“Rachael, you have a sister in America, and now you have many sisters here.” These were the words that my co-worker, Zana, told me as we left work together earlier this week.
Her words were so unexpected and kind, that I almost cried. I am not normally brought to tears – indeed, I tend to be a very discreet person about my emotions, even with my close friends and family. However, my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer has taken away some of my previously formidable emotional control. Before this experience, I felt confident in my views of life and my self-concept. This experience has led me to re-examine many of my beliefs and how I view myself and the world around me. When Socrates stated that “an unexamined life is not worth living”, he neglected to mention that the process of living an examined life can be quite challenging.
Culturally, independence does not appear to be a virtue for women in my community, rather it is the ability to mold and conform yourself to the needs of those around you that is most praised. Women are held to extremely high standards of success – in the fields of work, physical beauty, “goodness”, dedication to family, and homemaking skills. As someone who was used to living on my own, dependent upon take out for sustenance, and used to basing my success mostly upon professional achievements – there was an immediate disconnect. I did not feel judged for my differences, but I struggled to identify how to develop a connection with the women in my community – a connection that was to be vital to my life here.
When I first arrived in town, fresh from two and a half months of language and technical training, I did not fully grasp the local context and how it would impact my life and work for the next two years. I found myself warmly welcomed by my host family and most everyone in town.
Without consciously realizing it, I began to form my “sisterhood”, the women who advised and guided me. Directly and indirectly, from them I learned the ins and outs of the “Dibran culture”, the complicated nature of what it means to be a woman in this community, and the complex relationships that link this community together. They also have formed part of my safety network.
At times, I have found myself extremely frustrated by the local gender expectations. I think that I have a very specific face when I learn something that counters my sense of justice and equality – a girl beaten by a scorned boy, men being considered for a position over a woman as a woman has “too many obligations at home to dedicate the time to the job” – as my local friends will take one look at me and sigh, and say “This isn’t America , Rachael.” These things happen in America too, the difference here is that these occurrences are accepted as a fact of life. Here, I live in a society which has traditionally provided more privileges and opportunities to men, that divides the genders into very specific and defined boxes. I witness the impact of these traditions first hand. I live with a host family where I see these roles play out day in and day out.
Zana’s words came the day that I had told my host family that I was looking to move into an apartment (another example of my strange Americaness, a women living alone here is viewed as quite peculiar) and I was walking home to see my host family for the first time after I had told them my decision. My host brother had become engaged and his nuse (bride) would be moving into the house, and I had decided that it was time for me to look for my own space. I was nervous about my host family’s reaction, and had asked Zana and the other coworkers that I usually meet for coffee to help me to look for an apartment. I think Zana sensed my worry – she looked at me kindly as we parted ways near her apartment, waving to me and telling me to come over for coffee soon. I smiled at her, and waved back. Thank goodness for my Dibran sisters.