If there is one word that I have learned backwards and forwards; one that I will never ever forget…it is “iba”. Iba. Such a simple word. So seemingly insignificant. But it is this word….this simple, two-syllable declaration… that can destroy a reputation. A word that can dishonor a family for years to come. A word of deep shame.
Because quite literally, “iba” means just that. Shame.
This concept of shame is something that I am learning more about every day. I have only begun to scratch the surface of this deeply embedded idea. However, I am finally realizing the things that make me “shameful” in this culture.
It’s things that you would never think twice about in the West. Many things are quite simple. Do not apply chapstick in public. Food and drink is only consumed while seated. There is no “to-go” in this culture. Try to avoid eating with or using your left hand in public. Make sure you are entering through the “women and family entrance” at local restaurants…as many are segregated male and female.
Others are not so easy. To look a man in the eye or smile a friendly hello as we are so accustomed to do in the States is fiercely inappropriate here. Accidentally brushing his hand when receiving change in a store….or even worse…purposefully reaching for an arm/shoulder/back in a meant-to-be-friendly touch. Bending down in front of a man. Showing your hair, ankle, or elbow.
American. Here, Hollywood defines the Western world. Hollywood has set the standard for what this culture believes Western women value. How we choose to dress. What we participate in. And most importantly, what morals we hold.
The resulting stereotype is not pretty. It’s embarrassing. It’s a stigma.
Yes, the dueling forces of honor and shame can initially be difficult to understand. And yes, on 110 degree days, I do wish I could pull on a pair of shorts and throw on an old tank top.
But just as I am here to have my own American-born stereotypes and ideas of the Middle East, Iraq, and her people broken and shattered into a million pieces, I am here to shatter expectations. To build new stereotypes. To immerse myself in Iraq and her culture, experience it fully, and behave in a way that brings honor to myself, to my gender, and to my country.
American freedom, “expressionism”, and high individualism are truly beautiful things that should be deeply valued. But while I am here, my fiercely independent, women’s rights lovin’ little self is learning a lesson in the beauty in quietness. I am growing to love the lens of “honor and shame” that governs this place. The dependence in community. And the cultivation of respect for another’s culture.
So today, I will wake up and put on my worn-too-many-times-in-a-row ankle length skirt. I’ll make the 15 minute walk to the office and wait to gulp my water and breakfast down until I arrive. I’ll go to lunch and ask the men in my group to take my payment to the counter. I will embrace the extremely entertaining face/hand/foot ONLY farmer’s tan I am rocking. And I will be thankful for this time to experience, to grow, and to sweat just a little bit more.