It’s 11 o’clock on a Friday night and Haifa Simaan starts moving her friends along. “Yalla…I have to be home. My parents are expecting me.” Her friends check their watches and remind her of the early time. But that does not deter Simaan. For her to be out in the company of women and men this late is already a gracious exception from the hard fast rules of her traditional parents.
Her friends tease her gently and tell her to lighten up, citing that “a few minutes late is no big deal.” For Simaan, it might be more than just a big deal. Being late could shatter the trust between Simaan and her parents.
“My parents are very concerned about what happens between a boy and a girl when they are alone,” she explains. “They grew up in place where sex and intimacy is a practice of honor. It should be protected and saved for that special someone who will hold your heart and share a lifetime with you. It is always said that when men and women are alone, there is actually a third entity in the room – the devil.”
Simaan, 23 and a straight-A graduate student, understands her parents’ concerns but says that their teaching and preaching has made it so she never puts herself in a compromising position. “Who doesn’t like boys?” she asks. “But in my culture, a wrong turn can be a disaster.” The challenge is: How do you find Mr. Right and fall in love without everyone looking over your shoulder?
Dating and young love traditionally occur during a time of evolution. These are the years when one comes to understand who they are and what they want from a soul mate. This task is even more daunting for the Middle Eastern youth with additional pressures coming from parents and potential suitors.
Protecting your daughter’s virtue is important in almost every culture. The difference lies in the value placed on honor and the shame that is brought when honor is discounted. For Middle Eastern families, honor and virginity are overriding factors in the scrutiny of women.
The precarious tightrope that must be walked is littered with questions – both rhetorical and real – that weigh on everyday decisions. Can you be like Simaan, both an obedient daughter and an available single? How do you know it is true love? What about the responsibility of men and keeping one’s virtue?
“Women are put in a jewelry box by their parents until the right one comes knocking on their daughter’s door,” Simaan says. “This is so not the case for men. They can do whatever they want. Their freedom of sexual practices is never surrounded by protective guardians or the threat of being outcast if he lets his guard down.
“Women are put in a jewelry box by their parents until the right one comes knocking on their daughter’s door”
Truth is, men’s sexual status in any culture carries weight towards a certain sexual prowess. While not always overtly encouraged, men are free to have late curfews and date as they please. Their indiscretions are seldom, if ever, judged in public or by friends and family. In some cases, their conquests are held in high esteem.
For centuries, intimacy has been guarded by society as a blessed relationship. While men have their freedom, women are expected to be free of
intimate acquaintances prior to entering marriage. Virginity is what society demands, and never more so than in the Middle Eastern society. On the contrary, once married, couples are placed into the golden cage (Al Kafas Al-Zahabi) – meaning that they are free to enjoy all of the pleasures and intimacies associated with the union.
With expectations high, many marriages have ended on the first night when the husband discovers that his wife is not a virgin – a shocking reality to both parents and the groom. The pressures of virginity drive women to do anything in their power to cover up past digressions. The weight of this taboo is a preoccupation that rules men while guarding their own pride on the search for the partner of his dreams.
Outside of marriage, sex that is “just for the fun it” is simply not acceptable. The propaganda machine is always moving, reminding us that there are consequences for such actions. Forbidden sexuality is a frequent topic explored in Egyptian films. Typically, women who embrace this taboo wind up dishonored at the hands of her family and society. These movies perpetuate the cultural umbrella that women who use their bodies have no future and no honor.
U.S.-born women, with families from the Middle East, have a watchful eye placed on them. The ideal “I will leave home when I am 18” does not exist. Traditional Middle Eastern lifestyle governs potential love life in an attempt to protect the dignity and pride of their daughter.
Women have the eye of a big brother watching them constantly. The society hangs their coat on stereotypes. Frequent gossip centers on the inability of men to control their actions. Yet many decide to enter marriage to control their urges. The culture assumes that there is only one reason why a man and a woman are alone. Sex is up front in everyone’s mind.