Neither My Ideas and Nor Body be Hidden Under Bagginess

Fall 2016, Canada: Emilia stands out in the crowd regardless of which country she lands in. She has long brown straight hair down to her waist and large green eyes sparkling with a generous smile on her fair skin. Her curvaceous body is not hidden under baggy clothes. She is very straightforward and articulate in her informal advanced English and doesn’t care much about the etiquette. She suggests going to a cozier café since the one I nested in is too sterile looking in comparison to what she has in mind: “Movenpick has fresh flowers on the tables” is the statement she makes. I do like the place; she is right in her observation. She took a long route all by herself to make her way to Toronto, that is, from Syria to Jordan, to Dubai and Lebanon. Yemen too, at some point, which she tells me should be the topic for a separate long session due to a very unfortunate event, a sexual assault. She met many people from all walks of life and has created her own idea of coziness and home. If this café makes her feel at home, we’ll meet here from now on. My first comment is about the weather since the difference in temperature between day and evening was extreme: “Well, I like the cold weather, I guess”, she says rather positively. “It is not fair to compare Syria to Canada, they are so different. But if I should choose one, as a young single woman, I’d opt for Canada since my personal freedom is above everything”.


I arrived here in August 2014 thanks to the World University Service of Canada scholarship for refugees. I am originally from Homs. I was raised in a Sunni-Muslim family. You may not know this but Sunnis of Homs are more liberal from the ones in Aleppo, for example. I was the last child and the only girl of five siblings. I was considered as part of the boys’ gang. My mother is liberal in her own ways; she would try to answer the questions that I had raised about Islam as a child and teenager. However, I wasn’t satisfied with her responses. I was quite a rebel, so much so that the school quickly lost its appeal and at the age of 14, I decided that it was not my place to hang out. I learned English from the movies, and found a job as an administrative assistant at Petro Canada company in Syria. My English got better as I worked there since I could practice what I had heard at the movies for all those years. I also got a self-teaching book and enrolled to a language course but the truth is they were not much of a use, nothing like the movies I had watched.

This religion issue kept my mind busy for years. I had a genuine curiosity but at some point, I gave up. The main reason was that the interpretations of the Quran was unending and people never seem to agree on certain topics. My major problem was the inconsistencies. For example, if God is all peaceful, friendly and compassionate, why are there also statements of hell and punishment in the Quran, and why are we told over and over if we don’t follow God’s orders, we’ll go to hell and burn there forever? The other major question I had was the tension or contradiction between free will of the individual and total submission to God. I denounced all monotheistic religions eventually, not just Islam. […] For me, denouncing Islam was liberating. However, in my daily life and after I decided to leave Syria and came to Dubai, my liberation was so badly misunderstood by the people I met in Dubai. Being a free woman for them was very superficially perceived. This was the main reason why I wanted to leave Dubai as soon as possible. If you hang out with men at the bars, you are a liberated woman. Nothing could be further from the truth than that. I don’t even smoke, let alone other things. To be a free woman, without any religion or other doctrines, you need to establish your own set of ethical values and hold on to them. You have to take full responsibility for your actions and use your reason well. This may mean that you are stricter and more disciplined than most other women who may not seem as free or liberal as you are. I may look independent and free-spirited but it doesn’t mean that I am “available”.

When I came to Canada, I had to face classification along with a lot of responses of sympathy. These responses sometimes lacked empathy, and had humiliation in them. People who displayed them did not know it but I could tell, well, at least, they made me feel that way. One thing I really dislike and can’t seem to get used to in Canada is the identity politics, the politically correct language, and other minority and language-related issues. For me, this is draining and limiting people’s potentials, not the other way around. Sometimes I think to myself: If this is what freedom is, it is embarrassing to seek it.


I witnessed Syrian women getting married to rich men and leading seemingly “comfortable” lives. I don’t get that. I know several women who are simply acting, and behaving like they had no other choice. There is always another choice, even death is preferable. Once I was with my mother, and a Syrian man approached her and wanted to convince her to give me as a bride. I was there, listening to the conversation, it was so strange. There was a Saudi man who overheard the conversation and disagreed with such marriage arrangements as “saving the daughter” plan. I cannot forget it because he was a Saudi whom we have strong prejudices against, whereas the guy who wanted to buy me basically from my mom was a Syrian. We all have stereotypes; I am aware of that. One thing I observe is the contrast between two societies: In Syria, people act like herds, lead collective lives, the society’s, the other people’s approvals are very important. In Canada, people are leading very individualistic lives, which also bothers me. I really wish there was a society in between. I am all for sharing; friendship is very important in my life. Here, people hardly have time for each other. They claim that they are busy all the time, even if they are initially very friendly toward you. In Syria, the relations weren’t like that, but I didn’t like to be monitored and be questioned by people I meet there either. We are talking about two very different countries on the opposite ends of the scale.




Lifelines: Syrian Womanhoods in Transition | Ozlem Ezer | Berkeley CMES