When I wrote fictional stories growing up, I always avoided writing about romantic relationships. I convinced myself that they were overrated, that everyone talks about them, that it has been done to the moon and back. I argued there were worthier connections to explore, like friendships, coworker-ships and stranger-ships. My mantra may have been true, but it was not fully true. The truth is, the idea of a romantic relationship terrifies me. Because, to me, a relationship denotes marriage, the most significant transitory action a Muslim Arab girl could supposedly take in her life.
I’m not talking about my family here. All they want is for me to do what makes me happy; they are the ones who encouraged my education, my passions in writing and arts and history, to not settle, just for the sake of settling. They never expected me to live life one way or another. But, my life is attached to Arab society, whether I engage in it or not, whether I am in the diaspora or not. The Arab world is omnipresent. This is the type of world one is supposed to engage with if they want to marry Arab, if they want to preserve the heritage, the culture. And as a member of the diaspora, I feel pressured to marry Arab, Syrian Arab, one day; to build a family, not to let my heritage die in only a few short generations.
Particularly now, as I graduate, I think: what am I supposed to do now? What am I supposed to do when it feels like the world surrounding me is suddenly about to transition from praising me for keeping away from boys, to urging me to get to know and marry one?
Sometimes, people approach me in malls, in prayer rooms, in cafes. I have had Arab aunties approach me to ask if I am married, and who my family is; many of my friends and acquaintances have had similar experiences. As it happens, I realize that I am fast approaching my “prime,” the few delicate years after completing my education where I am perceived as most marriageable. That is not to say this is how all Arab Muslim society operates — not all marriages are arranged, although quite a few are by the request of both spouses. A lot of marriages in the modern Arab world hover between the space of “Western love marriage” and “traditional arranged marriage.” People have successful marriages through a variety of methods. I do not particularly dwell on the means to consensual marriage, as much as I do the expectation for it, particularly for women in their twenties.
I have realized that the idea of marriage has permeated through my mind growing up. I had thought that, to Arab adolescents, the ticket to full adulthood was earned in the act of marriage. In exchange, independence slowly earned through the college years and beyond had to be sacrificed. Marriage had been present when I think about what I want to do with my future — “if I’m a doctor, I would always be at work away from family, if I’m an archaeologist, I will always have to be traveling…”; it had been present when I considered how decisions, good or bad, may reflect on me in time, when I considered “what will others think?”; it had been present when I considered where I want to live, how I want to travel when I’m young, “while I’m still not attached.”
I have, subconsciously, fed the idea that I am young, I am independent, until I get married. Until I get fully adopted by Arab society, and that becomes all I am.
But now I think, I get married, then what?
Do I really stop becoming a person with autonomy over my own decisions? Do I become a wife, a mother first, Sidra second? Do I cease to be the main character of my own life?
Somehow, I always thought that this was the expectation I had for my life. That this will happen in my life. Probably in my mid-twenties, probably to a Syrian. That I will dedicate the rest of my life to being the keeper of heritage in the Arab-American diaspora. But how could this, this be my happily ever after? What I perceived to be one of the greatest achievements I could accomplish? I only ever thought of marriage — and motherhood, always seemingly intertwined with the concept of marriage — as an abstract thing in my future. The lines blurred between the romance of Western media and the expectation of society that I imagined the ideal marriage simplistically — a happy, methodical thing. Placatory.
Then I realized, I am projecting what I think marriage is onto how I think society perceives it. I am not viewing it realistically. Why am I speaking about it as fact? Why am I framing my life around a fictional family? Do I even want to get married, create a family? Maybe I do, maybe not. Who knows, I don’t need to know. Or expect.
I need to consider what I want my life to be. And I need to stop assuming that freedom is only present in unattachment, because I look at the mothers around me. The wives around me. The doctors, the teachers, the homemakers. All of whom are not just the societal roles they occupy. I am not just the societal role I think I’ll occupy. I also need to stop expecting that I would be a failure if I do not marry when I think I’m expected to.
Who knows if I’ll get married, in a year, in ten, in twenty. Who knows if I’ll ever get married? Or if I’ll ever have children? What I know is that I need to break away from my self-imposed cage, where I expect marriage to be the indicator of me settling, of me becoming a true adult, of me being the Arab I think I need to be. That there has to be a strict social binary between the married and unmarried.
To break away from the societal confines of marriage, to accept it when and if I want, I must break away from my chrysalis. From believing that I am inevitably in a state of waithood, a state of transition from being a student and child to a “true” married adult. For am I truly independent now if I am not living for the decisions I make, but rather those I think society wants me to make?
Sidra Dahhan is Managing Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org