Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book: LIOL: My Own Worst Enemy - Manal Omar

'There is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that says a person's worst enemy is between his two sides. As I reflect on my hyphenated life as a Palestinian-American woman, I realize how many self-imposed struggles I have had to overcome, and also that I have always been my own worst enemy. I imposed upon myself cultural and religious norms that I inherited from my family and community. Though unspoken, I internalized the message that being a quiet and demure girl was the path to being a respectable and pure woman, and that by the time I finished college I should have a husband. And thus I entered a vicious cycle of making mistake after mistake, trying to prove that I was something I was not.'

Manal says that the part that bothers her the most about her mistakes, in retrospect is that she has always been passionate for women's rights. As a child she would argue constantly with her mother about the unfairness of her having more chores to do than her brothers. Her mother would remind her that the idea of boys doing chores at all was progressive compared to the way families worked back in Palestine but Manal found this answer unsatisfactory. After all, they weren't living in Palestine and here in the states chores worked evenly whether you were a boy or a girl.

She gave talks in college about the rights that Islam gave women - especially those related to marriage. 'I always found it progressive that within Islam women reserved the right to place conditions in their marriage contract (a sort of prenuptial agreement) that were fully binding on the man. Whether it was a woman reserving the right to charge her husband for housework or a woman being able to request a divorce due to lack of sexual compatibility, it always instilled in me a sense of pride that our rights were guaranteed. However, I also realized that there was a gap between what we practiced and what we preached.'

With a desire to please her family in her choices, Manal set out to find a husband that they could love. The first was a man she calls 'Cousin'. Manal and her family had spent the summer in Jordan with extended family when she was 17. Toward the end of that trip her cousin's family approached her family for her hand in marriage. Manal's family told them that they would need to consider the proposal - they had always been against marriage between cousins. 'My confusion led to my silence and my silence became my consent. Somewhere while crossing the oceans, this "considering" became a promise, and I found myself semi-engaged by the time we landed in the United States.'

Manal says that she knew neither of her parents would ever force marriage on her, however at that age all she really wanted to do was please her father and make him happy. Cousin was a very educated, respectable man. He was, on paper, perfect. She tried to convince herself that the little things like love, friendship and romance - things that she didn't feel for Cousin - weren't important. Eventually, however, she realized that it would be a horrible mistake to marry Cousin. She confessed her troubles to one of her brothers and the family drama began. The drama was not within her own close family, but between them and the family across the ocean. Despite the engagement being called off, Cousin pursued her for another two years before finally giving up.

Shortly after that, Manal went to college and made a point of having as little interaction with Arabs and Muslims as possible. She graduated with a degree in international relations and subsequently moved to the Middle East. She spent the first year in Jordan working as a freelance journalist and then taking a position with UNESCO. It was there that she met the man she refers to as Baghdad Beau.

They were friends first, and romantic feelings developed slowly between them. When Manal realized how they felt for each other she panicked. This was coming close, she felt, to breaking the boundaries that she had set for herself as a good Muslim girl. She was also having some issues with her work - she was unhappy with the United Nations' Oil-for-Food Program and wound up resigning. She left Baghdad and Baghdad Beau intended to follow her to visit her family and ask for her hand in marriage.

Her mother, however, would hear nothing of it. Baghdad Beau's parents were uneducated and he had more than eight siblings. For Manal's mother, the prestige of the family was at stake. When Baghdad Beau arrived in Jordan a month after Manal, he found her already engaged.

Her parents had found her a man she calls Virgo-Texas-Psychophrenic (VTS). He was blond with blue eyes, but had the manners of an Arab man. VTS was 'religious, yet liberal; educated, yet fun; and we shared similar backgrounds'. Manal moved back to Virginia (while he was still in Texas) and began planning their wedding. And then it all changed.

VTS abruptly changed personalities - he started to make odd comments about her hijab. He wanted to know why she didn't wear tighter jeans and a smaller headscarf. But while encouraging her to wear more provocative clothing he simultaneously claimed that women who did those things, or women who wore high heels and makeup were nothing but sluts. He kept saying that women had to obey their husbands unconditionally. He complained that she didn't have a job and that women should be independent. So she went out and got a job. He kept complaining. She started her master's degree and he complained about that too, saying that it was unnecessary for women to be educated to that level. Despite her views on women's rights, Manal kept bending to his whims, trying to please him. She quit the master's program.

'As I realized the fallacy in the equation of sacrifice plus appeasement equals loyalty and affection, I finally realized that I did not care what he wanted. It should not have been about him, at least not to that degree - it should have been about me. So I called him and told him where he could buy quality clay with which he could mold the type of woman he wanted to be with.'

