One of my earliest memories was of mama pulling me behind a curtain so that I could change my soiled tights. I was very young and bewildered as to why I couldn’t just make the clothing swap in the living room so I wouldn’t miss out on the Pokemon episode I was watching with my cousins on MBC.
“Eib!” my mother scolded – an Arabic word that loosely translates into flaw, stain, vice, or disgrace. I assume that mama, like most mothers, was doing her best. She wanted me to understand that my body was mine, and that any sexual touching from strangers was a violation of my person. Unfortunately, though, the message didn’t sink in very well. Probably because it was laced with the age-old cultural narrative that my body was the property of my family, my community, and my ummah.
By calling my vagina eib, mama was effectively attaching my family’s honor to my sexuality. I knew innately that masturbation was disgraceful and that I would be reprimanded if I was seen standing too close to a boy. But although my sexuality was vehemently denied, I was constantly being sexualized by those around me, from relatives who teased me about being “ripe for marriage” to strangers who groped me in the street.
The pernicious effects of my sexual (mis)education became glaringly apparent to me when I began dating. Like many women, I have been with men who were not worth my energy or time. One of these men raped me. He was thrusting roughly and I told him he was hurting me, but instead of stopping he kept going and assured me that “he was almost done”. I just laid there and took it, staring at the ceiling until he came. Even though I broke up with him shortly after that, it took me a year to realize he had sexually assaulted me. I wasn’t particularly angry at the time and that bothered me immensely. I felt like there was a gaping hole where my rage should be. But the feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. I sensed the same hollowness when I was groped in line at a coffee shop and when a man brushed his hand against my ass at the grocery store.
Through therapy, I have learnt that it is important to be curious about my feelings rather than immediately judge them as bad or good. So I am asking myself: “Why don’t I get pissed when someone violates my physical boundary?” My theory is that I, like many women who grew up in my cultural context, was taught from childhood that my body isn’t mine but rather the property of my family and community. If I don’t own my body, then my “no” has no meaning and I might as well shut up and take it. There is no place for my anger in this equation.
When I began dating my current partner, I started realizing that there is also a flipside to not being able to say “no”, and that is that it becomes really really hard to enthusiastically say “yes.” I suffered from vaginismus for a long time in my relationship. And I still find it difficult to give into sexual enjoyment and ask for what I want in bed. If my body isn’t mine, then how in the world can my pleasure be?
I suppose I am writing this to tell myself, and perhaps others like me, that our sexual dysfunction does not mean that we are broken, but rather that we are victims of cultural narratives that rob us of our physical autonomy. The process of reclaiming my body and pleasure has been ugly, messy, and traumatic. I don’t expect it to get easier in the short-term but I hope there is something better waiting for me on the other side.