Just an ordinary “Arab girl”

Just an ordinary “Arab girl”

By Houda Barroug ’20. Art by Laila Rodenbeck ’22.

So many people get confused when they realize I have different last names on my Facebook, passport, and assignment. I remember the first time I changed my last name on my social media; I was asked if I got married. No, I did not get married. I just realized I have the right to put my mom’s last name because I don’t want to always be associated to a man. All my respect to my wonderful father and the first love of my life, but I also have the right to choose what makes me comfortable and is compatible with my principles. You probably may be wondering how this relates to my topic. Well, back “home,” every girl should be associated to a man (brother, husband, father, cousin), and is defined and treated based on her relationship with him.

I grew up in Morocco, an “Arab country” in North Africa. I have lived there for most of my life after my family moved from the USA. I definitely do not remember my first years in Morocco, but I remember some of the things that stood out to me from a very young age. My mom’s conversations with other women or family members, or what I have been told in school or by random people I met, most of the time revolved around what a “girl should be like.” I honestly found it difficult to understand what is the case. Having someone define what I can and cannot do, what I should and should not do. Going beyond that, expecting me to fit into their definition and comply with everything they say.

Defining a girl from the point of view of my country’s cultural and social system could be understood through some of what has been said to me- over and over and over again:

“When will we have the chance to celebrate your success?”
Me: “Well, I have not been admitted to college yet.”
“I mean come on, you know that is not a really an accomplishment. I mean your accomplishment as a girl. Getting married and starting a family. That is what an accomplishment really is. It’s what lasts in this life. Education is not really important. Husband, husband, husband, that is why you were born, that is the system.”

“How is it possible you are doing martial arts? You will not be able to be ‘girly’ anymore. Who would ever want to marry you? You will die single. So, do definitely not come to me and complain about how single or lonely you would be.”

“No, wait, what? You actually have the audacity to give your opinion when men are talking. Who would ever care about your opinion? You are just a woman; do not forget that what you are allowed to decide on is how much salt or pepper to put into that one recipe. Do not try to take over something that was naturally not meant to be yours.”

A housewife, a cook, a person who sticks to the status quo are all terms unfortunately used to define an “Arab girl”. Not aiming to generalize, but despite our different experiences, we women in the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA), in one way or another, have been subject to these stereotypes. I thought it would be different if I came to the USA, but I still faced the same thing- just in different ways. In one of the classes I took my freshman year, I was taking notes both in Arabic and English. At a certain point, I found myself taking notes only in Arabic because I felt more comfortable doing so- and also because It was faster and easier. At the end of class, a classmate expressed how he liked my art, and I replied it was Arabic. He awkwardly looked at me and asked me how it could be possible a white girl speaks Arabic. As I am spending more time in the U.S, I have found myself in situations where people surprisingly asked me if I ran away from home to be able to be here, wondered how liberal my husband is because he allowed me to come to college, or how impossible it is that I wear jeans and t-shirts or talk to other boys. I myself was surprised because I found myself in such situations, but what really surprised me the most is how these stereotypes are following me everywhere I go and affect the way people perceive me. Stereotypes I thought I was freed from- at least for the time I am not around people with the same cultural background as me. I was proven wrong. But both of these experiences taught me meaningful lessons that I will be carrying with me forever. In Morocco, I may not be too Arab to fit into their definition just because I chose different standards to define my life and success. In the U.S as well, I may be neither American because I am Arab nor too Arab because I do not fit into Americans’ understanding of what I could and have to be because I am Arab.

I do not deny that all these definitions resulted in my inability to consider myself a part of communities I grew up in. I, so many times, wondered if it is all because of me; maybe my life would have been easier if I just did not choose to follow what makes me happy and is compatible with my principles. Let me correct myself: I would not be living in that case. I am an Arab girl, and I do not miss the opportunity to embrace this aspect of my identity. I also do not deny and would not miss the opportunity to say that I am a feminist with an Arab cultural background. Regardless of all the complexities this experience has brought into my life, one thing I realized and would like to stress on is that there is no such thing as an “Arab girl”. An Arab girl is a citizen and independent individual who can and has to go to school, has preferences, who should not be defined based on her relationship with a man. Most importantly, an “Arab girl” is not a phenomenon that is subject to study or examination. We also are not supposed to validate and encapsulate all the stereotypical traits you read about us on the internet.  We are just ordinary people who have passions and want to live their lives the way we want. And if you feel uncomfortable with that, I guess it is time for you to change your perspective about who we really are.