Growing up as a British-Arab woman

Not all Arab countries have an extreme divide when compared to the West.
Sunday 25/02/2018
The Egyptian-American Muslim Elhariry family and their friends take part in an Iftar dinner during Ramadan in Manalapan in New Jersey, last May.  (Reuters)
East meets West. The Egyptian-American Muslim Elhariry family and their friends take part in an Iftar dinner during Ramadan in New Jersey, last May. (Reuters)

Culture shock, identity crisis, racial recognition — these can all be experiences that an individual growing up in a multicultural world struggles with. This can especially be the case for young adults making the move from Westernised cultures to an Eastern way of life and mentality.

Even though times have moved on and ways of life have changed over the years, there are traditions and mentalities, focusing mainly on the Eastern tradition, that have stayed true to their cultural roots.

For a young adult born and raised in a Westernised society but having to stick to a less modernised way of life due to ethnic identity, it can sometimes be hard to be comfortably placed within society. This is especially true when the world is dictating a one way of life but traditional rules are dictating another.

The West offers freedom and liberalism that are not always found in most Arab and Middle Eastern countries, whether that be down to culture, tradition or religion. This can be a struggle for those who are trying to identify as both modern and traditional, finding it confusing and sometimes conflicting.

“It has been difficult trying to maintain the culture in the Western society as the culture I was brought up in had many rules. A lot of the times my parents had to make sure that I understood where I come from and make sure that I know my origin by speaking to me in Arabic so that I don’t forget about the language.” This was the response of Sylvia Salib, a young teacher raised in the United Kingdom and brought up in an Egyptian household.

She said: “A lot of the times my parents would comment on things my friends would do which in Arab culture were forbidden (e.g. boyfriend, smoking) and this is what was difficult to try and stay away from. Usually, if my friends are doing it, then it meant I can but that is what divides us. I guess that’s why I ended up making friends with people from Arab origin as the culture was very similar instead.”

Salib recently moved to Egypt. As a young adult, she described the move as a culture shock and that it was hard to adjust to a new way of life.

“I received the biggest culture shock when I first arrived,” she said. “There are a lot of rules against women and there is no respect for each other. I had already had the first argument in the airport as no one understood the meaning of a queue and people were pushing in from everywhere. Every time I asked someone anything, I would get the same response: ‘It’s normal over here.’”

The biggest cultural change and adjustment, however, was Salib’s treatment as a young woman in an Arab-dominant society. “The culture shock of a woman being told what she can wear and what she shouldn’t wear when going out. That was very annoying, especially when they claim that such rule would prevent a woman from being harassed,” she said.

Not all Arab countries have such an extreme divide when compared to the West. Julie Khalil, a 33-year-old woman of Egyptian origin who was also raised in the United Kingdom, moved to Dubai in her adult life and described the culture shock that came with her move as very trifling.

“Dubai is multicultural and doesn’t feel very Eastern,” she said. “In fact, it doesn’t have much of its own culture and you’re therefore surrounded by so many different cultures.”

Khalil also spoke of growing up in a Western society while sticking to her traditional roots. “It was challenging to have to stick to our traditions while faced with encouragement to do the opposite on a daily basis,” she said.

Both women agreed that they prefer living in a Western country where there is more freedom along with non-gender bias. They said living in a Western country makes young Arab women feel more comfortable and safe knowing that they have the right to choose and decide on how to live. In Western countries, these women have a voice to be heard.

Although Eastern societies offer rooted traditions that keep young people grounded, some of the less modern and liberal “rules” may need to catch up with the present world that young British Arabs are being brought up in to avoid culture shock and identity struggle.