On wedding invitations or party invites in the Arab American world, this rule is a given.
In my Yemeni culture, it’s very rare that you’ll find men and women mingling at social gatherings, which is due to a strict Islamic interpretation on gender interactions.
It’s a rule which gave me the opportunity to get “dolled up” in preparation to hang with my lady friends – doing my hair and makeup and putting on a cute dress. And yes, since I was getting dolled up – sometimes this meant putting on a sassy tank top or short dress – knowing I was strictly in the company of women – no men allowed.
The fact that this was a constant in my cultural world that I had taken for granted first struck me when a co-worker some years back started telling me about his fiancée coloring her hair:
“I like the color of her hair the way it is,” he remarked matter-of-factly, “so I told her not to do it.“
“Why would you think she’s doing it for you?”
“Why else would she be coloring her hair?” he asked incredulously.
“Because she likes it – not for you.” I answered incredulously.
“No woman colors her hair for herself,” he said knowingly.
I don’t remember much more about this conversation except that this was sort of an epiphany for both him and me.
Being a hijab-wearing Muslimah meant that no males saw my hair except my father, brothers and uncles.
With that in mind, coloring my hair was something I did purely to change up my look – getting fierce with it at times experimenting with colors and lengths.
The fact that my (non-Arab American) co-worker totally missed the notion that his fiancée would change-up her look for her own pleasure – not that of other people or men – made me realize that I had never considered the notion of doing myself up for male attention.
And at that moment it struck me that here was an important ethnic social norm that is very healthy for us as women. I believe the female-only culture in the Arab American environment I grew up in saved me from a lot of self-esteem issues and trauma.
Room to be Yourself
This post was actually inspired by the sisterhood I see every Wednesday at a female-only gym I attend in Dearborn, MI (Dearborn has a diverse mix of cultures and also the largest population of Arab heritage – outside the Middle East.)
What I particularly love at this gym is its Zumba class.
Now, Zumba for those of you who might not know, is marketed as a sexy dance workout. The infomercials show happy young and slim women dancing complicated routines exercising their way to skinny-er.
What do I love about the class at my female-only gym?
That it’s simply not what’s advertised in those infomercials.
What I see is an “all sizes, all shapes” intergenerational group of women (one I met recently is 79 years-old), all races, socio-economic levels and all faiths dancing to an instructor who is not at all a professional dancer but rather a lover of dance and people.
I see my mother’s Arab American friends who barely speak English dancing together with a Polish neighbor -to what else – but Great Balls of Fire!
That class is too low impact for me but from my perch on my treadmill in the back of the gym I see every single women smiling and high fiving and trying to communicate in all their various mother-tongues.
Importantly, I don’t see how something this pure and awesome could happen if this gym weren’t female-only.