men finished serving themselves. I hated that, at birthday parties, women had to cover their hair and sit demurely in the park while men could run topless through the soccer fields. I wrote off the older women too—the mothers who had immigrated to a foreign country, learned an entirely new language, and worked tirelessly with no financial incentive or social validation to ensure that their children were well fed and well educated. I wrote them off for allowing themselves to be subjugated—for not making their own money, for not having hobbies, for marrying men who threw vicious tantrums and behaved like spoilt children, and for never standing up for themselves.
My experience with intersectionality is not about oppression. Now, I understand that all of these thoughts came from a place of privilege. Had I been born to two Middle Eastern parents, I would probably be no different from these girls. I am a white girl whose full name is “Jenaun Ali Shamara Aboud” and whose dad is an Iraqi immigrant that owns a liquor store. These are interesting conversation pieces, but they do not change the reality that I am perceived as white. I face unique challenges navigating two very different worlds within my own family. (This is an eloquent way of saying that I pretend my life is not violating the code of Islam in a thousand different ways, and my Arabic family members pretend to believe me). But I will never know what it is like to be afraid of the police, or to have strangers make snap judgments about me based on my appearance.
My experience with intersectionality is rooted in confusion, because I eventually came to the realization that broadly dismissing an entire culture’s practices regarding women doesn’t make me a good feminist. I’ve talked to Muslim feminists who feel that wearing the hijab exempts them from oppression by men who see them as an object of sexuality. I’ve learned that Arabic cultures view love as the logical output of marriage, rather than viewing marriage as the logical output of love. White culture tends to hold up individual fulfillment as the ideal, rather than family loyalty. It seems rational that people in arranged marriages may work harder at their relationships out of a cultural sense of duty, and naturally reap the benefits of those increased efforts.
Still, I sometimes see examples of blatant misogyny that I cannot explain away. Malia’s sister, Mena, secretly dated a Muslim man without anyone’s approval until her dad learned and struck her in an explosion of thunderous, terrifying anger. Meanwhile, her brothers’ occasional dalliances were explained away with the wave of a hand and a wry smile. Then I wonder—am I being culturally ignorant? Does my privilege blind me to the fact that these women are perfectly happy, and I’m simply inventing problems where there aren’t any?
Occasionally, I find myself defending aspects of Middle Eastern culture that I personally disagree with in conversations with white people, because I feel like they can’t possibly understand. They weren’t at Malia’s engagement party. They didn’t see Alma’s face glow with pure joy when her guests told her that her tabouleh was unrivaled by any other. They have not experienced the unmatched sense of community and hospitality that lives within Arabic culture. They didn’t see when Malia’s sister, Mena, giddily whispered in my ear that her dad was negotiating her engagement to a boy we both knew—one who I also knew was unwaveringly kind. They don’t know why I hugged her so closely.
* Note: Names and specific factual circumstances have been slightly altered.