“Never. I never want to get married,” I say proudly to everyone in site who asks me when I’m going to get married. I didn’t use to say this; in fact, I’m pretty addicted to romantic comedies, gush over cute couples, and cry at weddings. Yet existing in a local culture where dating and marriage norms are so vastly different had made my expression of feminism one that scorns relationships altogether.
In Sidi Bouzid, many (not all) women derive their value mainly from family life. I’ve seen this focus on marriage become a vehicle for a masculine control and power that isn’t as openly acceptable in my community back home. People here call me "meskina," the word for “poor,” a lot here—not because they think I’m financially poor, but because I don’t have family with me.
I’ve pushed back against these attitudes by rejecting the traditional family structure and insisting I’m happier alone—I don’t need marriage, I don’t need babies, I don’t even need to live near my parents. I’ve leaned on my worth within professional and academic contexts to assert my idea of a true feminist. After living in Sidi Bouzid for a little bit, my idol became a single, confident CEO that travels the world and relies on herself.
Checking My Perspective
Thankfully I have examples of local women that remind me feminism takes many forms depending on the individual and her context. Many mothers in my Peace Corps site were married as children. But rather than playing victims of misogyny, they are resilient feminists in their own right. My host mother, married at 15, has raised a daughter who is top of her class. My neighbor, married at 17, makes sure her oldest daughter comes to girls’ empowerment club each Saturday. My friend’s mother, after raising five children, pushed for classes in her village and is learning how to read and write. The mothers of the girls in the dormitory send their daughters away to high school when local education is not an option.
From my position as a white, upper-middle class American, I was being ethnocentric, viewing women’s rights as a linear continuum in which the West has won and more isolated places were behind. In reality, my narrow definition of feminism, one that can’t encompass other desires, cultures, inequalities, and challenges, is another form of patriarchy in of itself.
My host mom can be just as feminist as my single CEO superwoman—there is no one ideal, a fact that I often forget. While I was home, I was a bridesmaid in the wedding for one of my close friends. Out of nine bridesmaids, I was the only one sans significant other, fiancé, or husband. As the beautiful ceremony progressed, I watched my parents sit in the audience. I was confronted by my conflicting personas— one from my Peace Corps site that’s scornful of all relationships, one that wishes rom-coms actually mirrored real life, and one that cares deeply about making my own parents happy.
While I felt no shame for being single, I wondered if my parents were disappointed, if they wanted to experience that same, emotional feeling other parents have when they walk their daughters down the aisle. Not one for holding in feelings, I shared this concern. My parents asked me if I was crazy—they don’t care about “giving me away” to anyone. In that moment, I realized that in order to become my fulfilled-independent-feminist-that-don’t-need-no-man self, I didn’t have to reject the same family and relationships that have sustained me up until now.
I can be independent, travel loving, romantic, and family-focused all at the same time—they are all parts of me, and none are in conflict with each other. Regardless of our social identities, employment status, or the people in our lives, there are no rules for becoming a complete woman. The reactionary and exclusive vision of a feminist I had come home with, was only holding me back.
A Complicated Freedom
As I focus on gender in my site, this same exclusivity also has the dangerous potential to put others down; the freedom we all should have doesn't mean we all can or will make the same choices. By working with many women and girls here, I’m learning to view my own life, and other people's lifestyles, through a lens that's more inclusive of individual context.
When I do this, I see so many examples of girls growing up with more opportunity, and less expectations, than their own mothers had. Living in a culture so focused on family has reinforced my view that womanhood should not be defined by motherhood or marriage. Yet living here has also made me consider motherhood, and mother-daughter relationships, as powerful forces that can hold up the freedom of choice so central to feminism.
It's made me even more grateful to my own mother, who encourages my independence beyond the confines of professional or marital success. I am now the same age my mom was when she got married. Many of my friends know whom they’ll marry, and not a day goes by where someone doesn’t ask me about it here. But unlike society, my mom has never made me feel like my lack of significant other makes me any less. And even if I don’t make the same choices as her, she will always be my ideal feminist.
