Alya Mooro has a 'vulnerability hangover'. It’s a term coined by author Brené Brown and Alya says the concept really resonates in the aftermath of publishing her first book, The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes.
Egyptian-born and London-raised, she poured anecdotes from her personal life, her thoughts, feelings and conflictions into writing about what identity really means, particularly to young women caught between two cultures. "I came out of a long-term relationship when I was 26 and found that there was a voice – one that told me, in a sense, what Egyptian culture was expecting of me – that was telling me what I could or could not do with my body and my freedom, it made me really want to explore what that voice was and in what ways it had impacted my life," Alya tells Refinery29. "At the same time I became a lot more aware of the stereotypes surrounding Middle Eastern women and it annoyed me that they were so reductive, that there was no narrative that I related to, and I felt an increasing burning desire to contribute to the conversation."
From the pressure to look a certain way to associating with feminism, relationship expectations to being "technically Muslim", Alya unpicks the myth that she has to choose between being Western and Arab. But she says that of all the topics discussed, writing about sex was particularly difficult. There are two chapters "about virginity and how shame is so ingrained in women – from Middle Eastern culture but also just generally – so being so open and forthcoming about the very things I’m not supposed to be talking about, let alone doing and then writing about for whoever wants to read, was very scary," she explains.
But as someone who believes that the world is changed by examples, the importance of putting herself out there overrides the nerves. Had Alya had this book when she was growing up, she thinks her experiences would have been different. "I think I would have felt a lot less shame, for one, and felt like there were other people out there who were making mistakes and trying and learning along the way," she says.
"I think I’m a lot more comfortable with who I am now. Writing the book helped me unpick so many things and come to peace with so much. Writing it has also helped me shed the weight of the invisible jury in a way. I’ve put it all out there and I am not ashamed, so there’s nothing to be judged."
Alya’s advice to anyone else looking to carve a space for themselves outside of cultural stereotypes? "Have courage to really figure out what it is you want and believe, and to act on that knowledge. To trust your own instincts and make your own path."
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The following is an extract from "Chapter 8: When You're Supposed To Get Married ASAP" in The Greater Freedom: Life As A Middle Eastern Woman Outside The Stereotypes by Alya Mooro.
I recently took to my Instagram stories where, in response to something that had happened in pop culture, I passionately expressed the opinions I hold as truth: that women are not the property of men, that they are allowed to post whatever images they want and behave in whichever way they deem best, that their actions do not need to be sanctioned by ‘their’ men.
And then I posted another video, saying my mum was no doubt going to call me any second, criticising me for expressing those opinions on a public forum, and saying that because I had, I would now find it more difficult to ‘find’ someone who would want to marry me. The implication being that this ‘someone’ would be Arab and that they would therefore take offence to my strong opinions. This ignores, of course, the assumption that I would even want to be with someone who would judge me negatively for having strong opinions in the first place.
‘Yeah, but why do we only have to marry Arab men? And why do we have to pretend to believe in certain things that we don’t, just so we can get a man?’ one of my Middle Eastern followers responded. Why indeed.
To her credit, my mum didn’t call me or say that – on this occasion, but she has numerous times prior, and has recently taken to telling me that I’m too tough, too strong-willed, that I’m going to need to make some compromises or no one is ever going to love me. But I don’t believe you should have to. I don’t believe you should have to be subservient to be loved. I don’t believe that you have to have two versions of yourself or that it is even viable to maintain such a fake front for long.
While my dad always told me to wait as long as I could before getting married, again he was the anomaly in a sea of voices that became louder and more persistent the older I became.
Marriage is a widely accepted social norm the world over but in many cultures, such as in the Middle Eastern culture, it’s ingrained from a young age that marriage is the inevitable rite of passage to enter adulthood and that you should aspire to get a ring on your finger as soon as possible.
It’s for these reasons that many of the other ‘conditions’ seem to stem: the need to look good and to behave respectably, essentially to be a ‘good Arab girl’. This will ensure that you are marketable, marriageable material. It’s for this reason, ultimately, that you are supposed to be this ideal version of a woman: because that’s what will get you hitched to a ‘good’ Arab man, one who can take care of you and replicate the life your parents had, and the one their parents had before them.
Boys, meanwhile, are allowed to make mistakes, chase girls in the street because they’re ‘dressed a certain way’, and sleep around as much as they like. That doesn’t hinder their marriage prospects; in fact, it might even enhance them. They’re taught how to project their personality and how to prepare for a typical Arab man’s life of strength, responsibility and authority.
The good, respectable behaviour of women isn’t suddenly unnecessary once they marry, of course; women are then expected to be good, respectable wives. A friend of mine who recently got married and lives a relatively independent life – in that she goes out with her friends and sometimes travels without her husband – was told by her mum to stop doing so as it might alienate him.
