Wednesday, December 12, 2007

To be a man...

As a part of my current internship, I was given a tall stack of research and policy reports that have been written about the status and progress of women in this country and the Arab world. I haven't read them all that carefully, as they are really quite repetitive and, really, they don't say a whole lot that I didn't already know. Plus, my Arabic is still not what it should be, and about half of the reports were written in Arabic, so that's a bit of a chore.

But yesterday I was working my way through a report on the status of violence against women and women's human rights here in 2004 when I stumbled upon an interesting statistic:

28% of women surveyed wish they had been born male.

The authors added the stipulation that they think it would be more, but likely many of the respondents mistook the question to be asking whether they were happy with what God made them, so they may have assumed that to have said they wished they were male would have been a rejection of God.

So at least 28% of women in this country wish they had been born male?

I found that to be such a shocking statement (I'd never really thought about which gender I'd prefer - being a woman has always seemed to simply be a part of who I am, not better not worse than being a man), that I shared it with with the three women in the room with me (who are from this country). Well, immediately, the senior-most of them said, "Well, I wish I were a man."

So I naturally replied, chin hanging on my chest, "Really?"

And she said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that she has often wished she were a man.

There is one way in which I will always be a five-year-old: I can't help but ask why. Ever. (Well, unless it seems so incredibly inappropriate that I try to stay quiet and stare at the person in a questioning way that makes it obvious I want to know why; it usually works.) So I asked her why.

She explained to me how everything falls on her. She is the one who needs to make sure her children are fed and that they go to school. She is the one who worries if her son is sick or if her daughter is pestered at school. There are some men who really look out for their wives and families even if hers doesn't; but even so, a woman doesn't have a choice. It all falls on her.

It seemed to me that she was saying that she wishes that she had a choice to not care. So I responded by suggesting that this was because she had the heart of a mother, because it was her heart - not her gender - that kept her plugging away even when a man might give up and just live his life for himself.

But as the conversation went on, as we talked about other rather shameful topics regarding women in this society that are generally kept secret and avoided at all costs... she kept coming back to specific issues facing women. For example, if a marriage is bad - and I mean real bad - a woman doesn't really have a recourse. If her family will help her out, then that's good. Otherwise, what choice does a woman have than to suffer? In cases like these, she says, who could blame a woman for choosing something that is so against her religion... like having an abortion?

Yes, it is right to believe in God, she said, but who's to blame if we fear life?

So... I shouldn't be surprised to hear that sex-change surgeries are actually not uncommon in this region. And I should be encouraged that there are currently a number of projects and discussions underway to provide services, including vocational training, for battered women. It's a new concept that a woman might be able to provide for herself and her children by herself, but an exciting concept it is.

The next day, I asked her directly what she thinks are the biggest needs of the woman in this country, to improve her lot in life. She talked about material and emotional assistance, including training and networking. But what it came down to was: respect.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


When I first came here more than six years ago, it didn't take more than a few hours for the loneliness to set in. When I think of the first six months I lived here, "lonely" is the adjective that sums it up. When I think of the next several months after that, I think of the most fun I ever had in my life. But it was at the same time a very lonely season. Though I made wonderful friends, somehow they didn't seem to fill the void... it was like there was no one who saw and understood my heart.

I remember when I left, I was sad to leave dear friends and a place that had become home, but also hopeful that maybe the loneliness might start to fade as I entered a context where I might be a bit more normal... or something like that. I didn't know what to look for, I just knew that I wanted to get rid of that nagging loneliness in my heart.

The loneliness did eventually fade, though it took several transitions, travels, and groups of friends before it went. But the feeling of being alone has stayed. I'm not sure if the distinction is clear. As far as I know, in Arabic there are no two different words to differentiate between feeling lonely and alone. I can handle being alone, though I don't like it and don't want to be alone, but loneliness is much harder for me to bear - it's something to flee.