After spending a couple weeks back in my comfort zone, I’ve realized the value of reflection in entering my second year of Peace Corps with intention and perspective. In my old job, we often facilitated a check-in at the mid-point of each fellowship to track progress and see if any issues need addressing. I am using these same questions for my own self check-in, since I don’t have a direct supervisor here.
Instead of just thinking through the questions, I found it more helpful to type them up. That is because this past year, writing has been a big tool for me to think through and reframe my experiences positively, and on my own terms. I’m sharing my “Self Check-in” here, especially in case other PCVs want to try this activity too.
How is everything going?
Overall, being a Peace Corps Volunteer is way harder than I expected—which makes me glad I did it. Of course, having never lived in a village, my cultural adjustment has had ups and downs. But more than that, my biggest challenge has been finding comfort and inner peace amidst the ambiguous nature of “work.” Not having specific goals is exciting in theory, because I have never been this in control of my time before. But in reality it is terrifying, because I don’t know how to define or celebrate my own success. Without specific team and individual benchmarks, my own motivation, confidence, and sense of accomplishment are withering.
What are your greatest accomplishments so far?
If I did anything this year, it was just connecting with and learning from local peers who are not only friends, but also partners and mentors in bringing more opportunities to youth in Sidi Bouzid. I came in knowing that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything impactful on my own. But I had to learn to trust these friends, and not shy away from asking for leadership from others. From afterschool clubs to refurbishing our women’s center, I was more a helper and less the organizer or teacher. On the Peace Corps section of my resume, I’ll probably never use the action verb “spearhead” or “led”—and that’s something I’m proud of.
Have you identified any opportunities for personal and professional growth?
In terms of personal growth, I need to work on my self-esteem instead of constantly tearing myself down. Guilt has been a big theme in my service, and is my first instinct when I’m spending time in my house watching Netflix, or away from site to meet up with other friends. Instead of approaching my Peace Corps service like I would a traditional job, I need to reframe it as a learning opportunity that is definitely going to teach me more than I can give back. I did write my first ever blog post about how I plan to measure my success in terms of relationships and lessons learned, but ditching my competitive focus on individual accomplishment is much easier said than done.
In terms of professional growth, I hope to practice more transformational leadership as opposed to the “dominant understanding of leadership” into which “much leadership discourse has remained locked.” I’ve seen both kinds of leaders in my site; my friends are transformational leaders, since they value relationships and bring people together for collaboration. By contrast, the way that provincial and local administrators talk to me shows their desire to exert control rather than inspire. In the next stage of my career, especially if I ever manage others, I hope to adopt the leadership style of my counterparts.
What do you imagine to be your long-term impact on Sidi Bouzid?
Over the next year, I hope to expand my work with women and girls—both formally and informally. Living in an area where patriarchy plays out differently than in the U.S., has caused me to constantly perceive my world through a gender lens. Formally, I hope to keep engaging women and girls through our girls’ empowerment (GLOW) club, opportunities to exercise, and activities with the girls in the dormitory. Informally, I can say that I open up discussions about gender a lot with both male and female friends. If my own focus on gender equality helps motivate even just one girl or woman to exert more control over her own life, then that is enough long-term impact for me.
What do you imagine to be the long-term impact of this experience on you, personally and professionally?
Thanks to the criticism and doubts of the local administration, I’m becoming less reliant on the opinions of other people to feel worthy. In the long-term, I hope to be able to make decisions and handle life’s challenges even without unanimous social approval. In place of structure and formal guidance, I’m learning to trust my relationships with the people around me to create more collaborative plans.
Do you feel that you are adjusting to the local culture well?
I’ve adjusted well enough to function without having to give up some of the things I do differently, which I talked about in an earlier blog post called “The Value of Hashuma.”
What can you do to ensure that the second year of Peace Corps is even better than the first?
I’m switching from a deficit-based to an asset-based way of thinking. I need to stop stressing that I’m not doing enough and just focus on what I came here for—connecting, learning, and helping where I can. I aim to catch myself whenever I start feeling guilty or comparing my experience to that of other volunteers. That way, I can focus less on what I think the year should look like, and more on the incredible assets that already exist within this community and my life here.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!