My form

Assem and Noor, two young men, live in a society that rejects difference – even when it is an accident of birth or when it relates to immutable, physical characteristics such as pitch of voice. They share their experiences and their constant sense of pressure from a society that compels them to change according to the prevailing standards of masculinity.

This episode, “My form”, by Sowt is part of the series Eib (Shame) which discusses taboos and subjects that are considered shameful, lets those who feel shamed share their personal stories and shed light on issues that are silenced in public conversations.

Listen to the original podcast in Arabic or read the English transcription below.

Transcript in English

(Noor) Well, you need to contemplate on your way to work or while taking the bus. You need to pretend to be a mute and never speak. Try saying anything on the bus and you’ll be stared at by everyone. And you cannot escape, you are inside a moving box.

(Assem) Sometimes, I feel that I had a very long day. It becomes tiresome and frustrating to have eyes on you all the time.

(Saleem) There is a famous saying that suggests that men are better at hide and seek. We grow up learning how to hide. If we fall and injure our knees, we just rub dirt on it and conceal the wound. If we get punched in the face, we repress it and move on. If something happens that could break us from inside, we are not allowed to shed a tear… With time, we become creative with these tactics.

What we wear, what we play with and how we play are all decided for us at the age of four. How we talk and behave follow at the age of twelve. We grow up listening to what we ought to be… And in time, the world around us expands, but our own ability to expand diminishes instead. This drives us towards one thing: coping.

My name is Saleem Salameh, and I present to you the fifth season of the Podcast Eib or Shame; a Sowt production. In this season, we will hear about personal experiences that have profoundly impacted our bodies and souls, but which were still denied because society considers them… shameful.

Today, we will hear from Noor and Assem, two young people who have been condemned, rejected and sometimes had their very existence oppressed because they were created differently, especially compared to socially-imposed male stereotypes.

(Noor) Ever since I was a kid, whenever I looked at a mirror, I would discover a few things about me that were different. But as I grew up, I started to see them more clearly. Sometimes, I felt that I was two steps away from looking exactly like a girl, and I was convinced of this.

I don’t want to be a girl. After all, I am a boy in this form, and I am happy with it. I do not want to change it, with muscles and bodybuilding, and I don’t want body hair. At the same time, I do not want feminine traits. I was created in this image, and I like it.    

(Saleem) As we grew up, Noor’s body developed unlike many other males around him. He was perceived to have embraced something about himself that he shouldn’t express or be proud of.

(Noor) As soon as you leave your house, the first person you encounter will look at you in a very bizarre way, and the second person will stare even more. You start to think: “are they admiring my body or are they disgusted by it?” In the beginning, because we were kids, we thought that people said nice things about us behind our backs. Today, I realize that only one percent of these people see beauty in us, while the rest are repulsed or at least disapproving. You feel there are many question marks surrounding you. People do not like different things, even if they are beautiful.

(Saleem) The features that Noor felt drew attention to him were usually associated with his voice or outward appearance. Assem had a different experience, which relates most to his skin colour and his voice. At times, Assem has been classified as albino, but his definition of himself is very different.

(Assem) I describe myself starting from a more mental than physical point of view, even though people describe physical appearance first. Even if they know my name, they still describe me as “the blond guy”.

It is not that bad, of course. I don’t look at it this way. I have heard it from many people by now, and with time it has become normal.

Some think that this level of paleness is a disease! They say: “Look at him, is he even an Arab?” in a repulsed manner, and: “Why does he look like that? Look at his color!”

Like a birthday cake that everyone looks at it when it arrives. When I enter a place, I attract the attention of everyone regardless of where it is. It could be a restaurant, workplace or something else – and that is my experience still as an adult. When I was a kid, I kept changing schools because of this. I would enter the classroom for the first time and students would stare. Even when I was looking away, I felt them staring at me. They’d see this strange-looking kid, and maybe they’ve never seen anyone like me before.

(Saleem) School is the first place where we start to discover ourselves, and in most cases, the image inside of us is affected by our surroundings and society.

Even though Noor was content from inside, other people’s mockery forced him to conceal what he really feels.

