“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.
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!