I was reminded of such a life-changing moment this morning. I was 14. Your typical painfully self-conscious, self-centered, angular, awkward girl. A "good girl" to boot: the "from home to school" type, with the occasional visit to a friend's house. One day on such a visit, I ran into my friend's parents sitting with other relatives. Doing what I'm expected to do, I approached them to shake hands, as it is the habit. When I extended my hand to the father, my hand just hung there. All alone. Not met. Spurned. Rejected. Embarrassed. Humiliated. The man muttered a quick greeting that I didn't hear. I went deaf. I became all Hand. Hands don't have ears or mouths or eyes. But, god, do they feel!!I don't have anything more to add at this time, but this post did get me thinking about Muslim and Arab cultural niceties expected of young women. I am Arab American, emphasis on the American, and when I went to Amman in 2000 I was sixteen and hadn't learned these niceties. I don't know if you've ever had the pleasure of being the only one in a large group of people for an extended period of time who isn't acclimated to their social mores and modes of interaction--if you are an immigrant maybe you know what I'm talking about--but it's not easy. When I accepted gifts from people and was later told that when someone offers me something, I am supposed to refuse it at first and only accept if they insist, I was so embarrassed. When my Tata hissed at my cousins and I, saying we were like whores because we were laughing on the street, I felt stifled by all the rules. When I kissed a distant uncle, who I hadn't seen since I was nine, and my aunt told me I shouldn't greet men that way, I thought, "Damn, I can't do anything right." And to this day I get slightly upset when strangers [who are Arab or who I perceive to be Arab] offer me things, like for example their chair at a crowded event, because I almost feel as thought I'm being tricked! On Fridays when I pass the men leaving the Islamic Center by my house, I keep my eyes down, but when I am in the street with my friends I talk and laugh as loud as I want to.
The whole encounter took seconds but lasted a life time. That was the first time I learned that some Muslim men won't shake my hand. Even at 14 I have shaken many a man's hand--cousins, uncles, family friends, neighbors, strangers--but this was my first encounter with a Muslim man who refused to shake hands.
I didn't like it. I didn't like it one bit. I wasn't interested in knowing the theological justification for it; I didn't do research to see which Muslim school allowed a man to shake hands with a woman and which didn't. I didn't give a damn. I only cared about how it made me feel--about my body and my female being. It wasn't a good feeling. I wanted to disappear and wished the ground would open and swallow me. I shrank, physically and psychologically. I wished I had no hands, no breasts, no lips, no eyes, no thighs, no vagina. I wished I were nothing.
And I smarted for weeks. Exactly the way I smarted years later when a jerk grabbed my breast in a crowded street in the Old City of Jerusalem.
23 January 2007
Arab women bloggers have been speaking directly to my heart this week! Amal at Improvisations: Arab Woman Proggressive Voice writes: