People sometimes ask me what it was like growing up in Syria. In one word… enriching. To further elaborate and disperse some of the existing prejudices towards the culture and traditions of my homeland, I decided to start this “Diary of a Syrian Teenager”.
Some religious customs are frowned upon in the West, because they are considered oppressive and degrading, especially for women. Not many people try to understand the origin and reason for these restrictions. I guess that when you live in a culture with customs that contradict your own convictions, you learn to acquiesce and respect other beliefs. Maybe freedom is overrated, especially when it comes to the small things in life. Wearing long sleeve shirts or waiving the cleavage and short skirts are a small sacrifice. It’s like a white lie, you say or do things to please your surroundings so that no one is offended. Besides, at the risk of sounding defensive, who can honestly claim to be themselves all the time?
As a teenager, I was not allowed to do several things. I was forbidden to go out alone with boys. Other girls always had to be present. My reputation was at stake. My father’s good name and his ties with his business partners would be shattered if I was seen to be luscious or untamed. Whenever my father had guests over (only men of course), I would set the coffee tray in front of the living room door for him to pick up. I was not allowed to be seen by his friends, as if they were rabid rapists. It was for the sake of both their conscience before God and my social status.
When I was sixteen, a friend of mine invited me to her birthday party at her house. As I climbed up the stairs to her apartment, I noticed a dark figure out of the corner of my eye. A woman wearing a black cloak and an opaque veil covering her face. I rang the doorbell and my friend carefully peered out from behind the door, making sure the coast was clear of any men that could catch a glimpse of her, before opening the door.
The veil, in it’s different forms: the head scarf, the abaya, the burka, is a kind of protection of what is sacred. The beauty of a woman is considered intimate; a private treasure, reserved only for her family and husband. Although, I do concede that this tradition is often exploited to confine women to their homes and ban them from the liberties savored in the Western World.
As we entered the salon, the woman in black started unwrapping herself. Like an onion, she peeled off one layer of darkness after the other to reveal so much of what was underneath. Bright green hot pants, a bursting cleavage and a colorfully painted face. My jaw dropped. I stared at her for what felt like forever. My friend nudged me to move on to the living room, where more bare flesh and make-up awaited me. I had never seen so much naked skin in Syria.
The oppressed sexuality of the guests erupted in the intimate sphere of my friend’s all-female party. The curves of voluptuous young women swayed to the music, with a dozen pairs of ogling eyes devouring the tantalizing nymphs. The erotic belly dancing, the flirtatious gazing and the sensual touching made me feel like a voyeur, with an exclusive glimpse into the innocent fantasies of these girls. They talked about their romantic dreams of handsome husbands and how they would seduce them with their obscured beauty.
The suppressed desires need to find a way to the surface since extra-marital sexual intercourse is a taboo. The women who break the code and who cannot afford to get their virginity sewn back together surgically, resort to smearing the bed sheets with pigeon’s blood on their wedding night.
Are there less rapes in a prude society? It’s hard to say… Non-consensual sexual acts within the sacred walls of matrimony are often not considered rape. If a man wants to sleep with a woman, he has to marry her in a hasty ceremony first and get a divorce the next day. (Courtesy of the Islam to prevent an excess of sinners and protect the women’s honor.) Therefore, I don’t think there are any reliable statistics to support or controvert this claim.
I don’t mean to condone the oppression of women in any way, but I do appreciate chasteness within reason. I sometimes prefer it to the other end of the spectrum, where the abundant exposure to crude erotica seems to be socially accepted. I guess I am a bit of a prude myself.