‘Rants Of A Rebel Arab Feminist’ Book Shows The Danger Of Falling In Love In An Arab Land

By Farida D.

Our society does not recognize love. It is a corrupted concept imported from the western world, manifested in Hollywood movies. You are arrested if you are caught on a date with someone who is not your legal marriage partner. Some places, such as shopping malls, forbid the entry of unmarried couples (you are asked for identification documents by mall security if you look suspicious). The 14th of February is banned; shops are not allowed to sell anything in red on that day, as if love comes in a certain shade of color. Falling in love and dating brings shame to one’s family, especially if you are a woman.

A popular Arab saying is “a man carries his own shame, but a woman spreads shame to her family”. But why is falling in love a shame? We are taught that when you fall in love with a man it would eventually lead to one thing only: premarital sex. As a virginity/ purity culture, this is catastrophic. Once the man gets your valued virginity, he will dump you and move on to the next woman. When he wants to get married, he prefers a woman with no romantic experiences. “Would you rather buy a used car or a new car?” we are questioned- just a fun easy way to remind women of their worth. So if you fall in love, you will end up lonely; because you would eventually lose your valued virginity, your reputation will be tarnished, and no man would want to marry you.

I grew up watching the Disney princess fairy tales. I loved them as a kid. But as an adult, exposed to the works of bright western feminism, I realized that the Disney princesses are not so popular in their home countries. Western feminism argues that such princesses seem to give a message to little girls that all they need to do is be pretty, stay at home, and fall in love with a prince to live happily ever after.

I totally agree that this presents an outdated dynamic for little girls to look up to. I get what is fundamentally wrong in the message those Disney fairy tales send. But there is one thing that those fairy tales got right (at least for us Arab girls), they send a very important message: that we can fall in love before getting married. They tell little girls in the Arab world that they don’t have to accept an arranged marriage like their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers did.

I grew up witnessing only bad results from falling in love. When I was a teenager, I saw a female relative being brutally beaten by her brother, for wanting to marry a man she was in love with instead of accepting the arranged marriage her family organized. As he yanked her long dark hair and banged her head against her bedroom wall, I stood there helpless. But even then, I told myself “when I am older, I too shall marry for love, but I will not allow anyone to beat me for it” So watching Cinderella, Ariel, and Jasmine (among other Disney princesses) falling in love with happy endings, was something so liberating in a culture that criminalized love.

It opened my eyes to that possibility; that I can fall in love, have the agency to choose the partner that I would to spend the rest of my life with (instead of marrying a man I do not know), and actually have a happy ending. As a kid I made a vow to myself that I would not be forced into an arranged marriage no matter what the consequences are; I wanted to fall in love. If fairy tales can have happy endings then so can my life.

Love came into my life when I was 15 years old. I fell in love with a sweet boy that went to the same co-ed high school I was in. We started out as friends, then best friends- and then our feelings went out of control. Because of the entire stigma associated with falling in love, we had to keep our relationship a secret. Because of all the laws against premarital relationships and dating, we could not see each other outside the mixed co-ed school’s fence. So we were content with meeting up five days a week, from 7 am to 2 pm, between classes and during recess. In front of everyone at school, we had to pretend we were just friends- study peers and nothing more. But late at night, we would whisper sweet nothings for endless hours over the phone- each one of us hiding in their bedroom, while our parents were asleep. We remained this way for one year- until the dreaded graduation day came.

Without the excuse of going to the same school, we could not see each other anymore- we were afraid of being arrested if caught out on the streets. We thought the only solution for us to see each other was to get married- but besides the taboo of choosing one’s own marriage partner, our families come from two different religious sects; they were enemies- they would never approve our union in marriage. It was a typical Romeo and Juliet scenario. So we continued our secret relationship through late night phone calls, and then eventually over the great invention of Skype.

Sometimes, when we really missed one another and wanted to see each other, we would set up what we called “eye contact dates”. This means we both tell each other to be present at a certain location e.g. shopping mall at 8.00 pm, and then we just stare at one another from a distance. As if we were two strangers who happened to just walk through the mall. I’d pretend I was shopping, he would pretend he was walking past the shop, and we would look at each other through store windows. We did this for 10 years.

Approximately 3650 days of our lives have gone through virtual love and painful wishing. I cannot count how many times I wished I can look into his eyes (his real eyes not through a screen) while he sat next to me (not walking past me at the mall, pretending to be a stranger). How many nights I wished to just hold his hand, skin to skin, and feel my heart flutter from the scent of his Dunhill perfume. How many times I wished we could go on a real date, instead of a Skype date; that we could sit with each other on one dinner table instead of two separate ones while the webcam was on. Our lives and young love has been robbed from us. We will never get those years back.

Through lots of struggle, fights, and tears, I stuck with the vow I made with myself as a child. On our 10th anniversary, I married my high school sweetheart. I got my happily ever after. And my husband did not turn out to be a violent, suspicious, jealous beast that would beat, rape, and ground me simply because I fell in love with him prior to marriage. There goes all my cultural education on love. I’m glad I rebelled.

Although love is criminalized in our society, in reality no laws can eradicate this natural human instinct. Women continue to fall in love, as I did, albeit behind closed doors. Although we do not have bars to meet potential men, we meet them in coffee shops, malls, workplaces, co-ed universities and schools – those are our bars. Those are the places where phone numbers are cautiously and secretly exchanged to lead to “phone relationships” in the middle of the night. It is challenging to balance the demands of wanting to have a boyfriend, and wanting to satisfy society.

You learn to have limits and play it safe. Date, but don’t have sex so you stay a virgin. Talk over the phone, but don’t go out so no one catches you. Some women are braver than I was – they would risk meeting their boyfriends in secluded areas; beaches, coffee shops, or secret apartments. They would risk not only being arrested by police for love, but perhaps also assaulted by the men they love. It is only women who suffer when love is criminalized. How so? Let us analyze it.

On the surface, criminalizing love seems to be a penalty applied equally to women and men. If a couple are caught by police, they are both arrested. However, what happens to couples who are good at hiding? Criminalizing love, does not end premarital relationships, it only makes lovers seek good hiding – making it more dangerous for women in particular. When your only safe option to have a date is in a secret secluded area, it is difficult to find help should you happen to be dating a man who decides to become violent. Perhaps you just wanted to meet your lover face to face to share a meal, and not necessarily want to have sex with him. What happens then when you have trusted to be in a secluded area with a man who turns out to be unworthy of your trust?

Many women fall victim to rape, abuse, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases because men know they can get away with those things easily in secluded areas, and without punishment. A woman cannot report a sexual assault with a man she is dating- simply because she would get herself in trouble because she would expose the fact that she was dating. Men know that. Thus victims of sex crimes end up in further seclusion- trying to hide the pain they have gone through instead of seeking justice. They attempt to find remedies to their situations by going for hymen reconstruction surgeries or having abortions in further secluded non-medical, unsanitary and unauthorized venues- putting their well being and bodies at further risk.

In this way, criminalizing love is a misogynistic endeavor – it creates safe secluded spaces for abusive men to prey on women, assault them, and get away without punishment. Women are left to deal with the aftermath. Instead of providing solutions, instead of bringing men to justice, the blame is shifted towards women. Tough luck, we warned you not to fall in love, eh?

Farida D. is a gender researcher, and has been studying Arab women’s everyday oppressions for over a decade. Through the process, she broke up with the hijab and set all of her high heels on fire. Her memoir, “Rants of a Rebel Arab Feminist”, is now on sale on all Amazon websites.

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