As the couple on the screen would exchange a kiss, my older sisters would look at me. In a kind and protective way, they would confirm that I had my eyes closed. Most of the time I would put both hands to cover my face– I always did, but still peeking through my fingers.
My sisters, and my whole family, were always trying to protect me. Protect me from bad influences. They didn’t want me to get any “bad” ideas – ideas that will cause me to, to put it bluntly, commit acts that would assure me a spot in hell.
To ensure I didn’t head south in the afterlife, I was taught the difference between what was right and wrong. I was taught that peer pressure was the ultimate vic and if anyone tried to pressure me to do anything, then I should stay away from them. No questions asked. I listened. I wanted to stay as halal as possible. I wanted to make my family proud.
As I grew older, I noticed a change. I had experiences in my life that made me question what had been drilled into my mind from an early age. I didn’t understand how some of the things I once wholeheartedly believed were so wrong, I was now totally okay with. I was unlearning a lot of things I held comfort in, and I was re-learning some values. I developed a new perspective in life. As my Aunt in Syria would say – I was becoming “Ajnabi”, and this was probably my parent’s worst nightmare when immigrating to Canada 20 years ago.
But I didn’t see it like that. It wasn’t that I felt ashamed of the values I grew up with. It wasn’t that I was trying to be “ajnabi”. If anything, my core values were still intact. I still wanted to do good and make my family proud.
I had just come to a realisation that changed my perspective. An epiphany of sorts. I was no longer seeing the world through the protected view by peeking through my fingers. I realised most of the things that I refrained from in life was down to me caring what people would think. What will they say about me? What will they say about my family?
Yes, I’m a man in my mid-late 20s and arguably there’s less stigma in our culture for men. But the stigma and pressure I did feel still held me back for fear of what people would say. I was faced with a choice: live for myself or for others.
Liberated with this newfound perspective and empowered by choice, I chose to live for myself. I started doing the things I would hold back from. Some might say I was “haram bae”. My parents even saw me as “saye3 dayeh”, which translates to someone who is always out and about so is therefore lost, despite still graduating top of my class.
My family told me, and extended family, that it was all peer pressure. I was around the wrong people. I was weak and would never normally behave like this in the right environment.
Now, this is the part that confused me. If I had continued to live my life caring what people think, wouldn’t that be peer pressure? Wouldn’t that mean I was still just as weak? Why not take the alternate path and be “pressured” by myself?
Is there such a thing as “cultural pressure”, where we feel the need to conform to the norm because it’s “tradition”? Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all bad, not even close. It’s beautiful to be part of a community that cares about one another, to the extent of being so involved with and protective over all its members. But it goes from beautiful to toxic when it refrains you from being yourself.
If I’m going to succumb to any pressure, I’d rather it be internal and deal with the consequences as I shape my own path.