(Noor) When I was very young, I used to visit my friends’ homes every now and then. One of my friends had a nice secluded garden. They would develop these games, and one joke led to another, and they came up with the idea of dressing me in girl’s clothes, since they were natural boys. They started matching things up and bought different items of clothing to dress me. I looked into the mirror, and I liked it. I should have expressed the opposite of that. I did not want to like it from within. They would tell me that my body is girl-like or that I am half-male and half-female. I would respond by saying, “Of course not. Why would you say that? If you dressed in these clothes, you would look the same.” I didn’t want to show that I felt happy about wearing these clothes, but inside I was overcome with joy. 

(Saleem) Masculinity is a social structure that assumes that men should speak and behave in a certain way that represents masculinity. This explains why its meaning changes according to time and location. In the Gibraltar tribes in northern Africa, it is considered effeminate for a man to reveal his face, whereas in Arabian tribes it is considered masculine for a man to grow and braid his hair.

This means that masculinity is not an innate thing that you are born with, but rather something we learn from society which defines it according to its own cultural context.

From this point, we can understand how Noor feels when he looks in the mirror. We can understand the conflict within him, between criteria that are imposed from outside and the nature of his body and how he sees it.

(Noor) Exactly. Some people can stand in front of their mirror and pick [elements of their appearance or expression] that they like according to their taste, character and their body. This doesn’t work for me. If I want to go along with my male body and dress as a man, I can’t guarantee that I can leave my house and return in one piece! If I had a fully female body, I could at least walk down the street expressing my body’s form without feeling like I am going to be beaten up.

It’s not that the idea of being a man upsets me or that it is connected with having male body parts, but because masculinity is totally different.

It is like a chain around you and your body.

(Saleem) Much like when Noor started to discover his sense of self while playing as a child, Assem started to learn about himself around the same age too. However, it was through a different element, facial hair, or I should say lack thereof.

(Assem) Let’s say when a boy reaches puberty, say at 12, then he would love to have a dark beard that matches his hair. He starts to care about these details, begins to shave and enjoys it. These things mean that he is becoming an adult as his voice becomes deeper among other things. Boys care about this during adolescence, and girls care about their own details. We have these things too.   

But my appearance remained the same. Even if I grow latent facial hair, it is going to be very pale and blond. Then, they would start coming up with new inappropriate comments and say: “Oh, look! Look how soft!” or “No girl would be okay with that.”

You hear these things that girls like rough guys, not a blond with blue eyes, that a girl wants to sense a man’s masculinity. I don’t think these features are stereotypical or taken seriously. When people see your appearance, they might ask you about it and ask you whether you can make friends or find lovers looking like that. 

Why would that person ask such a question? If I wanted to put myself in the other’s shoes, why would they refuse a relationship on this basis? I think about it, and even parents will see a problem with the fact that I do not look like them. I hear this phrase a lot: “He doesn’t look like us.”

Appearance does matter, and I don’t deny that. But, not to the extent of being rejected for it. Why would people do that?

(Saleem) In places where we are required to be, such as school, it is expected that people are exposed to stereotypes. We can see their origins and patterns start to appear to us. It is almost as if a video tape is stopped and a new one one begins playing once we leave school, a tape whose content is unknown. Maybe school is a microcosm of the world, and the greater world has people who believe the same rhetoric we hear in school but in different places, such as the workplace, the streets, or public transportation.

(Noor) When I started my very first job, I still hadn’t grasped why people were so surprised by my appearance. I went to work, as usual, and it was a secure job with a very old and gentle man. He did not pay much attention to these things, and I was still growing up. But then when I went to start a different job and said hello, people looked at me in very bizarre ways. When I’m in a crowded place, and people are facing away from me, as soon as I say hi, they all turn towards me. They don’t greet me back. They just stare silently – for 15-20 seconds sometimes. They make me wish I could disappear so they can no longer see me. It is embarrassing to me at first, then they get used to it.

People around you will grow accustomed to your presence. But, when you have to go to another environment, never think that they like or fully accept you form the onset. They only tolerate you because they need to communicate with you.

Whenever the topic of lacking masculinity is mentioned, people will start looking at you. They’ll stare at you if a cute or effeminate man walks by or if a movie scene shows male cuteness or other unconventional male expressions.

