It’s no secret that love is still a taboo in most Arab families. It’s quite common to hear things like, “If I don’t choose the right partner, I’ll be cut off”. And that’s independent of religious or social backgrounds. Arab parents are responsible for setting their children’s boundaries for love.
This forces endless young Arabs to hide their relationships and end up living dual identities. But ultimately young Arabs—who grew up close to their family— have a weighty fear of familial disappointment. Even if they’re reluctant to admit it.
To celebrate Valentine’s day, we asked seven young Arabs how they broke family rules for love.
Malik, 25, Algerian
I grew up in a super conservative household. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to have girlfriends and never went on dates with my parents’ knowledge. But when I reached the age of 18, I met a girl and this time I really felt like I had to know her. We quickly became close friends and eventually I asked her to be my girlfriend. I remember being shocked that I had the courage to do that. At the time I lived with my parents so messaging was always better than calling because I didn’t want them to be upset and angry if they found out. We spent eight months together before she had to go back to Australia. We had agreed that I would move to Australia to be with her for her final year of university. I gathered up the courage and told my mother I was moving to Australia to be with my girlfriend. Even though she ended being quite okay with it, it felt as though I was betraying my family, it was always this massive bag of guilt I carried on my back.
Nadia, 18, Iraqi
Neither of my parents are particularly religious and neither am I. But my mother told my sister that she was afraid I was gay. And as much as she’s okay with other people being gay, she’s not okay with her daughter being it. I’m not ‘out’ to her, she just suspects it a lot so we both sort of tiptoe around it and get super awkward. This last summer was really bad because I went on holiday with my girlfriend and we were hanging out a lot and I don’t like lying to my mum so I told her. To stop me seeing her, my mum would make it really hard for me to go out and would always find excuses to force me to come home immediately. So even though my university is 20 minutes away from my family home, I decided to move out because I’d get anxiety at home and always expect a massive a fight every time I wanted to go anywhere. The whole process was so alienating and made me feel so far apart from my family. It’s also a ridiculous financial commitment and knowing I will have £20,000 worth of debt for every year of university is terrifying but I’m not sure how long my mental health would have survived otherwise.
Yara, 26, Lebanese
Coming from a conservative Christian family, it was difficult to get to know someone from a different religion, let alone fall in love. My family is religious, as am I. However, this never meant that I wasn’t allowed to have friends from different religions, or respect different religions. I fell in love with a Muslim man. He’s not only Muslim, he’s also Syrian. Coming from a conservative Lebanese family, my choice was double trouble.
I wanted to be open and transparent with my family early on. So I grew the strength to tell them. I remember my father’s face turning yellow when he found out. Not because he’s racist, but because he worries about the differences between us. He told me that I was a smart woman and would know what to do (he meant break up with him, but he was being diplomatic about it). He didn’t know I was already in love and that this would break me. Between me and myself, I know my family aren’t evil people and only want me to be happy. So, I just had to trust God and time to take this one!
Fares, 21, Syrian
I broke the rule I was told not to break: sex before marriage. I was in a two year relationship that neither of our parents knew about. I was religious at the time and told my girlfriend I didn’t want to cross the line. But it didn’t take long for her to get what she wanted out of me. It didn’t feel good though, I felt used. One time her family was out of town and she wanted me to come over. I told her it didn’t feel right going into her parents’ home like that and she got mad and then we did it. It’s weird what kind of cognitive dissonance our minds can block out. One thing I did which was pretty stupid was that I refused to have condoms in my room because I thought it would stop the sex from happening but it didn’t and she got pregnant.
Fatma, 26, Emirati
I started dating this guy, who was black African. I wasn’t living at home so it was easy to hide from my parents and I knew that if they found out they would try and stop me from talking to him because he wasn’t Saudi or even Arab. I kind of felt ashamed of this relationship although I had strong feelings for the person but I knew my society would give us a hard time for being together. That was why, after a while, we actually broke up. When we did, I told my mom, because it showed I was heart broken. She was glad it was over and told me not to think about getting back with him. After that I hated how society is and how things are.
Iman, 27, Tunisian
I wasn’t really raised a Muslim, but I just knew that there were things that my dad wouldn’t accept and so I kind of got used to living a double life. Eventually, I grew up and met someone at the same time that I started connecting with my Arab identity more. He was a black Nubian Egyptian. Even though my dad ended up sort of accepting it, through the help of my stepmother, my Tunisian family were so rude and racist. They would say things like, “It would have been better if at least she brought a Western guy”. I felt ashamed; there was too much pressure on me, and people were getting involved so that’s why we broke up. I pretended it didn’t matter but actually it affected me a lot. I felt so horrible.
Dana, 24, Lebanese
I’m not out to my family despite living what I feel like is a fully realised queer life – happy in love. I live with my girlfriend and she knows about my conservative Arab parents and has been very respectful about it, never pushing me to “come out” or share “my truth”. I love her a lot for that. Intellectually and interpersonally I feel very comfortable with my queer identity. I don’t internalise guilt or shame about the way I love and who I love. I don’t think I would ever come out to my parents. They are very religious and have gone through a lot by migrating to Australia and raising my siblings and I as best they could despite their lived struggles and their trauma. I recognise the kind of agency I have being out but not out to them. Young Arabs are socialised to compartmentalise a lot and are good at disassociating when we need to. I compartmentalise to be able to break the rules cause I have live with my decisions and so do my parents who love me very much. We sacrifice much because we see how much our parents sacrifice for us.