By Ayla El Assaad Dandashi
Let me start by setting the scene. My husband and I are visiting my parents in Lebanon. It’s a big family reunion and I’m surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and my maternal grandmother. My mother’s sister, who happens to be married to my dad’s brother, is recounting another one of her famous stories for the 100th time. She is standing and gesticulating while the rest of us are sitting down in a semi-circle around her. Attentive and smiling ear-to-ear, we are ready to laugh at the precise moments in the story that require it. My sister is visiting for the first time with her husband since getting married and so we are all determined to put on a great show as he hasn’t heard this story before. My grandmother interrupts her shisha smoking at various intervals to correct my aunt. There is a steady stream of coffee, tea, sweets and fruit flowing in and out of the kitchen.
I’m sure this scene is familiar to many of you, and is perhaps something you take for granted; I know I have. I’ve recently taken a bold step and quit my job, after almost a decade, to do some soul-searching. My newfound sense of freedom has allowed me to look at all aspects of my life with fresh eyes. Everything seems new, different and exciting – including this somewhat predictable family evening. Throughout my childhood, teens and early adulthood I’ve looked up to grand role models such as Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, or Serena Williams. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that none of them really truly resonate with any aspect of my life as a modern Arab Muslim woman. Of course, I’ve also included my parents in this group, but it has dawned on me that I have always admired them for the sacrifices they have made for me and not for who they are as people.
Tonight however, as I look around me, I realise there is much to learn from, and much to admire about the people I take for granted the most, especially the women our culture sometimes takes for granted who, most of the time, seem to exist for the sole purpose of bearing children; the women who sometimes get buried behind the piles of laundry and dirty dishes.
“Throughout my childhood, teens and early adulthood I’ve looked up to grand role models such as Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, or Serena Williams. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that none of them really truly resonate with any aspect of my life as a modern Arab Muslim woman. “
My shisha-smoking grandmother who is now in her early eighties went back to high school to graduate after giving birth to her seven children. She later attended university at the same time as her eldest daughter, graduating with a degree in history. My mother, who is currently pouring tea, is now in her fifties and is doing her third degree (a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy), and will continue to get her masters degree in the same subject. My storytelling aunt married the man she loved, her teenage sweetheart, at a time when arranged marriage was the norm. She also wrote a book of Arabic short stories in her forties, becoming the family’s first published author. My other aunt, who is sitting to my right, is the definition of resilience: she refused to give up her education after getting married and spent the first years of her marriage flying back and forth to Syria to earn her degree in law. She later earned her masters at the same time I was studying for mine.
“I realise there is much to learn from, and much to admire about the people I take for granted the most, especially the women our culture sometimes takes for granted who, most of the time, seem to exist for the sole purpose of bearing children; the women who sometimes get buried behind the piles of laundry and dirty dishes.”
Two of my cousins are huddled together on the floor looking up at their mum. They too are inspirational, strong Arab women who are following their passions by working in creative fields, rewriting what it means to be an Arab American woman, and flying the flag of their hybrid identities high and proud. Another cousin is sitting with one eye on my aunt and the other on her laptop. She is in her twenties and is a year away from completing her PhD, the youngest in her batch to do so. My sister too – the woman we are celebrating this evening – was undermined throughout her childhood for being too innocent, and was fussed over and worried about. She has now blossomed into a powerful young woman living her life without asking for approval and waiting for no one’s permission.
As my aunt’s story concludes, our laughter reaches its climax and my aunt bows as we clap. I smile not only because we have succeeded and my sister’s husband is laughing, but because I feel inspired. These women who are usually forgotten and taken for granted have now ignited a fire within me. I’ve realised my role models are around me, closer and more relatable than I had ever imagined. They are my inspiration, my values and my role models…who are yours?
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Ayla El Assaad Dandashi is a writer and communications professional living and working in the UAE. She has a BA degree in Media and Communications with a specialization in Journalism and an MA in Social Research both from Goldsmiths University of London. She was born and raised in Saudi Arabia to Lebanese and Syrian parents.