Whenever I slip or drop something, my “ouch” is unlike that of a man as my voice is high-pitched. You can’t imagine the comments, the looks and even the mockery that I get. It is not always hurtful words, but they joke in ways that can devastate a person from inside.

(Saleem) Assem experiences in the workplace was different from Noor’s. He managed to use his differences as a tool to provide a suitable work environment.

(Assem) To me, appearance was the other way around. It helped me become distinguished and drew attention to me, in ways that go beyond work too. Scientifically speaking there are colour tones that are more attention grabbing. Shades of yellow draw attention. It was not just about appearance, of course, but also the way I speak and behave. As we said previously, people will notice your appearance and stare at you strangely, but you need to be aware of what you should do then. I have felt that every place I have worked, even after five, six or seven months or longer, the staff will still recognise me as soon as I enter the room, and they remember the first time I came into it. I don’t consider that a weakness.

(Saleem) The workplace environment can play a major role in how others are accepted. While Assem managed to find a suitable work environment, Noor continued to search for a job until he applied to work at a café. Noor was aware of the attributes that make for a good impression in a job interview, and he was trying to employ them. While such attributes are usually associated with qualification or the background of the job applicant, in Noor’s case it had to do with his looks and voice.

(Nour) A while ago, I worked at a cafe. When I had the first interview, it was as if I was preparing for my wedding, and I kept reminding myself: “Noor, watch your pitch of voice. Watch your appearance, trim your beard, do this and that, and all things that guys do. Watch how you’re sitting.” I must have thought: “Noor, watch out for this” about a hundred times before that interview. I’m not the only person in this position. There are many like me.

You reach a point where all you want is to have a job. In interviews, I kept examining my posture, my way of sitting and my hand gestures for anything un-masculine. I had tied myself up this way and found it impossible to focus on what was being said in the interview. You cannot pretend to be someone you’re not, but I needed the work so badly that if they had told me to wear a dress to work, I would have [Laughs]. I had to work.

I had my first interview at a mall. When I left the interview, I suddenly started to comb my hair and undo things that were restraining me into looking manly. I did this in the taxi on the way home, while looking at myself in the mirror. By the time I got home, I had almost become myself again. I cannot believe that I had to be constrained into that appearance. Unfortunately, I still had four-five interviews to go. Making coffee in front of them felt like I was assembling a nuclear bomb. But they later hired me.

(Saleem) Noor knew exactly what attributes are manly in the view of society and what separates them from feminine attributes. At first, he was trying to fit into these social norms and standards.

(Noor) It was my first day at work. I said: “Hi, how are you?” exactly like this, like a transgender person, and it was no good. They saw me as effeminate even when I was trying to be masculine. To them, this was too much. On my first day, they started training me. A week passed, and everyone started to ask me: “Are you a homosexual? Some are wondering about you.” One colleague sent me texts saying that they liked me, but that manager was offended by my behaviour, even though I swear that I worked hard and all of my customers were satisfied. At the end of the day, this is what they wanted at the company – for me to serve drinks as ordered. So, why would anyone care about who I am more than what I’m serving them? Why would they focus on this?

The company had certain standards that prevent them from interfering in things, so it was all under the radar. They started with the mockery, then they started to talk negatively about gay and lesbian customers, and they would look at me and tell me they thought the same about me too.    

(Saleem) Despite the fact that Noor tried to abide by the social norms inside the workplace, the staff members gave themselves the right to refer to his sexual tendencies – even without him revealing any sexual preferences to them – as if appearance is a decisive evidence for them. This was the form of exclusion that Noor suffered.

The experiences of Assem and Noor are different in the work environment, but their experiences on the street are almost identical, especially on public transportation.

(Noor) Well, you need to contemplate on your way to work or while taking the bus. You need to pretend to be a mute and never speak. Try saying anything on the bus, and you’ll be stared at by everyone. And you cannot escape, you are inside a moving box.

There are always old women on the bus and so on. If people want to harass me on the bus, they definitely will. But, sometimes, people remain silent out of the respect of old people, but not out of respect of me or any consideration for how I will feel.

