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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Two Years in London

 Two years have passed since my arrival to the UK.  Every time I see my reflection in a mirror or a glass, I remember how I was like when I first arrived here. Not  only my looks have changed, but also the way I defined myself. I look at my reflection and think that I finally dress like I would like to, without having tens of voices dictating what outfit I need to put on. However, the change runs deeper than that.

Feminists from the Middle East often talk about their expatriate experiences as liberating and how such experiences in the free west have untangled them from restrictions imposed by their cultures to set them free in the wide world. One feminist from Iran, Mahnaz Afkhami, who were exiled from her country after the revolution for being outspoken feminist, says in her book on Women and Exile, that exile in the stories of women collected in the book has been or can be perceived as liberating experience for women to step out of their cultural restrictions.

Her words did not ring a bell with me, as I didn't come to the UK to be free from my culture's patriarchy, nor I was interested then in experimenting with personal freedom, European-style. One the contrary, I deemed gender expectations as perceived by European men as demeaning to women as the ones we have in Iraq. Each try to pull women to one extreme version of what men wanted women to be and do, but neither are democratic enough to consider and accept what women really want.

The personal space, privacy and independence I have enjoyed in London since my arrival, went unnoticed and unappreciated because I did not leave my country to enjoy these. They were not among the list of things I wanted to achieve here. I wanted and sought for something else, related to my career as academic, rather than aimed at having a breathing space from my suffocating culture. Such perspective I know was shared by many of my colleagues, who came to the UK seeking an advanced degree in a UK university, but not a UK life-style.

In the name of preserving our cultural identity, resisting western thinking influence and resisting racial and cultural patronizing, I didn't appreciate, or I was not aware of the value of the personal freedoms, which have become available to me, as single woman moving to London on her own. I did not appreciate the freedom of movement which I had never access to back in Iraq. The fact that I didn't to take permission from my parents, nor I needed a brother to go shopping or having no curfew was not part of the things that I valued the most in London, though it was worth fighting for at home.

The available freedom, being unsought for, went unnoticed by me for most of the first year of my staying in London. The only change I had in my looks was to replace the overcoat, we call in Iraq 'juba', dressed by conservative Muslims, with jeans. It was more convenient and easy to move around with jeans rather than in the overcoat. I was at home before it got dark, even when the daylight continued till 9 pm. I did not make any effort to socialize or hang around. London for me was day-time city, where I can visit museums and libraries, but it did not exit after 7 pm.

Living as such how could my exile be a liberating experience? At the beginning of June 2016, I visited one Iraqi woman, who moved to the UK after 2003. She was not many years older, but her experience was much bigger and deeper than mine. We knew each other through mutual contact and we met once few months after my arrival when our mutual contact invited us to attend an event for Iraqi diaspora in the Arab British Center. I was lost and she showed me the way. I introduced myself and because we shared the same name, we hit off. It turned to be she was the person who helped in getting me my first part-time job. We friended each other on Facebook and started a friendship based on nostalgia for everything that is genuinely Iraqi, and missed in the UK. Then she invited me to her house.

She was not the first Iraqi living in the UK to invite me over. When I first came, a contact in Iraq asked his friends in London to invite me over and look after me. They paid their obligations by one lunch or dinner invitation and asking me to contact if I needed something, but such pleasantries were always preceded by the advise of relying on myself only to survive in London. Such invitations were heavy on my heart, as Iraqis would say, and I knew they were not enthusiastic about it either. However, Nadia's invitation was different. I was waiting for it. I was badly in need of a friend with whom I could connect with and Nadia's Facebook profile suggested that she could be what I was looking for.

In her house in St. Albans I met her two kids and her English husband. We shared fried tomato the Iraqi way and chatted a lot about our experiences. The few things she mentioned about her experience enlightened me, and made me aware of the freedoms that were denied to women at home but were available here. Such freedoms are taken for granted by Europeans, and I failed to recognize them and make use of them, but there were valuable and worth fighting for in our part of the world.

Starting from that time, I looked at myself in the mirror and asked myself how I wanted look like, with or without headscarf, in a dress, jeans, bare-shouldered top, or long-sleeve. I asked myself if I was to keep the headscarf, why I was doing it? Is it because I believe in it, or I was keeping it for my family? I questioned every definition I gave to myself in terms of religion, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, and whether I was who I claimed myself to be.

One result came of my questioning, that every definition I had given myself before was taught, imposed by outside power, be it religion, family, school, society, or political system. I realized I could not change the last 37 years of my life, nor the identity I had assumed under those influences, but I could refashion an identity of my own now. Then I understood the words of Mahnaz Afkhamy: exile could be liberating, when we realize we no longer belonged to the old world we left, nor did we belong to the new one, we just moved to. We has parted with our past, and our future was yet to be written, the only certainty we had was an open landscape of now moments.

My questioning and redefinition has not resolved yet. After two years I am negotiating what I am and what I want to be, but I know now that I am no longer the same woman who landed in London two years ago. I know I am no longer in a maze, and no matter how foggy the near future, I am definitely heading somewhere, where I can be who I truly am!

Nadia F Mohammed 

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