Dating as an Arab Girl: of Religious Guilt, Car-lationships, and the Proverbial Bawab

By: Nour Jumma

Let’s not even call it dating. We need a shorter word for “sneaking around your parents’ back to get your heart broken by someone you would be probably punished for talking to in the first place.” Am I right or am I right? In retrospect, it probably sounds like a good idea in a moment of loneliness or a fit of rebellious rage. Unfortunately, it usually never is. But let’s review those relationships, shall we? Let’s talk about why they’re almost always doomed to fail, and how it explodes in our faces in an ugly mass of bitterness and shame and absolute despair. And why you continue to try dating different guys regardless. 

Relationships come in different variations, but there are a few characteristics that are semi-exclusive to Arab centered “entanglements” if you will. These usually circle around the girl. The guy has an easier time getting around his parents, with no one overlooking his every move – as opposed to an Arab girl, who has both parents hounding her about where she’s going, who she’s going out with when she’ll be home, who are you texting? Why are you smiling at your phone? Who got you that pretty necklace? Why are you coming home with flowers? Why are you dressed so nicely? Who do you have makeup on for? Why do you wanna buy pretty underwear? Why do you have a password on your phone, what are you hiding from me? You do know that dating is haram, I don’t want to hear you talking to boys at all. Why are your pants so tight? No, that dress is too short. I don’t want to hear the term “boyfriend” under my roof, if your dad finds out he’ll kill you. Why do you wanna cut your hair, who are you trying to impress? Why, who, when, where, and probably 50 more phrases I’m missing. How we survive our teenage years in Arab households is beyond me. 

Firstly, there’s religious guilt. Whether it’s small comments from mama or her sister, on how it’s not okay to talk to boys outside of school and how your interactions should be limited to education, because you don’t want God to be mad at you or “mama will get judged for what you’re doing, by the way”. It could even be guilt coming from within, feeling like you’re sinning by having feelings for someone or for being intimate – sexually and otherwise – because you’ve been taught your whole life that there’s hell waiting for those who sin. We’ve been taught that God will punish a woman who touches a man out of wedlock, we’ve been taught that when we go out in ‘inappropriate’ clothes we provoke men, we’ve also been taught that there’s redemption in our suffering and guilt and shame in our acceptance of love and intimacy and all that comes with. 

Religious guilt works both ways, it is equally internalized as it is inflicted. I used to be with a guy for a while, and we eventually broke up because he said, and I quote, “Your hijab freaks me out dude dating is already haram and I feel like I’m sinning more cuz you’re a hijabi, I don’t think I can continue dating you” So much to unpack in a single sentence. Religious guilt includes and is not limited to; ‘tants’ that glare at you when you walk down the street with a guy – even if it’s your brother, she’ll glare regardless. It inherently puts a strain on relationships, eventually resulting in a shaky commitment from either or both sides, followed by the eventual demise and doom of said relationship. It starts as little fights of “I really really want to see you” because you can’t possibly bring up to your dad that you want to go see a boy, or “why do you never wear the necklace I got you” because you don’t want to lie to your mom about who you got it from, and eventually it detaches completely to “you don’t even care anymore.” because you barely call because your sister is always around and she’ll probably snitch to your mom who’ll lecture you about عيب and حرام. Not a moment of complete serenity in sight. 

And then you surpass religious guilt, and you’re finally in a car-lationship! What’s that? It’s when you mostly only ever hang out in his car, away from civilization, when mom thinks you’re at a lecture, but you’re hanging out in some sketchy car-park or down a side alley, and maybe you picked up food from a drive-thru. But that’s the car-lationship you get when you’re lucky. Most of them are limited to “Mama, I’m going to run down to the supermarket for some chocolate please” or “Mama, Nourhan is waiting for me downstairs with her mom she came to pick up Biology notes from a class she had with me” and you can finally see him for all of 5 minutes before Mama starts to question Nourhan and my Biology notes. 

I had a friend who dated this guy for a while, her parents were extremely strict and barely even let her stay for after-school activities. She wanted to see her boyfriend for New Years Eve and spent weeks trying to figure something out. Eventually, she hatched a plan that I think was pretty damn genius. Earlier that day she asked her mom to go get a few project supplies from the store down the street. And she did. Then way later than night, she rushed into her mom’s room freaking out, claiming that she can’t find the necklace she was wearing and that she must’ve dropped it when she was walking to that store. “It’s the gold necklace Mama I have to go look for it.” With some back-and-forth negotiation, her mom eventually let it go, and she was able to walk out of her house and spend 10 short (but long enough) minutes with him at midnight. A romantic story for the ages, you guys. 

I mean, the extent to which you have to be careful of everything is absurd. A couple of years ago, one of my guy friends started dating this girl. When her parents found out, it was a shit-show. They started monitoring her phone, checking call logs, and not letting her go out without them. How do you get past that? I used to go over to her house as often as I could so he could FaceTime her from my phone. Arab fucking relationships, man. 

One of my favorite things in Arab-relationships is having a designated friend be your excuse to leave the house. I’m usually that person for my friends, and I’ll sometimes have to call my friends, asking if she’s on her way, or where I should meet her, just so her mom can hear proof that she is coming to meet me when usually I’m at home applying a facemask or making dinner. Or I’ll have to be the third wheel on a sappy date in case her dad calls and I have to make some background noises so he doesn’t doubt who his daughter is with. Fun stuff. 

There are secret meet up spots that are so ratchet, if you were caught dead in them people would probably think you’re hanging out there shooting heroin. There’s saving them under a girl’s name, and there’s calling them at ungodly hours, just to make sure everyone at home is asleep. There’s never being on a date, never having your first kiss, barely video-calling, never holding hands, strategically hiding his hoodie, making sure you never smell like men’s cologne after seeing him, anything that could possibly give away that you even know anyone from the opposite sex. 

Madness. Dating as an Arab girl is absolute madness. 

You know what fuels these relationships though? Pipe dreams of going abroad for university or for work, of escaping the tight grasp of mama and baba, of the unforgiving society, of the never-ending slut-shaming, of the culture that has zero tolerance for love. Relationships are hard, but oh my god are they harder when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder in fear of the proverbial bawab and co.

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