Confessions of a Palestinian Christian girl

By Alana Bannourah

Attending weddings as a girl always proved to be a magical experience. 

From the dresses, to the hair and makeup, all the way down to the lovely high heels, I seem to constantly fret about being just right. I’ve always loved dressing up and attending what I call “Arab parties.” When I refer to these parties, I am usually implying an important life event, since that is the time when the party aspect is usually necessary. This celebration could take place as a baptism (my family is Antiochian Orthodox Christian), graduation, engagement party, and lastly, the most extravagant of the bunch, a wedding.

 Since I am an Arab Christian, I will only speak of that specific group of people. I am not familiar with how marriage works among Arab Muslims.

 With that stated, Arab Christians do not practice arranged marriage or require dowries. Instead, I’ve coined the term “implied” marriage to encompass what I found. As in, it is implied that women get married at a certain age (usually their mid to late twenties). It is implied that you will marry from a specific demographic, most likely someone who is Arab (in my case, most likely a Palestinian man since my family hails from the West Bank) and an individual who practices the same religion (Eastern or Greek Orthodoxy for someone like me). It is implied that you will be exposed to single bachelors who your family knows of, either distant relatives or family friends. It is not uncommon to marry cousins in my culture. The practice of marrying first cousins has mostly expired, but marrying second and third cousins is the norm. I happen to be the result of second cousins removed. It is actually a strange occurrence if extended family is not interconnected.

 By creating the phrase, “implied marriage,” I hope to capture the essence of marriage practices in the Arab world. It happens in the blink of an eye between the two individuals and both families are intrinsically involved in the decision. You do not just marry a man, you marry his mother, father, sisters, brothers, etc. It is “implied” because once a decision has been made, it is understood by all parties.

 In the 21st century, this process translates onto social media platforms, like Facebook. It is uncommon for girls and young women to post a picture alone with a boy or man (let alone hanging out alone with one) they are not related to.

 The exception to this rule is if they are hanging out with a group of friends of both genders, usually people the girl in question knows from school/university, work, or church. This is not just since it would be considered 3ab (embarassing) but since posting a picture with a guy on social media is pretty much the way to announce that you two are betrothed. Scrolling through my Facebook wall or my Instagram feed is all the evidence I need in order to find out whether a cousin back home has “found” someone yet or not. The lucky guy is usually someone that either you or some relative is vaguely related to. Do not be shocked if your Arab friend grew up with her husband, this is common. In my case, since my family is from the village of Beit Sahour, I will most likely be marrying someone from one of the several clans that make up that small town (or one of their American counterparts). Searching for a potential match outside of this tiny demographic? That is next to impossible.

 As a teenager, I seemed annoyed by this outcome, especially the explicit limitation to a Palestinian Christian guy. My rebellious ego checked out hot Muslim guys in Jordan on our latest trip to the Middle East for example. I personally was turned on by how kind and hospitable the shebab (young men) were.

 I’m a staunch feminist, but I do not mind being spoiled and treated as a princess at certain times. I also happen to love guys who speak French. The Lebanese dialect is just as attractive, along with the men of that country, so it got me thinking. I eventually decided (sort of as a joke), that my future husband shall be a “Lebanese French-speaking bae”. What about a guy who is not Arab though? Why can’t that be an option?

 These are inquiries that constantly float in my mind. But at the same time, I love being Arab, and spending the rest of my life with an Arab guy does not sound too bad. Preserving my culture and language while passing them on to my possible future children is a desirable aspect for me.

I’m not insinuating that misogyny and domestic abuse is rampant against married women in my culture. Women are also not forced into marriages, even though breaking off an engagement is seen as taboo. Divorce is also rare, since it is also considered taboo.

 The only thing that bugs me is that marrying a Christian man of Palestinian descent is expected. It’s almost required, an innate quality that my future husband has to have. All I ask is for some wiggle room with this matter.

 I could outline the traditions and customs that take place at weddings and explain the significance of each, but that is not what this is about. The “curse” is not the actual wedding. It’s the idea of marriage.

