As the oldest daughter of first generation Egyptian immigrants, I could write books about the intersection of Arab traditions and American customs.
I’m drawn toward my Egyptian roots. Excuse my arrogance, but of all the youth in my community, none spoke better Arabic than I, none upheld traditional Arab customs the way I had and few showed the same interest in their background. There’s a huge discord between my love of my Egyptian ethnicity and my dissatisfaction with the social and cultural norms toward women in the Arab world and immigrants in the United States.
I started to become aware of these issues around my 15th birthday. Earlier that year, a close friend spoke of a man asking for her hand in marriage. Soon after that initial conversation, girls in my community started to sport engagement rings. Despite the stories of academic promise that teachers fed me, and despite my initial hesitation at the idea, staring at my friends’ rings, and at my ring-less fingers, made me question my own judgments.
Around my 16th birthday, I found myself dressed up and made up so as to impress a guy I had never met. In accordance with 15 years of enculturation, I sat there and went through all the motions of the stereotypical Arab girl.
A series of bland conversations later forced me to realize that being wanted was not going to be enough to fulfill me.
Three years later and I’m among the last girls in my community to be unmarried; I’m the first girl in my community to ever leave home unmarried. While I know that many of the other girls had experiences that were much more pleasant than mine, and that many are happy in their marriages, it’s difficult for me to isolate myself from my experience.
I do not want to label my culture, but discourses like the one about giving women driving rights in Saudi Arabia or headlines reading, “Egypt is worst Arab state for women” do not surprise me.
Leaving home meant being forced to look a little deeper into how I could reconcile being Egyptian and being American. There are perks to being able to choose the positives from one cultural background and leave behind the negatives of another. The closer I looked, however, the more I found that both cultures were stuck in an unfulfilling dialogue about the role of women.
We could look at the Hollywood standards of beauty and the discourse regarding effortless perfection at Duke, but those columns have already been written. Let’s talk about how, just recently, a friend of mine was blown off when she tried to get help with computer programming because she was doing rather well “for a girl.” Lets talk about how, this month, advertising a Women’s Center event on a male’s Facebook posts resulted in advice that I probably shouldn’t advertise women’s events in such a way because it’ll “make them uncomfortable”. Let’s talk about how at Duke, where arguably some of the smartest women in the world can be found, females nonchalantly walk down the Main Quad saying things like, “He’s not going to like me, I’m not pretty enough” or my favorite, “ He’s not going to like me—I’m an engineer.”
I once caught myself thinking that Arab culture was among the most backward and oppressive cultures that do not allow women the same freedoms permitted to men. Recently, I’m discovering that the problems women—and, resultantly, society—face are not ones that can be isolated within the realms of a single cultural context.
Nourhan Elsayed is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday.
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