(Assem) I was on the bus and saw an empty seat. As I went to sit there, a girl sitting next to the empty seat stood up and changed seats. After sitting there, a woman next to me gave me the most bizarre look. She moved close to the window, covering herself with the bus curtain and stared. I could hear her anxious breaths. Until today, I do not know why she did that. Maybe she had psychological issues, but I did not sense that. I tried to justify it by saying that she was embarrassed to sit next to a man. Yet, I didn’t think that was the reason, since I was sitting at some distance away from her.

Even the ticket collector on the bus sensed that. He asked the other girl why she changed her seat, and she said she wanted to sit next to a window. Then he stared at me for a moment, wondering why the girl next to me did what she did. Maybe he thought that she was behaving like that because I harassed her.

(Noor) So, every time I get on the bus, whenever I have to tell the driver to pull over, I can’t do it. I tried it before, and the results were ugly. I’ve started to ask anyone next to me to tell the driver to pull over, pretending that I lost my voice and can’t shout. I always try to avoid getting around unless I can go on foot or by taxi because then you only have to deal with one person or none at all.

(Saleem) For many reasons, there are places or people that we cannot avoid [interacting with]. As for friends and people in our personal life, we expect them to be our sanctuary or at least more accepting as we, mostly, choose our own friends, and they are not imposed on us. However, for Assem and Noor, the results were often similar in their personal lives as well.

(Assem) When I go out with friends, my friend’s friends ask: “Who was that guy?” My brother has dark hair and is often asked if I really am his brother and how that is possible.

I am sometimes so irritated that an answer often comes to mind: “Ask God this question. After you pass from this life, go and ask Him!”

I never chose any of that, and no one chooses their appearance. You should ask God why He created your eyes in this color and your nose in this shape. Then, you will know the answer.

(Saleem) When questions and self-doubt increased, Assem’s family was always by his side, all the way since childhood. Many others lack this vital support.

(Assem) At home, I have two blonde sisters and one dark-haired brother. Our parents never made us feel different than the rest of the community. On the contrary, my parents never told me what to do if I am ever confronted about how I look.

Not just my parents, but in the whole extended family. I never felt different from my cousins. Maybe it’s just my family.

(Saleem) But we do not always have supportive people around us that help our self-esteem. Some responses and behaviors lead to further exclusion.

(Noor) Concerning my self-esteem, I can’t pretend to be another person all the time. I need to focus on my own character and be a real human.

It’s difficult to feel confident when strangers stare at you. You can’t even finish the sentence without them starting to look at your legs to see if you’re sitting like a girl. You become so aware of your body language and your tone of voice, sometimes even more than the topic of conversation itself.

At the end of the day, you need to be taken seriously, and you can’t be taken seriously if you’re not masculine. Whatever I say, right or wrong, they will judge me cruelly. It couldn’t get worse. I need to be in a place that gives me confidence to be able to accomplish anything, but they obliterate that hope and don’t allow me to be creative.

You say I might think: “I’m done. I want to rebel against this reality.” But I can’t. I want to remain the person I am, and I don’t care about other people’s opinions. But as soon as I have an new negative encounter, I retreat gradually and mask myself.

Whenever someone’s needed to add touches to decor or arrangements, like in my brother’s shop or at the cafe, I do those things. They deem them to be feminine and puny tasks. When I’m eating, they comment on the way I’m eating or sitting. I don’t feel comfortable spreading my legs while sitting. I like to sit down cross-legged and join my legs, but they consider that unmanly.   

I am a man, and I don’t think that a man can be himself if he is constantly criticised on the basis his masculinity.

(Saleem) Noor and Assem thought that women would be more accepting of them than men. But their experiences proved that women can also be used by the patriarchy to oppress other women and non-conforming bodies.

(Noor) People think that, in society, women are more accepting than men since they are perceived as softer and more sensitive. These are gender stereotypes for men and women. There are many diverse attributes for people regardless of their sex, religion or other factors. If people have the impression that girls or women are nicer and kinder towards non-conforming people, it’s untrue. On the street, I’ve heard worse comments from women than from men. Women themselves are raised according to specific stereotypes and are told that men have to have specific masculine traits. This is what they look for in a life partner because it is what they’ve seen in their family members, who also told them that they will only be safe with a man with these attributes – attributes that certainly don’t apply to me.

