Arab mothers describe cross-cultural experience raising a child in the UK

Lina Slaymaker, an Iraqi mother of two teenage daughters, spoke about her experience raising her daughters whose father is Italian-English.
March 11, 2018
A tourist takes a picture of a woman and child reading a book as they sit inside a perspex container and go about their normal family life backdropped by the River Thames and St Paul's Cathedral, centre, in the City of London, Friday, March 9, 2018. Amnesty International UK is staging the living installation over Mother's Day weekend, entitled 'The Undeniable Wonder of Family Life', celebrating the joy of spending time with family and highlighting the importance of reuniting refugee families.(AP Photo/Alast
A tourist takes a picture of an installation entitled 'The Undeniable Wonder of Family Life', celebrating the joy of spending time with family, over Mother's Day weekend, in London. (AP)

LONDON - Mother’s Day is an important celebration of the pivotal role that a woman has in the life of her child and in society. Arab mothers described their experience raising their children in the United Kingdom and the effect both British and Arab societies had on the mothers’ decisions.

Zaheira Barok, a Yemeni mother of three daughters, spoke about her experience dealing with Arabs after her divorce.

“Arab people judged me because I was on benefits,” Barok said. “If I was English I don’t think I would be judged as much. Being an Arab Muslim, we have to be more aware of society around us.

“Over time I decided to ignore what society thought of me and decided to raise my girls the way I saw fit. I found a way to answer people and I think this is where my aggression comes from. I felt I constantly had to justify my actions and decisions. Then I thought: ‘Why do I have to justify myself?’”

Barok said she had to lie that her daughter was married after she learnt her daughter was pregnant out of wedlock.

“I only told one friend at work that my daughter fell pregnant out of wedlock,” she said. “I had to tell everyone else I knew that she was married. If I was English, I wouldn’t have to lie.

“My parents were angry because they are traditional but they never let the grandchildren feel the anger. My family embraced them straight away. Even though they are traditional, they have very good foresight. My parents never blamed me for my daughter’s actions even though society straight away blames the mother.”

Lina Slaymaker, an Iraqi mother of two teenage daughters, spoke about her experience raising her daughters whose father is Italian-English.

“It is challenging raising children of two cultures,” she said. “There are a lot of clashes starting with religion. Even though I wasn’t raised very religious, we believe in God and we follow basic Islamic principles.

“I teach my daughters about Islam but they are constantly being influenced by their friends. For example, my daughters say I’m homophobic but I am not. They think I’m weird. Although I could be wrong, to my understanding this is not the norm.

“I found it hard to explain to my girls that I respect people in the way they want to live their life but if it was normal then two people from the same gender could produce offspring. Although I treat homosexuals as anyone else, my daughters push me to accept them as the norm and their father backs them up.”

Slaymaker’s daughters have learnt to accept that it is hard for their mother to change her mentality and resolve culture clashes by coming to a common understanding.

“What they have learnt to accept is I need time to accept new ideas. I try to adapt to their way of thinking but it’s hard because I was brought up in a different society,” Slaymaker said. “My daughters say religion was written for a different time but for me, religion applies to every generation.

“I don’t want my daughters to be like me because that’s impossible as they are raised in a different society but I want them to understand my culture. If I was married to an Arab, I think my daughters’ understanding will be a lot better. If I was an Arab brought up in England, it would be a lot easier as I would understand the culture more.”

Maha al-Mufti, an Iraqi mother of a daughter and a son, explained how she raised them when they were teenagers.

“I tried to treat my son and daughter equally but there are certain things I kept in mind for my daughter such as reputation,” she said. “However, morals and daily practice is exactly the same. At home it is not 100% pure English, neither 100% pure Arabic or Muslim traditional way of life.

“My children were exposed to both cultures and all beliefs. That’s why they accepted and understood our culture. The only difference is my son was allowed out late whereas my daughter was not unless it was with a close family friend. My daughter protested this. The reason I imposed this rule is because she is a girl and I felt she could be abused. However, in reality, both genders are vulnerable so it is wrong.”

Mufti said she would not have raised them any differently but would have influenced them with their choice of friends more.

“My son always preferred non-English people whereas with my daughter all her friends are English. I found my daughter’s settlement and integration is much better than my son. She accepts the English culture without judging. My son judges,” she said.

“Although my daughter’s exposure to the Arabic culture is a lot more than my son’s she does not practise it as she feels Arabs judge more than English do. My son’s exposure to the Arab culture is limited but he practises it much more.”

Mufti’s daughter is married to an English-French man and is pregnant. Mufti said she wanted to teach her granddaughter the basics of Islam.

“For my granddaughter, I can only advise but I cannot interfere,” she said. “However, when I have my granddaughter with me, I plan to pray in front of her, read the Quran and speak Arabic because Arabic is the language of Islam. I want to give her the basics and pillars of Islam. Once she grows up, she can research more if she wants.”

Mufti experienced the influence of Islamic extremism with her son.

“I was concerned about the information that was passed on to him by his friends. He said hijab and niqab [are] compulsory but I explained this is not the case and he understood,” she said. “I told him not to listen to friends and they might not understand Islam properly. I advised him not to search on the internet about Islam because most of it is wrong and not to listen to preachers in mosques. He should pray in a mosque and leave.”

Asmahan Alkarjosli, a Syrian mother of three sons, explained the importance of perfecting English while living in England and not letting another language and culture prevent that.

“In Syria I was an artist and an art teacher so I wanted to be a teacher when I arrived in England,” she said. “Before I came here my English was really bad. I felt people didn’t respect me because I didn’t speak English well even though I was more educated than a lot of them. However, I took English courses and involved myself in English society which I love to do.”

Alkarjosli said she was proud to be Syrian but she felt women’s rights were prevented there. That has led her to resent the society she was raised in.

“I have always been rebellious in Syria. I really pushed for women’s rights,” she said. “Even though there are a lot of things I don’t agree with about Syrian society, I still consider myself Syrian because I spent my childhood there. I tell my sons they are Syrian even though they don’t know Arabic and only went to Syria once. I never let them forget they are Syrian.”

Although Alkarjosli taught Arabic in England, she did not push her children to learn Arabic.

“I was against teaching my children Arabic. Even though I taught Arabic to English people in a school, I don’t want my children to have any influence from Arabic society. I didn’t want my children to be split minded about their identity and I was afraid if I spoke to them at home in Arabic, it will hinder their ability to speak English well,” she said. “Even though it’s beneficial to have a second language in the long-term, I wanted to give my children the choice to learn it when they grow up.”