Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

“We Don’t Judge You By Our Standards”

It’s never a good thing when a sentence starts with “we don’t judge you by our standards.” You know that whatever comes next isn’t going to be good.

It was our favorite time during Arabic studies. We were sitting around in the majlis room, sprawled against the cushions. We had finished all the lessons of the day, practiced new verbs, done all the dialogues to death, and we had a few minutes left before classes ended. Our teachers were really special women, and during these last minutes it was always question time, when we could ask them anything, anything, and they would answer, even if sometimes to laugh and tell us it was none of our business. We had so many questions!

“When we go downtown, ” I had started, “we have a good time. We laugh and we talk and chat among ourselves as we shop. But when we see local women shopping, we see you in groups, but you aren’t laughing or chatting. Is there some prohibition against it?”

There was a long silence. I really liked this teacher, and she really liked me. I knew, as the silence dragged on, she was seeking for a way to be kind. Finally, she spoke.

“You know, we understand you have other ways, not our ways. We don’t judge you by our standards. . .” and she gave a little sigh.

“In our culture, for a woman to laugh out loud in public . . .it would be taken as lack of self control. People could criticize. It could keep a young woman from making a good marriage.”

You could hear the collective gasp. Although it was said with great kindness, it was a serious blow.

When you are first learning a new language, and a new culture, it can be intimidating, but mostly, if it is well taught, it is fun, exciting, and stimulating to be mastering a new skill. The women at this language center went to a lot of trouble to insure that we were entertained while we were learning. They taught us Ramadan customs, they prepared an Iftar supper for us, they brought in all their jewelry and produced a bride. They henna’d our hands, and poured us tiny cups of qa’wa and chai with milk and spices. They took us on field trips. They treated us like sisters, or daughters. They were so kind, and babied us along as we struggled with the new language.

I give this teacher a lot of credit. She could have finessed the question, but she didn’t. She considered her answer, she knew it could offend us. And she chose to answer us honestly, trusting we would deal with it.

I had a physical reaction. I wanted so badly to “get” Arabic, to understand all the customs . . . but to give up laughter? I went through all the stages of grief, staying longest with denial and anger. I thought of all the times I headed for the souks in a gaggle of laughing women, and I felt ignorant, and ashamed, and also angry. It was a real struggle for me, a blow to my pride, an embarrassment. I felt sick to my stomach, and stayed depressed for a couple weeks. I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to have to give up laughter.

And then one day, somehow, it stopped mattering so much. Time did its work. Life went on. The teacher kept teaching, we kept learning. I no longer go downtown in groups of more than three, and we keep our voices down. We’re still our loud, noisy selves most of the time, among ourselves, but in public – we don’t want to be thought of as women who lack self-control.

October 20, 2006 - Posted by | Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Middle East, Relationships, Social Issues, Women's Issues


  1. It could keep a young woman from making a good marriage.”!!LOOOOOOL !!!



    It can give the wrong impression indeed for sick minds (&we don’t want this of course), but it’s a human nature to be happy & maybe loud..! :)) it’s totaly OK.

    Dear Friend, tell me dearly I asked, I undersatnd from your few posts that you’re someone who’s seeking to undersatnd the Arabic culture & Islam. I find it very interesting if that’s what’s your own will doing! Other than that..? But I sure can help in explaing things while I can.

    Can you please visit these sites & tell me what you think.

    University of Exeter

    Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS)

    Arabic, Islamic & Middle Eastern Resources


    I wish joy & blessings,


    Comment by JOAN OF ARC | October 20, 2006 | Reply

  2. Joan – LOL – hey Joan, tell us what you REALLY think. 😉 Don’t hold back!

    It was a different country, not Kuwait. I was studying in a religious environment. I think the rules were a little different. But I am also willing to bet that there are some very traditional families in Kuwait, too, to whom those perceptions also apply. What do you think?

    Eid Mubarak, habib’ti, and safe travels, wherever you are.

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 21, 2006 | Reply

  3. Hmm, it does sound like a different country than Kuwait now but yes, too much boisterous activity by girls is frowned upon in Kuwait too.
    It is hard to understand whyone should act dignified instead of natural but there is a duality in our culture where some kinds of behaviour or expression are practiced behind doors but not for the general public.

    Comment by jewaira | October 21, 2006 | Reply

  4. I did say what I think! (in the forth line).

    You don’t give me any feedback on the links I give you! 😦



    Comment by JOAN OF ARC | October 21, 2006 | Reply

  5. Syria and Lebanon are filled with laughter, ya khalti. I know many religious women, and see many more, out and about, smiling and laughing with their families and their friends. what I do not hear are big American guffaws – I see the laughing faces, but these women modulate the volume of their laughs – and their voices! – so they do not carry from one restaurant table to another.

    Joan, nerdy niece me looked at the websites you posted and was mystified. two are departmental websites for undergraduate and graduate studies in the UK, and one is a compendium of resources. are you interested in graduate work? or in finding websites that offer good information on Islam and the Muslim world? I had trouble discerning a common theme, but would be pleased to chat with you further on email, especially if you are interested in graduate programs.

    petite a.

    Comment by adiamondinsunlight | October 21, 2006 | Reply

  6. Sorry, Joan, “tell us what you really think” is something we say when someone has been very frank and passionate about what they believe. It’s gentle and affectionate kidding.

    I did look at the websites; I think you are recommending places where I could do further study? I am also thinking that when my neice comes back to Kuwait (thank God, she comes often) maybe we should meet.

    But in a place where we can laugh!

    Question for you – I responded to several of your questions in an e-mail sent to the yahoo account – did you get that e-mail?

    Little Diamond – nshufich badeyn, insh’allah! Did you find the radio show?

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 21, 2006 | Reply

  7. Jewaira – I am always honored by your visits.

    I think that for us, we have occasions when dignity is called for, and we rise to the occasion, but keeping dignity first and foremost when in public is not the norm. Because we try to behave with respect for the country we are in, I knew I had to make the adjustment. Some adjustments are easier than others!

    Joan – I bookmarked the Exeter resource page. What a gold mine! My neice, “little diamond” is working on her PhD in Middle East History at Columbia, but she writes her dissertation in a variety of countries.

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 21, 2006 | Reply

  8. I didn’t get any e-mails! It’s good that you said something about it.. I just sent you an invitation from my googel g-mail.

    We do need an email me & you! lol 😉

    See Ya 🙂

    Comment by JOAN OF ARC | October 21, 2006 | Reply

  9. […] the eyes of my aunt’s Qatari friends, I demonstrated a terrible lack of self […]

    Pingback by Beirut’s hidden dangers: a heedless Virgin « A Diamond’s Eye View of the World | January 29, 2007 | Reply

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