We Asked 7 Arab Women to Define Independence

What it really means to be free

It’s no secret that the Arab world struggles with the concept of independence—and by independence, I’m not referring to political autonomy, rather the personal kind, and in particular the kind that women are often denied.

It’s 2018, and Saudi women have only just gained the right to drive. A few months ago, Tunisian women were finally given the right to marry non-Muslims, and just this week, Morocco finally stepped up and criminalized violence against women.

These are all great accomplishments, but it’s also worth noting that these freedoms have all been long overdue, and not to mention there’s still a long list of injustices that women still face. It is an exciting time though, and perhaps the generations to come will flourish in a society where women’s rights are no longer a battleground.  

But considering the conditions most of us have grown up in, it’s almost impossible to be an Arab woman today and not have dealt with a conflict of some kind in relation to the concept of independence—if not due to your own convictions, then due to political, cultural, or societal pressures that have been imposed upon you.

And when it comes to detailing what those conflicts are, there’s no one better at doing it than Arab women themselves. MILLE caught up with seven women to discuss what being independent means to them.

Farah, 26, Jordanian

“To me, independence is living life without constraints. But like, what I mean by that is the constraints that society puts on you with the judgements they make on your actions. I guess for me it’s about living life guilt-free. Because I think our families, friends, and neighbours like to cast judgement on how we choose to live our lives, and as a result we kind of live them in a way that’s limited in order not to be judged.

And it might be easy for someone else to tell me “well that’s easy, just stop caring what people think”, but when you’ve grown up your entire life in a judgemental society, it’s really hard to stop caring, it’s really not easy to get rid of the guilt when you know you’re doing something that someone else perceives as wrong—even when you’re completely convinced that it’s an okay thing to do.”

Soraya, 37, Tunisian

“Independence is to be who you are, no matter what you do, wherever you go.”

Fatma, 26, Omani

“Independence to me means having control of your life, and making yourself the top priority without feeling inferior. Independence can be a scary path to take especially as an Arab woman. You may lose some friends or family along the way, but when you get there it’s totally worth it.

Being independent means owning your personality and standing by your truth by being your own decision maker. Independence doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you don’t need anyone, to me it means that you just don’t need anyone to make choices for you. Independence is a mindset to me, if you believe you are your own person, then you will become your own person.”

Shams, 31, Kuwaiti

“I think for me independence is just about being able to be the best version of yourself. Of course, it’s fundamentally the ability to live your own life to your own accord, but to be truly independent I think you have to get to a point where not only are you free to make mistakes, but you also learn from them and grow and become the best version of you that you can be. And when you get to that point, you’re really independent because you become confident in who you are as a person and no one can do anything to you to change your perception of yourself.”

Engy, 25, Egyptian

“Independence to me is something that gets engrained in you from a young age, even if you come from a privileged family. Every little thing counts, from making your bed to walking home from school alone or even waking yourself up in the morning.

Independence goes hand in hand with responsibility and that’s the basis of being an independent adult. It’s not about experiencing every issue as much as it is about being able to problem solve and go through the motions without getting too stuck or throwing your problem at someone else.

Personally, I have to say I had it good in the sense that I was raised with a good balance of push and pull, certain things were a complete no whereas other experiences were seen as character building. It also extends into freedom of thought and being able to make you own decisions about matters. Basically, what I’m saying here is that it’s all on your upbringing whether you will be naturally independent or if it will become a struggle.”

Zeineb, 27, Iraqi

“I remember a moment when I was leaving Baghdad International Airport. As I was standing behind a mum and her daughters at immigration, the officer calls their turn. He realises I am not with them he then says “Are you alone? We do not have women who travel alone”, I instantly responded “I am a woman and I am travelling alone”

To be independent is to be free – everything from other people down to your own thoughts. Being independent to me also means being responsible – I have a responsibility as a woman. What I mean when I say this is that we need to be mindful of the things we do, how we do them, where we do them etc…

I believe that being independent means knowing you can get shit done – yes we all need support from one another but at the end of the day knowing that we’re not bound or confined by another to live our everyday life. This isn’t the case with many women and I think it’s because we’re brought up to think we cannot do things on our own. One of the biggest challenges is trying to understand it and explain this concept to women around me. It is so ingrained within our brains and within society.”

Sarah, 21, Tunisian

“Independence to me as an Arab woman means counting on myself on an everyday basis, independence for us Arab women is particular is freedom from gender-based inequalities which make most men think that we are made to be good wives or mothers and in return they get to financially support us. 

For me as a 21-year-old girl, I do not accept that a man pays for my expenses no matter how small just because he feels like that is the way things should be done.

I think that women can live by themselves, we can open jars alone, we can fix sinks alone, we can reach high places alone, and we can treat ourselves well. I respect but do not like women that oblige their husbands to buy them stuff or ask them take them on vacations, I mean why not work and help him accomplish what both of you dream of.

To conclude, independence is a broad word, but for Arab women in general it is mainly about independence from society’s idea of us being lower than men and that we cannot build our own careers nor succeed without a man.”

Photo courtesy of Katherine Li Johnson 

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