I’ve never been one to take the path of least resistance, although throughout, my life would have been easier for it, in a way. One of my mum’s best friends recently told me of a time when I was four years old, when I had insisted on revealing some fact or other, even though decorum dictated I should keep it to myself. When she had tried to shush me, I had looked her right in the eye and said: ‘But you know it is the TRUTH.’ That I should be ashamed to share it was therefore a weird concept to me. I’ve always considered what was real and what I thought as ‘right’ to be more important, regardless of convention, or what other people might think.
Egyptian by blood and birth, I have grown up between London and Cairo. Despite the fact that I was raised by open-minded, pretty chilled parents, as a woman, and perhaps particularly as a Middle Eastern woman, I have long understood what it was that was expected of me; from how I should look, to what I should want, how I should behave and my place in the world.
The spoken and unspoken rules never sat well with me. Who came up with these rules anyway? And why did I have to blindly follow them? What’s more, I had learned by observation that no matter what you did or how ‘well’ you behaved, people would still have something to say, would still have an opinion or a criticism. Might as well do what I wanted, then.
I started smoking cigarettes at 13-years-old. In a culture with strong gender norms, doing things like smoking signalled that I was not the ‘good Arab girl’ I was supposed to be. It was my first form of rebellion.
In Egypt, many of my girlfriends also started smoking cigarettes young, drinking to excess as well as having boyfriends. The normal rites of passage all felt doubly naughty because they were things we were not supposed to do, and because we consequently had to come up with a number of ways to get around these restrictions.
We would fabricate endless lies to tell our parents, and always have each other’s backs when one of the adults was to call. ‘She’s just in the bathroom!’ we would say, other times dialling in on a three-way call so we could pretend to pass the phone back and forth, covering up that we were in places we weren’t supposed to be, with people we weren’t supposed to know.
Once I moved back to London aged 13 – after a year living in Egypt – and became witness to the seemingly greater freedom of my new friends, I began to care less and less about getting caught. I seemed to want to get caught, in a way. I made many decisions that could be considered mistakes, in the interim.
But I don’t consider any of those things mistakes, really. In breaking the rules, I pushed the boundaries and crossed the lines, and in doing so figured out where my own boundaries lie, where I wished to draw my own lines. Each time it brought me closer to becoming an independent adult who knows who she is and can have conviction in each of her choices.
What’s more, in challenging and questioning my parents’ rules, I sometimes made them question them, too. As invisible immigrants living in London and raising children who were in many ways British, they too began to consider what their own moral compasses were, what their own belief systems dictated, rather than blindly following those handed down from generation to generation, with little or no thought or negotiation.
As a Lebanese friend of mine who was born and raised in London told me: ‘Rebelling is about having the ability to separate what you were taught while being brought up and what’s best for you… Being able to separate what your family and your society want, from what you want, is the biggest benefit of rebelling.’
As I grew older, I realised my teenage rebellion had just been practice, in a way, to figure out what it was that was worth fighting for, to figure out how to fight and how to tune out other people’s opinions. I came to realise that living life the way you want to, as opposed to as prescribed by gender roles, societal expectations and the opinions of others, is a rebellion in itself.
Everything, from calling out family members for restrictive and reductive ideals, getting a job in a field that’s ‘not the kind of thing women do’ or insisting on getting married on our terms, when we’re ready, as opposed to when society has deemed us of marriage age, is all rebellion.
Of course, rules and restrictions are often designed out of care and of a desire to protect. That’s ultimately what it comes down to. But rules and restrictions are also often constructed out of what is considered the norm, and norms don’t change unless you make moves to change them. Ideas and ways of life we now consider normal, such as that women are equal citizens, for example, were once considered shocking. It was the rebellion of women such a Gloria Steinem which helped shaped society as we know it.
An Egyptian friend of mine resisted and rebelled against an arranged marriage, years later marrying a partner of her own choosing, the love of her life, and a man arguably much better suited to her than that her parents had selected for her. By rebelling, she broke the cycle.
Another friend – a half-Egyptian, half-Polish woman who was raised in London – had been hiding the fact that she had a Jamaican boyfriend who she was living with from her dad. When she recently got pregnant, she finally told him, terrified of his reaction. ‘Thank God all good Egyptian dads get soft in their old age,’ she said, when I asked her for his response. Indeed, he loved her and trusted her judgement, and that ultimately is what mattered more. When faced with the choice of putting your ‘honour’ and your judgements aside, or losing those you love, most families would hopefully choose the former.
Of course, not all do. Not all families would respond with understanding or acceptance. There are many heart-breaking stories which highlight this, from so-called ‘honour’ killings, to women being pushed to run away from home and seek asylum in other countries in an effort to, as one Saudi girl put it, ‘own’ their own lives. I even know some people who have lost touch with their families completely, unable or unwilling to live a double life in order to appease them. The risks of rebelling are real, and in some cases can be fatal.
For me, my rebellion helped re-write the rules, not just for myself but for my entire family. It totally changed the relationship I have with my parents for the better, making me more able to be the real me, and for them to know who that is. Now, they are two of my best friends and they know everything about me, encouraging and supporting and allowing me to make my own mistakes, trusting that I will know how to fix them, or grow from them, or at the very least live with them, myself.
Many of the women I spoke to throughout the course of my recently released bestselling debut book The Greater Freedom – which ultimately questions all the things women, and in particular Middle Eastern women, are told we ‘should’ look, live, love and be – told me how rebelling in one way or another allowed them to live life on their own terms and to help pave the way for more understanding and a broadening of expectations and of viewpoints, throughout.
Indeed, rebelling allows everyone to be truer to themselves. That, I’ve come to realise, is ultimately the greater freedom. And it takes rebelling, it takes questioning all of the ‘shoulds’ and carving out our own paths, instead of just blindly following the one laid out before us, that will get us there. That will achieve that. For us, and for all those who come after us.