By Ala Oueslati
Religion is a source of knowledge, inspiration, hope and serenity that people hold to give them purpose, value and peace. That is not what I was taught when I was younger. That is not what is being taught where I come from.
What I was taught though, like most young people in the Middle East and North Africa, is that this part of the world is a region where hospitality is a fundamental quality and where generosity is the common behavioral code. I was also taught to pay respect to societal and cultural norms, which are actually no more than a set of religious rules that are meant to pertain in every aspect of life.
I was not asked about my opinions, my personal beliefs, my preferences and values. Everybody expected me to act in accordance with the rules, abide by the decisions of the elder and be kind in all circumstances. I similarly expected to be shown respect and appreciation for my abilities, qualities and achievements. I was not.
Unsurprisingly, my abilities and achievements were not worth a great deal of attention. After all, what is a man worth if he doesn’t fit in the group?
The many doctrines of religion that I was exposed to did not make me a better person, nor did they add value to my endeavours. Rather than clarifying many vital aspects of my life, they confused me. The blame for all this confusion however, should not be taken by religion itself, but rather by the neverending series of interpretations that the so-called ‘religious protectors’ make. I did not adhere to any organized set of rules and by doing that I did not mean to dare or provoke anyone. All that I wanted was to find my own purpose in life, just like others wanted to find theirs.
Prohibition was king. In the Arab world anything could have aspects that should be prohibited or at least regulated: eating habits, intergender friendships and interactions, artistic vocations, language usage, physical appearance, and of course sex. The most striking among all these is perhaps the distinction that society creates between “male” and “female”, as it looks like it hits the very core of religion, believe or not!
A man has the authority to approach a woman whatever way he wants. A woman should abide by a man’s decisions and never dare to practice authority or any kind of power, as that is prohibited. A woman is judged by her ideas, language, appearance and by what others might say about her. Notwithstanding that she might be a victim, she is always guilty until proven innocent. For that reason, she is often questioned, never trusted and always asked about her virginity.
A man’s actions are usually innocuous. They are synonymous to virtue and insight, for he is more loyal to religion and God than a woman is. Sex is not a normal, natural part of a person. Yet, it becomes a man’s most intimate form of power. It excuses him and becomes a symbol that reminds women of their vulnerability, an urgent, essential, dominant aspect of life that is never talked about, and yet occupies a big part of a man’s life and identity.
For me, the list of the prohibited acts was long. It was so long that I could actually write a book about them and revise them whenever there was an occasion. And there was always an occasion. I seeked approval and recognition but little did I know, these seemingly good acts were only pleasing people. Not religion, not God, not supreme celestial powers, but people – only unthinking, thoughtless people.
Unlike civil law that regulates everyday life and assures the smooth continuity of human actions, religious interpretations and established social rules in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are meant to keep a backward, unrevised pattern of life that assures uniformity, homogeneity and hypocritical contentment.
Much undigested and conflicting knowledge is being passed straight to kids who, unmindful and defenceless, believe in these ideas and act upon them once they have grown up. The concept of religion and culture should be personal and their perception should be based on one’s individual purpose and understanding.
Established norms are ineffective. They become effective only when enforced by peer pressure and when practiced because there is nothing else one ought to respect. Emancipation begins when we choose to be different, think about it and live with it.
This blog post was originally created for UNICEF’s Voices of Youth. The post is shared through a partnership with the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth to further amplify the voices of young people.