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Ad infinitum!

By Amal Mustafa Mahmoud.

As a girl, I was taught to lower my gaze, to not look directly into the eyes of the man speaking to me. This was the training I received for eighteen years, from childhood through to adolescence, and until my identity as a young, (beautiful) woman was complete. Ever since I began to develop an awareness of my femininity, I learned that one must be careful. I didn’t know what danger to be careful of, but I was aware that spontaneity was not allowed: hide that grin, don’t joke too much, keep a distance from the man speaking to you—and of course, don’t look into his eyes.

My memory was piled high with stories my mother told me about women who had fallen victim to men; my place in a patriarchal society where men had plenty of historical and religious evidence to justify their power and control over us was an image burned into my mind. Perhaps I would be one of those victims if I didn’t obey the rules ordained for me. Obeying would be safer for myself and for everyone else.

My own stories began in my childhood, when I was eight years old. I had an uncle who loved me in a way I couldn’t understand: whenever he paid us a visit, he would bite my cheeks and I would have to endure it. It made him laugh but made me cry. The biting stopped when, during one of his visits, I yelled at him: “Back off!” And with that I declared my refusal of his violent love that had no respect for my body and took no consideration of the pain he was causing me. But my mother commented that my behaviour was unacceptable; she claimed that he did it because he loved me.

My mother’s face became a mirror against which I’d scrutinise the acceptability of my reactions to others’ behaviours, and whether I had been wrong to protest against certain behaviours. Her comments became more frequent, more thorough, and I continued consolidating my fear of the opposite sex: men were monsters who could pounce, especially onto the younger ones among us.

While I was learning about the dangers of moving freely through the world, my mother was striving to protect my sisters and I from the ugly side of society and the tyranny of men. We were raised to believe that respect, elegance, and nobility were the crowning characteristics of any woman and, according to my mother, “the greatest assets in life.” Profanities, loud voices, and indecent clothing were out of the question.

Another lesson from my mother—a teacher by profession—was the belief that school was a site of worship where no one could commit sin; a place forbidden to anyone with earthly desires.

Mathematics has been my playground since childhood. I was a top student in the subject and would work eagerly on all the questions our teacher set as challenges. The idea of competing with my classmates to solve a particular challenge would flood me with excitement, and I felt pride whenever I won. Once, when I was around sixteen years old, I was waiting for the maths teacher in the schoolyard. I wanted to show him how I solved a certain question. My enthusiasm had nowhere to hide; I used my pen as a pointer, waved my hands and raised my voice. My eyes even shone. Without realising, I had disobeyed my mother’s orders and looked him in the eyes. My teacher—who I had considered a respectable man—was standing completely motionless, returning my gaze with his. I couldn’t understand what had gotten into him. All my mother’s warnings flashed through my mind: “Don’t be spontaneous around men!” I felt that I needed to escape.

Would that have happened if I was a young man? Of course not. I would have delved deeper into maths problems, searched for tougher challenges, and I wouldn’t have been afraid of my teacher, a man like me. That same teacher would respect me, see me as his equal with a brain and ideas of my own, someone who would perhaps amount to something he never had. But I am a woman. It is not fitting to excel in a subject reserved for men.

Why is it always the maths teachers?

In the summer of 1989 I was attending preparatory classes in Ibn Khaldun School to prepare for my high school final year. The teachers at this school were all highly qualified experts with the youngest of them in their late fifties. My story this time involves one of those experts. His grey hair may have been thinning but his insolence had no limits that day. I went to see him, as usual, about a maths problem that my peers and I were finding difficult. He suddenly placed his notebook on the table and turned his gaze to me. “Look at those eyes!” he said, “And such beautiful, pale skin. Come, sit next to me,” he continued, gesturing at a chair. This was the worst harassment I had ever experienced—but there was more to come.

I went home in tears to my mother one day with yet another story. “Should I have been born a boy so that I could enjoy studying maths without going through all this?” I asked. While she was happy that I had escaped without confronting the man, she convinced me that no one would believe my account. He was a reputable teacher, and I was nobody, just another female student.

Soon after, I joined the College of Engineering equipped with all the skills necessary to escape from monsters. I no longer lifted my gaze from the floor and would only speak—including to my teachers—when absolutely necessary. I didn’t look into anyone’s eyes.

Then I graduated and started building the career I loved. I made my way one day to the Engineers’ Association to have my project plans examined and authorised. The building’s large hall was teeming with engineers from all specialisations and walks of life, but I only felt revulsion: one would think this was a well-educated community, but with all the disgusting stares that I received, I felt the urge to escape as soon as my work there was done. Here, I must apologise to all the respectable engineers whose ethics I admire. But the question continued to resound in my mind: if I were a male engineer, would I have developed a bigger network of engineers by now? Would I have a more prominent position? Would I have worked on projects that spoke to my ambitions and abilities? This community regarded me as just a female, stripped of my qualifications, even though I had studied engineering like the men.

As I reached my forties, the revolution in Syria began. I thought I had been freed from the shackles that had been forced onto younger women, since I was now married with four children and under a “man’s protection”.

During the revolution, I dedicated myself to communicating with activists all across the country using a Facebook account under an alias. One of those activists was a young man who had been hiding in the suburbs to avoid persecution by security forces. I was lucky that my husband was involved in the communications with this man; otherwise, there would have been grave repercussions upon my family.

At that time we had real sympathy for him, since the massacre he’d lived through was still dripping blood. I thought we were connecting through our shared pain for the martyrs, but his mind was altogether elsewhere. I genuinely thought he respected me and thought of me as an aunt – he would indeed call me Khala [auntie]. But it didn’t take long before his behaviour took an unnatural turn and it was clear that he no longer considered me as an aunt. I demanded that he stop contacting me, and he became aggressive to the extent he threatened to “smear my reputation in dirt” so the other activists would cast me aside. And so I gave up and retreated, one step at a time, from the revolutionary sphere that had once seemed so vast but was now closing in on me. It seemed that my dreams were too numerous to be accomplished in a single lifetime, that our society was sinking in murky swamps of masculinity and femininity, far away from the realm of shared humanity, beyond the reach of the light of justice.

My inner battles are still ongoing: I love being a woman, but I hate existing within a rigid mould whose choking limits provide no exit. My daughters have now grown into young women, and I have shared my painful experiences with them, without any sugar coating. It is my duty to help my daughters find a way to end the abnormalities within a society that has treated women unjustly for generations: mothers, daughters, granddaughters… ad infinitum.

By Amal Mustafa Mahmoud.



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