Sometimes I want to blame the woman, but then I don’t. Who should you blame, women, society or divine ideals? You don’t even know who to blame.

(Assem) I never thought for a moment that if I became romantically involved with a woman that she would think about my looks for a second.

But society starts to scare the girl, hammering ideas into her head. Her colleagues would say things like: “This is your boyfriend?” or “This is the man you want to spend your life with?” She then needs to address the issue. Even though I hear such things, and I do not care about them, if she cares, then there’s a problem that needs to be solved, if my looks are an obstacle. I would put myself in her shoes considering that this is new to her. I would definitely not say: “If you don’t like it, then it is over.” She is not to blame, but society imposes the norms that we have mentioned. We need to progress beyond this stage together, and I would have to explain [being albino] to her patiently, not expecting her to accept it quickly. I would definitely have to talk about myself, and why she doesn’t need to worry. A person should understand this if they choose a life partner with certain mental or physical attributes. They need to make their peace with it regardless of what society has to say.

(Saleem) Assem wants people around him to put themselves in his shoes in order to understand him. But unfortunately, whenever people do try to understand him, they often do it only out of curiosity. Then, the subject becomes more about involving themselves in his private matters.

(Assem) Sometimes, someone who knows me approaches me on some of these matters, but they have to know me well for me to accept talking about it. If they engage in a conversation about that topic, I’ll ask them to put themselves in my shoes.

If they ask: “Are you in a relationship with a girl?” I say yes.

Then they say that girls like guys with rough and macho characteristics. And they picture me with my current or future partner in the bedroom. Do they have the right to ask questions about whether my partner is ok with me?

When people ask me these highly personal questions I ask, “Do you have concerns about this or are you just asking out of curiosity? This question has been asked of me a lot.”

I started to worry. If a guy can think like that, can a partner too? I reached a point where I asked female friends about it, and whether they think it is justified or care about the subject or appearance in a sexual relationship. Because this is a life partner and we will have kids together and create a family.

Answers have varied, because people don’t want to embarrass you. They would say something like, “I personally don’t like albinos, but others might.” Maybe they avoid the subject altogether.

But in the end, you sense people’s real answers. Sometimes, it is clear in their eyes, even if they did not say it.

(Saleem) Noor and Assem might face specific types of rejection and exclusion based on appearance. But we should not forget that there are many men who face different types of exclusion and rejection at a time where they are still trying to learn about their surroundings and how to live – and be content with themselves. Noor and Assem have managed to find a new perspective and a new way of life. Their stories serve to guide those, especially men, who endure certain exclusion due to being different from expected male stereotypes.

(Assem) Sometimes, I feel that I had a very long day. It becomes tiresome and frustrating to have eyes on you all the time.

No matter how confident I am, sometimes I reach a tipping point where I have to say something! It is normal to reach this level but not to be exhausted or have an overreaction.

If my day ends well, then it was a good day. So, why would I want to finish my day badly just because someone doesn’t like my appearance. I once heard it directly said to me, “Your appearance is offensive.”

(Noor) To be fair, there are nice people in the world, and people who accept and respect me. Some people even taught me that.

Every time you feel different and feel hopeless about the world, you need to realise that this is God’s will and persist on your path.

When you lay your head on the pillow at night, all you need to conjure is some hope that tomorrow, you’ll meet someone who will restore your confidence. I am sure of this, and it happens to me every day, when I get a text, a call, or even a friendly look from someone. It is as if God sent this person to boost my spirit. There are always people who will cheer you on. As a person, you must have had many encounters with people who were compassionate towards you. This is better than staying reclused at home all the time because, after all, you have things that others will miss.

(Saleem) This programme was made by podcast creator Saleem Salameh, sound engineer Maher Mallakh, music editing and sound design by Tala El-Issa, publishing and distribution by Maram Alnabali, and Jana Qazzaz. This season was co-produced by the Sowt team.

Until we meet again on the next and final episode of this season of the Eib Podcast.

Translated and edited by AlJumhuriya/Docstream

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

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