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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Woman from Iraq

In the last 20 months I have lived in London, I had the chance to meet many first-generation Iraqis, who settled in the UK during different stages of the trouble contemporary history of Iraq. Their diversity in matters of cultural adaptation and Iraqi identity, can only be explained by the diverse backgrounds they have back home. The first Iraqi I met was Tara, almost my age, came to the UK when she was 11. Because of some Turkish origin, I guessed she might be an Iraqi from her last name which sounded Iraqi; otherwise nothing about her looks was Iraqi. However, once I got to know her, hear her Iraqi Arabic and the use of Iraqi slangs that I had heard from my brothers once, I realized how Iraqi she was. Tara represents for me many first-generation Iraqi women, whether they grew up here or immigrated in their adulthood, who adapted to the surrounding culture, or they belonged to the secular-educated Iraqis who passed uninfluenced by the religious waves that hit Iraq in the early 80s or 90s.

When she invitd me to Chew & Glew event in the Arab British Center, where she gathered group of the Iraqi diaspora she knew, I met more exmaples who were more or less like her. Iraqi women and young girls who gave me a glimpse of what Iraq could have looked like if the Shia or Sunni hardliners didn't take over its cultural landscape. There I met Aysha and Nazili, young Iraqi girls in the prime of their youth, so involved and committed to their roots that they were keen to do anything to help. With modern (or European) outfits, they sounded so smart, so lively, but above all so free. The more I knew them, the more I felt sorry for my sister, Batool, who was almost their age, and my female students, whose potential and freedoms suppressed by the dominant religiously patriarchial cutlture. If my sister was raised in a free atmosphere, where she could dress what she wants, and express herself the way she wants, maybe she would have been happier than she is now, and more importantly, more creative and committed to make something of herself, instead of submitting to the dominant culture that defines her existence within the traditional framewrok of marriage and child bearing.

In the same event, a girl with hadscarf, wrapped in contradiction to her jeans and long boots, stepped up to thr front and talked about her dilemma as an Iraqi girl from religious family, but born and raised in the west. It happened that I knew her mother, who was working in an Iraqi charity that was active among the Shia community. That 20 years old girl's talk inspired me to do my research on the Arab and Muslim women sense of identity. Till now I haven't read writing so genuine as the words of that girl, who told group of strangers what she was going through as devout Shia muslim girl in multicutural society. Her words shattered away the ideal of tolerance and accepting the other, as well as giving voice to th dilemma which Muslim communities in the west dismiss and would like to keep it suppressed.

The headscrafed girl told us she was born in Holland for Iraqi parents, who were devout Shia Muslims. They moved when she was couple of years old to England, where her parents reconnected with the large Shia Iraqi community living in the UK. However, as a second-generation Iraqi born and raised in the west, she felt different from the rest of the Shia community in London, as the latter mostly consisted of first-generation Iraqis who left Iraq end of the 80s and 90s. The mixed cultural influences that shaped her identity made her fell between two worlds: she was neither the reserved Shia Iraqi girl nor she was European girl. Her appearance expressed that perfectly.

Straangely I felt she was talking about me though I never left Iraq till I was 2015, when I was already 37 years old. As far as my memory can go to my early childhood, sense of being different, unable to fit in, dominated my sense of being. I had asked myself many times why I was different from my other sisters, why I always wished for something different from what my mother wished me to have? Sometimes I blamed myself, believing that I was different for the sake of getting attention, or just to annoy my mother. When I grew older, the sense I wanted something different became stronger, but I just couldn't understand what was that I wanted. I had no more options to make me realize what I really wanted. As I had other 5 sisters, who mostly subscribe to the dominant culture, I often felt out of place among them. When one after the other followed what the surrounding world wanted and wished for a girl, I moved further away from them, and felt that I would end up the strange sister which no one would want to hang on with.

Once I finished my PhD, I tried to fit it, but my own way, but after 5 years of struggling to find my place in a world that I deeply rejected, it was apparent that I was not cut for that role, nor I belonge to that world. I was thrown out of it though I tried my best to fit in.

Couple of months later, I found myself in London, a world that I thought I belonged to, but after almost two years here, I still feel I don't belong to this world either. Now I remember the words of that girl: I don't belong to the world I was born and raised in, nor I belong to the new world I was so keen to join.

I tried my best to fit in here as well, but all my attempts didn't have satisfactory results. It is maybe too soon to judge, and perhaps in the future, when I further settle down, I would feel different. For now, I am falling between those two worlds: neither I can't go back to where I started, for I know I don't belong there, not any more at least; nor I belong to this world I live in now.

Iraqi women, whether they were raised here, or came later when they were adults, they managed to follow the path they knew would make them happy: stick to the religious conservative Iraqi life they left at home, or follow the westren style of living. I am standing between the two, unable to walk into either of them.

No doubt I envy those first-generation Iraqi women who managed to find their ways in the multicutural life in London. But, I know as well that I can't follow either road, or at least I won't be happy with either. I need to discover, or start my own. Till now I have no example to follow, no map to guide me through. I have my own sense of comfort that I am trying to test its limits every now and then. Once I feel discomfort, I retreat back to the usual zone.