It was something Sondos had also brought up: ‘Growing up, when I’d ask my mum if I could do something, she’d say, “This is haram”, but when I would ask my dad the same question he’d say, “When you’re married, you can do what you want.” So, in my mind, “haram” meant “before marriage”, not actually “forbidden”,’ she explained. ‘As I got older, I realised that what he was actually saying was, “When you’re married you can ask your husband if you can do these things and we’ll see what he says.”’ Indeed, many women swap the rules of their father for those of their husband.
Samira told me: ‘I get into fights with my cousin’s husband all the time because he bosses her around so much and I don’t let him. She’s almost scared of him. He says things like, “This is not a request, this is an order.”’ She told me of an occasion where she and her cousin were on their way out the door for dinner with friends when her cousin’s husband demanded his wife cook him dinner. ‘What will I eat?’ he had said. To Samira’s incredulity, her cousin took off her jacket and made him dinner. It was her duty, after all.
‘The pressure to be a good Arab wife depends on who you marry,’ Shahenda, a thirty-six-year-old Iraqi who was born and raised in London, told me. ‘I had it massively – to the point where nothing I did was enough or deserved gratitude. I slaved for my children and my home and the culinary needs of my husband, with never a sign of recognition or a thank you,’ she continued. ‘Women need to teach their sons that this is not a woman’s job, that it is done from our hearts and with love, and it is to be cherished and appreciated.’
‘My ex-husband’s side of the family definitely expected me to be a certain kind of wife,’ Hiba, a thirty-one-year-old Libyan who was born and raised in London, told me. ‘One evening we were all together for Eid and my husband came in and someone commented that his shirt was creased. His mum asked me why I hadn’t ironed it and was really insulted and shocked when I laughed and said I didn’t iron his clothes.’
‘It wasn’t companionship or team work,’ she continued. ‘It was like: “These are my obligations and these are your obligations.” For a long time, I adhered, to a certain extent, because of pressure from society and the fear of losing my husband and being divorced.’
In truth, men can get away with most things. While by law in many Arab countries, men are allowed to marry up to four women, that’s not really something people actually do in my circles. That said, men having affairs is widely expected and accepted.
‘When I first found out my husband was cheating on me, my mum and my conservative friends told me I needed to check myself, to see what I did wrong,’ Halima, a forty-year-old Egyptian, told me. ‘My mum said I’m too rough with him, that I don’t talk to him nicely . . . Not that she thought what he did was OK, but that it was somehow my fault he did it in the first place,’ she continued. ‘It’s so weird. He’s the one who cheated, but a lot of people were pointing fingers at me.’
‘I think because Arab men are so often the providers there’s a level of expectation of what the woman is supposed to contribute,’ Hiba explained. ‘If your man is cheating on you people might wonder if it’s because you’re overweight, for example, and that you haven’t been keeping your side of the deal, so no wonder he’s going to cheat on you.’
Certainly, part of the role of being a good, respectable wife is keeping up ‘your side of the deal’, and putting up with these transgressions. Divorce is often regarded as immoral, and sustaining a marriage a lifelong project.
‘When I told my parents I wanted to leave my husband, they sort of fell out with me,’ Dunya told me. ‘My mum kept telling me that the grass wasn’t greener [on the other side] and that real life isn’t all fairy tales. She told me I was making a mistake by walking away from security.
‘After I got divorced, I was automatically treated as a failure,’ she explained. ‘No matter what the back story is, you’re to blame, not him. I was shamed for not being able to sustain my marriage and not keeping my mouth shut when I was unhappy.’
When it comes to divorce in the Arab world, three forces come into play: religion, sharia law, and culture. Divorce laws across the region are unequal for men and women, with women discriminated against in child custody and guardianship decisions. In Egypt, for example, laws state that women can only retain custody of their sons until the age of seven and daughters until they turn nine, after which the children must live with their fathers. In Jordan, mothers must also be deemed as trustworthy and ‘able to perform their duties’ and are not allowed to remarry.
The stigma around divorce lays thickest at the feet of women. In a survey of 2,007 respondents across the Arab world, divorced women were found to be labelled as unwanted or pitied and were usually blamed for having failed to keep their former husbands happy. But as divorce rates across the region increase and times change, many women are increasingly challenging the stigma. In Saudi Arabia, parties to celebrate divorces have become relatively common.
Perhaps partly in opposition to the ending that had supposedly already been written for me, I have long railed against the assumption that I must get married. I was never the girl who fantasised about marriage and children. It sounded like a jail sentence to me, and I never understood why people would wish to rush to the altar. Despite what Beyoncé preached, I never believed he had to put a ring on it in order to prove that he liked it.
It is when I am single that I feel most comfortable with myself. I’ve worked hard to build a life I love and enjoy the freedom to explore my own wants and needs, and this seems to work best when I am not in a relationship. While I do enjoy dating, it’s never been with the end goal of marriage as a necessity. I haven’t felt ready for a relationship in quite a few years, let alone one that’s supposed to last until I die. Most of my closest friends in London are single. We meet up and talk about all sorts of things: careers, interests, travels, aspirations, friendships, boys. I take up as much space in the bed as I like.
The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes by Alya Mooro is published by Little a in paperback, £8.99.