The Arab world is full of many rich and colorful cultures, groups, and communities with many differences at hand. Growing up in my Arab community and immigrating into other communities, I realised most Arab communities have one similarity – the close-knit bond within each community and the social responsibility to abide by the community pressure in order to stay connected.
Discussing Inclusivity and social norms within the Arab community is such a complex yet important topic to tackle because we have so many different sub-cultures under our umbrella – what is the norm in one region might not be the norm in another. Whenever I express the “Arab norms”, I am referring to my Palestinian and Jordanian family customs that have been carried on to Canada.
I started noticing the Arab community norms and the pressures to keep them thriving as early as kindergarten. I was constantly told I had to be a proper lady for other little girls to play with me. My Arab identity felt like a membership with rules and if I didn’t follow all of the rules, I wasn’t able to keep my membership.
Ever since I was young, I struggled to abide by the community pressure imposed on me as an Arab woman – I never wanted to sit “like a lady” – I was a tomboy that wanted to play tag in the “7ara” (neighborhood). When I turned 16, I did not want to learn how to cook for my future husband, I wanted to join protests and advocate for human rights in the heart of downtown Toronto. When I graduated University, I did not want to start looking for a prospective husband, I started searching for a career path that allowed me to leave footprints behind. I never understood why I had to abide by these social norms and give up what I wanted to do to satisfy others.
My mother’s worry about my path escalated when I rejected marriage after I graduated university – “what will people say” became a constant saying in my home from morning to night. Everyone who hasn’t reached out to me in decades all of a sudden had a say on my marriage. Relatives that I didn’t even realise were related to me got a hold of my cell number and made it their sole duty to police my actions. If my neighbor’s dog could speak, he as well would have probably had a say. I eventually gave into community pressure and got married for the sake of saving face. It was the worst decision of my life. I was only married for a year but My heart was filled with rage, confusion, and annoyance every second of every day throughout that year. I completely lost touch with who I was. I fell into a deep depression and I wasn’t even able to confide in my community about it. I knew I had to resist all of my community’s pressures of marriage and do what’s right for my soul to gain back my serenity.
Being a part of a community that left me feeling restrained made me resent anyone who carried the arab identity. I was mentally tired of trying to abide by all of the rules while also trying to be myself. I was left in a fight or flight mode – do I cut off my community as a whole, get a divorce, run away, and hope these toxic norms will someday die out; or do I fight it and transform my community into one I would like to leave for the next generation?
I eventually chose fight mode – I wanted all of my younger cousins to know it’s not okay to be pressured into anything in life, especially something as big as marriage. I divorced my husband a year after our marriage and it was the most freeing decision I’ve ever made. My mind went back to its peaceful rhythm and my heart was open to love again. I no longer held resentment and bitterness in my heart towards my community. Even though I stopped getting invitations to dinners from certain folks, losing my soul was much worse than losing a dinner invite.
The older the generations get, the more changes I witness in my community. Our community’s norms are starting to slowly shift to be more inclusive of all of the diverse identities as the future generations take over and the pressures are starting to ease off; although there is still a lot of unlearning to be done. We all come from different backgrounds and different struggles; therefore, we demand a community pressure needs to ease on us and stop forcing us to be anything other than who we are.
A way we can all battle this exclusiveness is to acknowledge and respect the different values and goals we all bring to the table and work together as one unit to lift each other up. We need more safer spaces in our communities for all of the diverse identities and values we each hold within our community – to reclaim our space in our community, to educate those that see the Arab identity and values as one, to unlearn all of the toxic norms engraved in our culture. But most importantly, to be our true unapologetic self in all of the spaces we enter.
By Israa Izzeddin