Waiting in the airport, Ameena was giddy with excitement.
It was her 18th birthday and she was about to fly from her childhood home in the Middle East to Canada to go to college. Years later, she still remembers the flight arrival time. 11:35am, North American Eastern Standard Time.
It was to be the beginning of her new life as a liberated woman.
Growing up in a conservative, Islamic country, Ameena had felt out of place. Here, women had one acceptable path for their lives:
Be a virgin. Marry a man. Have his babies. Serve your husband and family.
Follow any other path, and you will be shamed.
She recalls a conversation during which her mother instructed her aunt, “you will always be second to your husband.”
This same mother lovingly told Ameena that she could be anything she wanted to be. But it appeared that in this country, there was only one role available to women. And Ameena wasn’t interested in it.
She didn’t want to be a “good Arab girl” who was quiet, compliant, and pure. She didn’t want her life to be relegated to the home. She didn’t want to be second to her husband.
She didn’t want to be shamed by her culture for being loud mouthed, outspoken, and independent.
She wanted to hang out with boys. She wanted to be hot and bold. She wanted to have sex.
So, with her family’s blessing, she moved across the globe to find a place where she would feel more free.
And Canada did not disappoint!
Ameena’s eyes widen as she recalls all the freedoms available to her in her new, progressive, Western home. Even living in the same dorm with boys was mind blowing.
And Ameena’s peers seemed so liberated! Her female floor mates all engaged in frequent sex, spoke their minds openly, dressed provocatively, partied, and used drugs.
So, Ameena did too. She experimented with boys, sex, and drugs. She put on tight skirts and went to clubs.
She smoked. She drank. She did it all.
And for a minute, she felt free and happy.
Then, things changed.
On Easter break, Ameena was in the dorms with the only other international student in her building, her roommate’s boyfriend. She was doing homework in her room when he knocked and asked to hang out.
Ameena said, no, she was busy.
Then, out of the blue, he asked her if she wanted to sleep with him.
Ameena was shocked. Why would this guy, who she barely knew, think that she would have casual sex with him on a Wednesday afternoon? And when he was dating her roommate!
“I know how you are,” he said, “You’re so open about sex, I knew you’d be down.”
She shut the door in his face. What could he possibly have meant?
When school resumed, the rumors began.
Ameena’s roommate, along with the rest of her college peers, believed that Ameena had, in fact, slept with this boy. And soon, it seemed, everyone thought that she had slept with other students too.
They ignored her.
They shamed her.
They whispered about her.
They called her a slut.
They ripped down her campaign posters for the student election and left them torn and crumpled on the floor. She stepped on them on her way to class.
Ameena was devastated and confused.
What had she done wrong? Why did people believe this boy’s story over hers? Why were her friends allowed to sleep around but she wasn’t? Why did her comfort in her own sexuality mean that she must be sleeping with everyone?
Her head wanted to explode. She felt crazy.
One night, Ameena went to the roof and called her mom for support.
She shared everything. How she had failed to be a proper woman at home, and now failed to be a proper woman abroad. How she always thinks differently, acts differently, and speaks differently from everyone else.
When she was done, she cringed in silence and waited for her mom to confirm her suspicions: she was crazy.
Ameena’s mother’s reaction was the last thing she expected: she laughed. “You’re not crazy, Ameena” her mother told her, “you are a beautiful and independent woman in a world where that is not okay. You are perfect.”
Ameena was quiet for a minute while she took this in. How could her mom, whom was deeply rooted in conservative and traditional practices, tell Ameena that her independence was okay? She recalled the time her mom told her aunt that she was second to her husband, and asked what she meant.
Her mom responded that she meant what she said, but that what she didn’t say was the part no one talks about. Women’s work requires strength, intelligence, and power. Women and men each have a place in society, but you have to define your own future.
Ameena still doesn’t quite know who she is, and she’s okay with that. In fact, even as the way she defines herself changes, she gets more comfortable with herself every day.
She feels lucky, even. Because she has two cultures. And each culture gives her unique values, practices, and role models.
She no longer tries to match others’ behaviors in the name of liberation.
And she refuses to be shamed in the name of propriety.
She embraces the ways she is different from others.
To create the future she wants, she looks both inward and outward. She picks and chooses what works for her life.
Because, ultimately, her life is her own.
In times of struggle, Ameena recalls a special memory from early childhood.
Her family was at a large indoor amusement park, and Ameena had proceeded to climb to the top of the highest slide. When she reached the top and looked down, she was terrified.
For the next 35 minutes, she sat, paralyzed, trying to muster up the courage to go down the slide. For 35 minutes, her mom stood at the bottom of the slide, encouraging Ameena and making sure she knew that any choice was okay.
When Ameena was ready, she jumped.
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