Finally came Sequel, who she actually married. She believes that her experiences with Baghdad Beau and VTS, the emotional roller coaster, left her vulnerable to Sequel and are why it was so easy for him to slip into her life.

'I felt guilty for not fighting for Baghdad Beau, and my parents felt guilty for being so adamantly against Baghdad Beau and for rushing into VTS; they did not want to be seen as always standing in my way. So Sequel was my choice and my choice alone, although to be honest, I knew my parents were not entirely happy with him. Sequel was an Iraqi - not the Palestinian that my parents had always hoped I would marry. He was eleven years my senior, and he was what my friends always referred to as an F.O.B. (Fresh off the Boat). For us, an F.O.B. was someone who was caught between the extremes of living as if he were back in this country of origin and desperately proving he was an American. It later dawned on me that he was actually an S.O.B. (Still on the Boat)!'

The wedding was lovely. But the honeymoon was hollow. She says her first red flag was when he asked her to start a load of laundry the day after the wedding, while they were waiting for their ride to the airport. Then came the public temper tantrum that he threw in Heathrow Airport. The worst, she said, was when she accidentally saw an email that he had sent to a gynecologist. He had emailed this woman asking her how to tell if your wife was a virgin if there wasn't a lot of blood when they consummated the marriage. The doctor's response was basically, 'Just ask.'. But Manal felt humiliated. She hadn't bled a lot, true, but the distrust that this showed made her furious. It made her feel that her identity had been called into question. Sequel, somehow, managed to convince her that it was a sign of how much he cared for her. After all, he argued, many men wouldn't have bothered looking into it. They would have just assumed that she wasn't really a virgin and divorced her on the spot.

The marriage got worse. Nothing she did was right. She was all wrong all the time. Her response was to try harder. It was like the engagement with VTS where she just bent to his whims, only worse because she felt that since they were married that this was it. She had to make it work. It came to a head when an instructor at a sculling class asked her to come and have lunch with him and his family so they could continue discussing Islam. He had been curious throughout the class and she enjoyed talking about her faith to him. Well, when she went to ask Sequel if it would be okay he flipped out. He stood there on the dock yelling and screaming at her, insulting her and the instructor. Embarrassed as she was, she dealt with it the way she dealt with all the other incidents - she acted like nothing happened.

Later, when she got home from work she received a call from her brother. Sequel had called him to tell him about the incident that morning. Only in sequel's version Manal had been asked to go out on a date by the instructor and had just strolled up to Sequel to tell him that she was going. 'I was not sure which was more infuriating, the fact that Sequel had manipulated the story to such a degree, or the fact that my brother, of all people, believed it.'

The last straw, though, came the next morning. She received a call from the institute where the instructor worked. Sequel had called them, wanting the instructor to be fired. They were calling to explain, again, that the instructor was a married man with children and that he had meant no disrespect. Then the instructor got on the phone with Sequel and Manal could hear him - he was apologizing profusely, explaining that it was his ignorance to blame and "not the fault of your wife". He kept repeating that part over and over again and Manal realized that the instructor was afraid that his innocent desire to learn might cause Sequel to hurt her. She went upstairs and packed a bag.

Manal left and divorced Sequel. She saw a therapist and began working through her own issues. Manal threw herself back into her work - she covered Afghanistan and Iraq, covering the effects of war there on the women.

'Throughout this time of contemplation, I have become aware that despite all the work that I do on behalf of women, when it came to my own personal life I didn't have the strength to work the muscle of my voice. The most basic example was the fact that I did not put a single stipulation to guarantee my God-given rights as a Muslim woman in my marriage contract. Even the most common rights, such as a dowry, or the right to pursue an education, or to be able to work, I did not include. I have led many workshops for young Muslim women about their religious rights within the framework of marriage and the importance of making stipulations within the marriage contract. Yet in practice, I was unable to stand up to the cultural pressures, which deemed stating certain things "offensive." Moreover, I realize that I was consistently playing the role of self-censor, stifling my own true personality. I tried to be something I was not. In an attempt to control and monitor my feelings and to behave appropriately, I have always been my own worst enemy, enforcing all kinds of gender-bias stereotypes on myself and building walls around my emotions.'


  1. Wow...I'm glad she learned her lesson. The last paragraph sounded like she had. Very interesting. Don't take this wrong, but I think people like SOB need to never step onto the boat. It's amazing how he flipped out and twisted the story about the instructor. Annnnnd e-mailed the gyn about that virgin question. Geesh!

  2. Susanne,

    Yeah, she did learn her lesson. She's still seeing her therapist and concentrating on her life, not finding a husband. She says that if she's meant to find the right man, she will and it will happen in its own time.

    I agree about Sequel. He was clearly not a well man, though she never says that he was physical with her emotional and verbal abuse can be just as damaging.


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