We Need To Talk About Arab Girl Guilt

Does it ever really go away?

Put a finger down if your entire being becomes consumed by an immense wave of guilt for just simply thinking about moving out and getting your own place, traveling the world with your friends, or, gasp! going out for two consecutive days. Put another finger down if you consistently second-guess life choices that are made purely from your heart. If you’ve never made a selfish decision for your own life because you’re always prioritizing the needs and feelings of your family, put another finger down. If you put all three fingers down, congratulations (not), you may suffer from Arab, or Muslim, girl guilt.

Throughout generations, women, especially from our side of the world, have disproportionately been hardwired to always push our needs and feelings to the side so that we can prioritize everyone else. Whether it’s our parents, siblings, colleagues, husbands, or children, we are taught from a young age that we must first and foremost please others, which almost always ultimately leads to a monotonous, unfulfilling life that we are conditioned to believe is not only the norm, but also to view as an aspirational life goal.

We are raised to be obedient daughters and trained to become compliant wives. We come into this world to serve others and there’s no room for self love— it’s selfish. When we do finally muster up the courage to put ourselves first, it’s almost undisputedly followed by an accompanying pang of guilt.

The truth is, being morally scrupulous isn’t inherently a bad thing. A by-product of an informed conscience, guilt means that we are able to feel empathy towards others and have a strong sense of morals and values. However, it’s when we feel an excess of healthy guilt than can pose as a crippling problem, getting in the way of living our life as we want to, resulting in anxiety, stress, and depression as we try to navigate the expectations of everyone around us.

While anyone can be susceptible to chronic remorse, girls who are or were raised Muslim are particularly vulnerable because of specific religious teachings that are drilled into our heads from a young age. Persistent fear of hell from childhood makes a Muslim girl feel guilt ridden for nearly everything— from not dressing modestly and going out after sundown to buying nice things for yourself with the money you worked hard for. When you’re not performing actions that are deemed “good” by your religion or refusing to adhere to familial expectations and cultural norms, you feel as though you’re a bad person.

Even further, when you have immigrant parents, who made sacrifices their entire lives in order to ensure yours is significantly better, you feel that it is your duty to repay them by never letting them down or betraying them. Yes, moving out or dropping out of school to pursue your passion equals the ultimate betrayal to the average Arab parents– My Algerian geophysicist father refused to speak to me for a week when I told him I dropped physics in high school.

But I think it’s time that we collectively start feeling less guilty about doing the most basic and normal things and more guilty about the fact that we’re self-censoring and restricting ourselves from being empowered and living our truth. We are capable of wanting and doing more and making decisions that are truly reflective of our desires. We deserve to be afforded the same grace as our male counterparts to follow our dreams, fall in love, take that Euro trip, and scream at the top of our lungs without caring about how it reflects on our “image” or disappointing those around us. We actually don’t have to please anyone but ourselves (I feel guilty just writing these words) because we owe it to our future daughters to break these toxic cycles and make sure that the next generation of little Arab girls have the opportunity to realize their full potential.

All that said, it is always easier said than done to unlearn the attachment of guilt you feel whenever you do something for yourself, so I will end this with one of my favorite quotes from author Sabaa Tahir: “There are two kinds of guilt. The kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.” Be determined to pursue the latter.

Illustration by Rama Duwaji

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