arab woman

Quieting the Toxic Arab Woman in My Head

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Zeina

Reclaiming space one article at a time.

The idea of love, of marriage, of companionship- I’ve been struggling with it for some time now. It sounds nice in theory to be with someone, to feel loved and safe, for the dinner dates and babies. Last year I added marriage to my bucket-list. From time to time, it either comes up the list before Ph.D. or slides back down under buying a house. To give some context, I am an Arab woman who was born in Palestine and raised in New York City. My parents were never overly cultural or religious- there was a fair medium. But when I approached my late teens, the pressure to get married crept up. I was getting older and marriage prospects were showing up. Then I kept getting older, and the prospects would decrease and decrease. I was told that I better hurry up and say yes to someone before they all disappeared. In my culture, once you hit the 20-year mark, you’re told that your value starts to decrease. The older you get, the less desirable you become and the fewer men want you. And I stupidly started to believe that.

I recall a few months ago going to an older Arab woman’s home and hearing that she had a career, her own apartment, and savings, but… “poor woman, if only she got married.” Ever since that moment, all I could feel was incomplete. No matter what I did to further my career and education, I was not going to be successful because I was not in a relationship. Not to my mom, or my culture, or myself. I went from being a fierce radical feminist that didn’t need a man to so deeply internalizing patriarchy. I let the desire for a man to take care of me take over, and not because I wanted it, but because they taught me that my value, my success was tied to my relationship with..well..a man. There I was. After years of fighting, of picking myself up, of standing up for myself, I let it all pass through my fingers as I was seeking out relationships for the prime purpose of showing that I too can be successful, that I too was valuable. Not only was I searching for it, I became desperate in the process. It became a race against time – I needed to be married ASAP. Never mind what happened after, I needed to post a picture on Facebook of “my bae”. Only then would I have made it. It didn’t matter that I was happy or not, I would figure that out later. But it didn’t happen as fast as I thought and all the right guys that matched my intellect and standards just came at the wrong time. There I was again, getting older, seeing others become “successful”, and all I had going for me was my job and my education.

My mom once sat me down and told me the brutal truth.  “You’re getting older and older and the prospects just seem to be getting less and less”, she said. And then I realized what she meant. I had to settle for who would be kind enough to take me. Settle for someone I had no desire to be with. Sacrifice my happiness because I needed to rush, to prove myself. Never have I been so depressed in my life. The thought of being alone forever because I was older, and “no longer desirable” crept into my very being. The thought kept me up at night. As I was accomplishing more and more, I was valuing myself less and less. I was keeping myself indoors because I didn’t deserve to be happy alone, didn’t deserve to claim I had value while being alone. That is how patriarchy works. That is how internalized patriarchy works. It demeans us if we are not always in relation to men. It seeks to control our bodies by any means necessary. It’s the voice in our heads that doesn’t allow us to feel like we are valuable for us alone. It’s the voice that tells us that we are wrong for wanting something more.

Will a man allow me to reclaim my self-worth? My feminism tells me no, but the toxic Arab woman in my head tells me yes. I can only task myself with reclaiming my worth because it is mine alone, and my value is mine alone. I still want to be in a relationship, but settling will not be an option. I deserve someone who understands me and values me, no matter how old I am. I cannot settle for less. As Bell Hooks once said, “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” Maybe God has written this time for me to work on myself and I hope I can be okay with that. Time to unpack and unlearn, a task that seems never ending for women.