 Most can agree that marriage is a contract that two people who are committed to building a life together take part in. It is a huge commitment and it’s not something to take lightly. But for Arab females, a completely different experience occurs.

Once a young Arab woman, or “sheba”, turns a certain age, a certain unspoken worry starts forming in the inner depths of her soul. It’s a daunting prospect, the idea of unforeseeable plans that insidiously crawl into your near future. The invisible issue is always in the back of her mind. This is a terrifying experience which has already begun for me. Relatives discussing the matter and future matches does not help. Neither do the strange Arab men both in the U.S. and the Middle East who I view as either comrades or men who might desire to “take” me. A few years ago, my adolescent self would never conjure such thoughts, but as a twenty year old, it seems inevitable.

 To an extent in the Western world, young men and women are usually encouraged to prolong their unmarried life in favor of pursuing higher education and careers. Unfortunately, a negative double standard towards unmarried and promiscuous women still exists. This is intensified in the context of Arab culture. Sex is not allowed outside of the confines of marriage. In my culture, it is not supposed to exist. If you break the rule, do not even dare utter a word about it. Especially if you are a woman, it will not do well for your reputation. I have yet to encounter this in my everyday life. I am merely inferring, since sexuality is not discussed, ever. Not even amongst adults of the same gender. This is since it ideally does not happen outside of the purpose of procreation.

 In the Arab world, dating is not common and premarital sexual relations are heavily taboo. There is no such thing as “boyfriend”. This lessens the double standard a bit, since the rule is not usually gendered, but women are still subconsciously pressured more than men to portray a sense of innocence, purity, modesty, and eventually get married at a relatively young age.

And since the advent of the 21st century, this is now coupled with receiving a college degree followed by an amazing job. Women in the Arab world are expected to have it all now more than ever, which increases the weight on our shoulders.

 And since the advent of the 21st century, this is now coupled with receiving a college degree followed by an amazing job. Women in the Arab world are expected to have it all now more than ever, which increases the weight on our shoulders.

 Think of social status as being a game and women being the most watched players. You make one small mistake, you lose a point. The more points you lose, the lower your status, until you completely fail. Failure in this context would mean being viewed by society as unmarriageable. The other part of the equation you need is a husband and your youth is calculated so that you can eventually receive one, and essentially “win”. You will not be a complete member of the society until you are married, to put it bluntly.

 As aforementioned, there is no sexual double standard. Having sex before marriage is looked down upon no matter what gender the individual is. There are other double standards I have noticed in the past few years though, while observing older relatives and analyzing my own experiences. Girls and young women are more likely to be praised for helping with household chores and cooking. They are usually passive towards elders unless they are spoken too.

 Women are ideally expected to be both intelligent and gorgeous. Even though this is true, especially in my generation, I feel as though the intelligence aspect is still not as emphasized. Intellectualism is not as necessary if you are among a crop of beautiful young women. Women are objectified as being doll-like to an extent, which is potentially harmful to one’s self esteem.

 Sometimes, I think all I truly need to exist is my beauty and this mentality is not healthy at all. This, in my opinion, is probably why most of the older women I know do not opt for receiving an education higher than a bachelor’s degree. I’ve witnessed a few Arab women undermining their true aspirations because out of fear of failure, not being good enough, or the idea of starting a family later than planned.

 So, conversely, it is more common for young men to be excused from learning how to cook and perform household chores. It is permissible for boys and men to be more outspoken. Looks are not as idealized for boys and young men, but intelligence and education is emphasized at a greater rate. Along with these factors, overt lust and going after women is condoned and encouraged at times, especially for young single guys.

 Also, it is more acceptable for “shebab” to drink and smoke. Note that I do not drink and smoke for personal reasons, however it’s frustrating that there is a lax attitude towards boys and men drinking and smoking while a girl holding a pipe makes her “bad” for some.

 The popularity of social media also presents a double standard, as one of my female cousins and I have noticed lately. While boys are also not allowed to hang out with girls that they are not related to on their own, it’s apparently fine for them to portray themselves as being involved in other debauchery. This includes dressing immodestly, drinking, smoking, and partying with no consequence. All the while we, Arab women, are expected to dress and act in a certain way, which includes a large dose of class.

