Fulfilling fantasies and hiding bodies: the reality of Arab women.

‘Oh my god you’re Arab, just like Jasmine in Aladdin!’

That right there, that was the moment part of me died and I realized that humanity wasn’t one wonderful ball of brilliant people, but instead, humanity was stupid, and it insisted on asking me ridiculous questions. Which sounds pessimistic and bitter, but honestly, as an Arab woman, you’ll hit pessimistic and bitter quicker than you ever could have imagined. Between questions about arranged marriages and the assumptions that you know how to belly dance, you really do start to lose hope for this world, and by lose hope, I mean you feel like screaming at everyone.

This lack of hope is most obvious when you hit the dating scene. Dating, as an Arab woman, is a whole new world of pain that even our over waxed bodies aren’t accustomed to. All of a sudden, you’re thrust into male fantasies about your ethnic origin and you’re suddenly transformed from Egyptian, Sudanese or Libyan, to some Arabian princess who sleeps on a magic carpet. I have lost count of the men who have told me how ‘exotic’ I am, or whispered that they could see the desert sky in my eyes. What the hell is the desert sky anyway? I thought the sky was just the sky, but apparently not. We’re asked to speak in Arabic because it’s just so sexy, told that our fiery temperaments are a turn on, our curvaceous bodies so much hotter and our ‘kohl rimmed eyes are enchanting’.

We’re hyper sexualized every step of the way and instead of finding some deep rooted compliment in it, it’s mostly just exhausting and makes me want to throat punch the men I meet while reminding them that it’s just eyeliner and I bought it from Boots. It’s not ground down from the dust of pharaohs and I wear it because I look about 16 without it. Yet they have such a keen sparkle in their eye and they’ll talk to you about flying carpets and burning incense, their very own exotic fantasy manifested in front of them.

That’s just the white, male fantasy. The Arab men have their own set of fantasies for you, and normally they’re silent ones. They don’t dream about making sweet love in a tent in the desert because a) everyone knows that sand gets everywhere and it’s totally impractical, but also because b) they’re more concerned with how well you can cook and if your jeans are too tight. There’s a huge part of me that hates making that statement because I want to believe that Arab men today aren’t part of that narrative. They’ve evolved and transcended the typical gender roles our culture laid down so many decades ago and are emancipated from the shackles of boringly traditional masculinity, finally thinking for themselves. Alas, tis not to be and they still remain colossal pricks as they cross examine you about every man you spoke to that day, including the postman.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule and not every white man will assume you’re a byproduct of Jasmine and Aladdin, and nor will every Arab man be constrained by sexism. But fuck the exception. No one is talking about that. We barely meet the exception, or even know of their existence, which is the very reason they’re the exception in the first place. Knowing that your friends, brothers, cousins mate is really forward thinking and doesn’t care if his wife wears miniskirts is really of little consolation to me.

Because actually, the cold hard truth is that our reality is constrained by sexualized notions of who we are, while on the other hand we’re hiding our realities with a handful of lies. Namely when we’re at weddings, which is apparently the acceptable time for the entire Arab community to interrogate you about your love life and you’re forced to lie that you just haven’t found the right man yet, while actually, you’re probably hiding a 3 year relationship with a white man. (If you’ve managed to find one that doesn’t think you just popped out of a Disney film). Or pretending you’re on a work trip as you fly to Paris with your boyfriend. Or even hiding your boyfriend under you bed as your parents unexpectedly arrive home early from their weekend away. That’s our cold, hard, grimy reality.

We’re financially and sexually independent. We barely cook for ourselves let alone the men in our life, and we’re unequivocally not going to take you on a magic carpet ride. Nor do we own a tiger.

The Arab women that I have met are glorious and multifaceted creatures – not because they’re dancing through desert sands, but because they have borne so much. They’ve rose above tradition and culture to forge out incredible careers for themselves. They’re strong, not because they’re ‘feisty’ and full of fire, but because they have faced oppression and bigoted opinions at just about every step of their journey and they had to be strong to survive. There wasn’t any other choice.

At some point something has to give. We don’t ask every blonde, blue eyed woman named Cindy if she’s a stripper that’s going to do a lap dance for us, so it’s probably past time that we stop discussing Arab women within the paradigm of sex and pleasure, devoid of intelligence and opinions. Just because history has entered us into the pages by proxy of our beauty, it doesn’t mean that narrative has to continue. I’m tired of being spoken to as the exotic beauty with the dark eyes and curves. It’s a suffocating standard because you feel like you can’t slob around in tracksuit bottoms and no makeup, which I, incidentally, would like to do on a regular basis, and also because my physical appearance is the last thing I want you to notice about me. Whatever beauty I may posses is not the whole part of me.

Of course, Arab women have the right to revel in their beauty, sensuality and passions as much as the next woman. Hell, I’m all for it. It just can’t be the thing that leads the conversation anymore. There’s a huge difference between taking an interest in the sum total of another person’s culture and traditions, listening and learning about those things, and stamping your own desires on another person’s heritage. That will never be okay.

The reality of Arab women today is that they excel in business, academics and leadership. They live alone, they’re subservient to no one and they don’t apologies for their success. They’re creating truly brilliant worlds for us all, and that right there, that’s the whole new world.

Salma El-Wardany