I was pretty “nishan” (Arabic slang for straight-laced) growing up. Measuring myself against an imagined norm, I developed holes in my confidence. I wondered what might be wrong with me, since I wanted to be an entomologist, preferred staying inside and playing truth or truth on Saturday nights, I never had a boyfriend, bikinis made me feel exposed, and 100% of my close friends were girls. Honestly, I haven’t changed that much since high school (probably why I relate so much with angsty, coming-of-age books and movies #bildungsroman).
The traits that made me question my normality in the U.S. are really more the societally accepted norm here in Sidi Bouzid. Compared to some other Americans, you really might think I’d fit in well in this Moroccan village. But socially constructed norms have a funny way of never actually making you feel normal. In my current community, I’m just as weird against my Moroccan community’s norms, but for completely different reasons.
Here, some things I carried over from my life in the U.S. make me “hashuma” (shameful)—how I love having a glass of wine and venting, my views on dating before marriage, my propensity for sundresses, and the (from time to time) mixed gender company I keep. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced here is determining when I should hold onto my own norms, and when I need to respect the norms of the people that surround me.
I’ve been toeing this line by untangling my values from the norms that, if stripped away, aren’t actually so important to my identity. A quick Google definition search tells me that norms are “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” Values are “a person's principles or standards of behavior; one's judgment of what is important in life.” A lot of the time, this exercise is easy, and I don’t feel like I have to compromise my values by adjusting. That’s because the friends I’ve made here really do share most of these values.
I am happy to report that we raised the grant money for repainting and refurbishing our center for women and youth in Sidi Bouzid. Members of a local youth association have been working for hours each day to get the job done before the new school year starts. I love working with them, because like me, they value teamwork, volunteerism, and helping their community.
As we worked into the night, I texted a friend, asking if I could come over and have a bite to eat. Instead, she made and brought dinner to all the members of the association working late. Like me, she values generosity and sharing. And this morning, as my neighbor knocked on my door to see where I’ve been, I was reminded once again how much concern my friends in Sidi Bouzid have for the welfare of others. Like me, they also value loyalty and being there for one another.
I can go on to my friends here about how much I miss my mom, and show people the pictures of what my family back home has been up to. That’s because like me, people here also value family and community. It’s safe to say that most people here are in the same page as me in terms of core values, which is what makes me feel so welcome.
Am I Normal?
Of course, there are times when I feel like I have to choose between adopting new norms or staying true to my values. I was faced with such a question last week, when I had some friends staying over, one of whom was male. Since I have my own house, I had the choice of letting everyone in or asking the guy to stay somewhere else. I knew hosting him would be hashuma.
Yet those of you who know me from home, know that hospitality is a value that I hold very dear. I can’t turn a friend away. A few girlfriends voiced their disapproval directly to me, and I’m sure many more people in the community did so behind my back. But I didn’t even think twice about welcoming my male friend into my home, and I would do so again.
Choosing to follow my own norms, especially when they contrast with others, is an opportunity to realize and express what I value most. As most people here ask me when I’m going to get married, I’m learning how important my independence is to me. When I hear a friend making a comical nod to Hitler, I speak up about its inappropriateness—I value calling out bigotry rather than keeping a low profile. As many people here spend most of their time together, I’m realizing how I do value some alone time.
While I might sound confident, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, if I hear someone say something I do is hashuma, I become anxious that everyone in my community will stigmatize me. This fear is compounded by the small, interwoven nature of this community; similar to social circles at home, people here gossip, and things spread fast. I’ve had a recurring vision of myself wearing a scarlet letter, cast out for all the hashuma things that I’ve either talked about with friends about or acted on at site.
Is it possible for me to live freely while maintaining the relationships that are literally everything to me here in Sidi Bouzid? After all, another one of my top values is openness. How can I have genuine friendships without being 100% open about the traits that make up who I am?
Learning to Relax
But alas, I have made real, evolving relationships, without feeling like I’m hiding my true self. Someone might think something I’m doing is hashuma –they might even talk about it with me, or gossip about it with someone else. Yet the more I interact with my community, and the more I open up to friends, the more I realize that, while social and cultural norms can be mean and unforgiving, my real friends are not.
Now that I’ve been here for almost a year, it’s safe to say that to my friends, I’m more than just my “hashuma” traits. And regardless of the Moroccan norms and rules we learned about in pre-service training (PST), every person here is more than the norms and rules of their society—like me, they are full, complex people with varying values, boundaries, and perceptions.
I need to give myself the room, and my friends the trust, to maintain respect for their cultural norms while knocking down my own guard at the same time. These are not the people that will shut me out; only my own fear and anxiety can do that. I feel confident now that I can hold onto my values even when it means being selective in the norms to which I’m adhering.
It’s important to recognize that I’m in a position of privilege as an American. People expect me to be different, and so I can more easily get away with playing by my own rules. In that sense, it is easier for me to hold onto my own values than for someone else who will be here long term. But it is exactly that—the shifting of environments—that has forced me to really consider how fickle norms can be, and what those values are (plug for exchange programs).
I’ve learned so much from my community, especially my counterparts; I’ll save that for another post. But we don’t learn just about others through international and intercultural exchange—we also develop and learn about ourselves. Moving from one set of norms to another is hard and stressful, especially for us anxious and people-pleasing types. But it is worth it. It’s making me more confident in my own skin, with a clearer idea of what values I hold most closely, absent the norms and judgments in both societies that always held me back.
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!