So now I'm back here, and something I really did not anticipate has happened. I find myself everyday wishing there were a way that I could stay here, move here more permanently. Sometimes praying for such a way to open up, and other times just sad that I'll be leaving soon. But whenever I think about this (which is a lot), I remember the loneliness. This is a society where everybody has his/her place, and that place is almost always, I mean virtually really always, in family. A person without family is an anomaly... especially a woman without family. Though it's of course quite complicated, at the root of it all, this is main reason why I can't stay. And when my friends here ask me why don't I stay, this is the answer I give them and they immediately agree. I'm not making it up. Aloneness is the worst fate someone here can imagine, I guess you could say. (For some of my friends that's the end of the conversation, others embark on a matchmaking crusade, and others offer to be my family - although they quickly acknowledge that it's not the same.)

Anyway, so part of my loneliness here has been related to not having my place. During the last month and a half since I arrived this time, I haven't been all that lonely, though I've felt more alone than ever. I am realising what wonderful, amazing friends I have here. But they don't know each other, they're not a cohesive network of their own: I find myself just wishing I had my "group". On a deeper level, they know me well and we understand each other well, but I have this sense that I don't know anyone at all here who shares my heart: my spiritual values, and my priorities in life. I have no "brothers" and "sisters" in that sense. None at all. Like I said, alone isn't great but it's ok - I can even handle being without the family providing my place in the social structure. But loneliness... to be without any spiritual family... that's a bigger problem.

But believe it or not, this blog is not about me! Because pondering all of this has led me to a realisation that I've been completely blind to over all these years coming and going from this dear place. I guess you could say I am only now actually getting how deep the chasm is between alone and lonely. Because I have now seen that this is a very lonely place. My friends, at least most of them, are more lonely than I've ever been here! None of them are alone, true, but wow, are they lonely. I don't think they realise it, because in a sense they've never known what it could be like to not be lonely, but I hear how they live and how they think. Sometimes they tell me things that they won't tell each other, because I am alone - I'm not connected to anything, so in a sense I'm safe... and the things they confide in me express such a deep and agonising loneliness that I can't even begin to fathom.

For example, a few weeks ago I had a bit of a nervous breakdown and had a several-hours long crying session. Those who saw me crying were horrified, and told me that they never let people see their emotions; it's important to seem strong. Since then, I've taken closer note of how people act strong, and sure enough, emotion is not very often genuine.

There is a lot of emotion, don't take me wrong! As I'm now trying to pay closer attention to social interactions, though, it seems more and more like an act. The fact that everyone has a place in society means that everyone has a role to play. If I'm connected with this family, and I'm related to this person in that way, then I have to act like people expect that person to act. In a sense, to avoid aloneness, people have to embrace loneliness. They can't give up their reputation for anything. Too many people act happy when they're supposed to act happy, not when they're happy. They are friendly when they are supposed to be chatty, not because they have any interest at all in the people they're meeting. People go to nice restaurants because it looks good, not because they like the food or atmosphere. And so on and so forth. This is so built in to the culture, it seems to me, that few people are even necessarily aware that this is what they're doing.

There are so many lies that are being told that one would be an idiot to believe anything anyone told them! (I admit that I still do, though, but not as readily as I used to... which is sad.) How can you ever hope to have an honest conversation with someone when lying has become such a fabric of your way of conversing? I'd say about half the lies are out of politeness (It's totally on my way to pick you up.), but the other half are just plain old lies (We couldn't cook so-and-so for supper because we didn't have any such-and-such.). People spend hours and hours hanging out with family members, enjoying each other's company. It's a beautiful thing. But they can't share their hearts with each other, they just lie.

It doesn't seem that people here have a sense that they're lonely. But I'm feeling like this is a place where people have tasted that boxed and preserved orange juice which is good enough, I guess. But they have no idea that fresh-squeezed orange juice exists, much less how good orange juice could taste. But to taste the fresh-squeezed stuff, they'd have to give up a few boxes of the preserved stuff. Why give up something they like for the unknown? Would they be willing to brave a bit of alone-ness to experience relief for their loneliness?