My mother is a brilliant woman. She is one of the most hardworking, dedicated, and inspirational people I have ever met. Growing up, she was my first female role model. She broke boundaries by being the only one amongst her sisters to complete high school and the only one to attend college. She reshaped the mold of the role of a woman in her family and forged a new path for the generations of women that came after her. Yet, my mother remains a product of her conservative environment, and she still held many traditional values that caused us to clash as I was growing up.
One day during my teen years I remember my mother sitting me down and asking me “do you have a boyfriend?” My answer, of course, was “no”. That answer, of course, was a lie. You don’t simply tell your Arab mother that you have a boyfriend, not at 16. Not when you are her oldest child, not when you’re the training wheels, and everything that a mother fears comes jumping right into her mind whenever you speak.
She looked me right into my eyes and she told me “you should never let a boy claim you.” I was enraged. That statement is problematic on several degrees, the first of which is that I am not an object to be claimed or branded with someone’s name. My personality and my character are not determined by who has “claimed” me and whom I have given my time. Still, she stood her ground. “Do not let a man claim you.”
“Be careful or you’ll ruin your reputation” she would say to me; because a woman’s reputation in my city was the most important thing that she had. but what my mother didn’t know, what the generational gap failed to give her access to, is that a girl’s reputation was never going to be safe no matter what she does, if she lives in a community that prioritizes it over anything else.
As a teenager, I’ve had my reputation “ruined” for:
- Half-hugging (1) boy hello at a cafe
- Sending a heart emoji via the MSN Messenger app
- Wearing a skirt that the wind blew upwards
- And my favorite, for being “too good”. Because “girls who don’t have any dirt on them are the ones who have done the most”
There is no winning with “reputations” because reputations are just narratives that people can build about you. They are storylines, oftentimes they are already written and set and you are merely cast in someone’s imaginary scenario of your life.
As a teenager, I was horrified by this piece of advice from my mother but alas it was always in the back of my head. It’s ridiculous how much pressure we put on young women and girls to “behave” but we neglect to tell our young men and boys how to treat them. Why does a boy “claim” a girl but a girl doesn’t “claim” a boy?. Why is a divorced woman “undesirable” but a divorced man is “back on the market”?
I suppressed this advice for so long, having moved past it as I worked through releasing the grip of guilt that comes along with unlearning sexist tropes. However, one day I found myself telling myself the same advice, “never let a man claim you”.
Same advice. Different perspective
This time, I was 20-something years old, staring into a mirror with tears in my eyes as the result of heartbreak, frustration, and anger. I had let someone claim me. I had let someone claim ownership of my body and my soul. I’d let someone parade me around as their keychain while they made no effort to know me at all. I was claimed.
While my mother’s intention wasn’t anything beyond protecting me from a sexist society by enforcing that same society’s sexist ideologies, she unintentionally gave me the slogan to carry on from this instance, to continue my life being unapologetically independent.
I realized that having men “claim me” wasn’t the way to break this sexist slogan, because that would mean me conforming to it. Instead, the way to redefine this slogan is to refuse to entertain anyone who would even try to claim me, and to only open my life up to those who want to walk beside me instead.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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