 A teenager does not have to necessarily worry about these things, but some do. As an adolescent, I became ferociously curious as to just how the marriage process occurs. We are not allowed to have boyfriends. We are not allowed to do anything more than befriend men until we are about to marry a member of the opposite sex.

 How does it work?

After observing older relatives undertake this rite of passage, I think I may have it figured out. Even though I say this, I honestly believe I will not know what to expect until after I’m married and become what I’m apparently destined to be: a wife. Then I will actually ‘know’ what happens. Until then, I will go off of my assumptions, since it is not a subject you discuss over Turkish coffee in the morning with your parents.

If that was the norm, I would have quite a few things to point out when it comes to women and what occurs once they have sealed themselves to their husband(and husband’s family). I have noticed a few problems that I would like cleared up, whether they are done on purpose or not.

Women are usually significantly younger than their partners, which ties into our society perpetuating the patriarchal ideal in my eyes. The fact that women almost always get married at younger ages than men does not help either.

 Recently, especially amongst couples I know, I have realized that most of the time, the wife is always more conventionally attractive than her husband. I find that to be a bit disappointing, even though that should not be the only characteristic factored in when choosing the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.

In my culture, it is a custom for young people to live with their parents until they tie the knot. Even though this is the norm, I’m apprehensive of the fact that women always have to relocate to wherever their husband lives or works. This situation, which is supposed to be more nuanced, always relies completely on the husband’s input or personal circumstances. This is probably what leads to the effect of a woman forgoing her career and dreams to cater to those of her husband. If they do keep their job, their occupation is seen as less significant compared to that of her husband. Of course, I cannot forget that babies seem to pop out as soon as possible. I have been told stories by my parents about relatives pressuring them to conceive their first child once they were married.

 As explained by my mom, you are never viewed as an individual by our society. No matter your age, you are not considered to be a complete adult until you are married. I am currently my parent’s daughter. And once I seal the deal, I’ll be my husband’s wife. When I elect to have children, I will be their mother. That is it.

No matter your age, you are not considered to be a complete adult until you are married. I am currently my parent’s daughter. And once I seal the deal, I’ll be my husband’s wife. When I elect to have children, I will be their mother. That is it.

I will never be “Alana Bannourah” separate from my parents and my future lover. It’s either I’m “bint Hanna o Mervat” (daughter) or “mart” (wife). And since everyone is expected to have children at one point no matter what, I will also be “oum” (mother). I think the harm in these expectations is the lack of choice.

 Do I think that less women will choose to attain the idyllic nuclear family unit if there were other acceptable options?

 Maybe.

 Personally, I want to get married. I’m not demonizing the sanctity of marriage. Do I want to have children though? As of now, I do not think so. Sure, I would love to continue the family line and have some sort of legacy after me, but I do not like the way that motherhood defines a woman, especially in the Arab world. I want to get married because I desire to have a companion, confidante, and best friend to take on the journey of the rest of my life with. I just do not want all the pressure, expectations, and rules that go along with that. I want to be given complete autonomy in those types of decisions. I love and respect my family very much, but I just want my freedom and space.

 What is the point of all of this you may ask?

 I desire to change the status quo. I know that this is not a task I can commence entirely on my own. But, even if I cannot rally other progressive women beside me, I hope to set an example and create a small wave of change.

 By quietly defying these rules and expectations and standing my ground, I do not think this will initiate enough of a paradigm shift. But, I’ll try my best.

 I’ve always thought outside of the box and thought critically about society, especially Arab society, in a gendered lense. This is important for me, and now more than ever, it affects my everyday life and the near future. I want to be independent. I do not want the possibility of me moving to a completely different state or country by myself after graduation to be a groundbreaking thing. I do not want me not having children to be seen as strange or shameful. I do not want to submit to the rules and expectations surrounding marriage and the years leading up to my wedding day. I demand a different outcome. It may seem that I’m the only Arab woman voicing this matter, but I know that I am not the only one who has thought about this “curse”.

 Hopefully, this is the beginning of it. This shall be the initiation of a revolution.

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