I have a very distinct early memory of the first time somebody didn’t say ‘No’ when they really meant ‘Yes.’ I’m not talking about a sexual context, either.
We were still in Saudi Arabia, and I had one of my friends over for dinner. When my mother offered her seconds, my friend said ‘Yes, please.’
I was startled, even taken aback, at those two little words, so accustomed was I to the sacred ritualistic exchange: “No, no…” and “I insist, you must,” and “I really can’t” and “I’ll be very sad if you don’t” and “All right then…it looks delicious.”
I knew the process well from the perspective of the guest; I’d followed the ritual closely time and time again during afternoon visits with my mother, sitting on living room couches as aunties offered trays of goodies. I’d always say no first even though my stomach was growling and I knew I wanted that piece of baklawa or cake that was being offered to me. Why? Because it was polite. Because otherwise I’d be thought a greedy, rude, presumptive little girl who did not know how to respect the hospitality being given to her.
It had exasperated me but never confused me before the night my friend so casually said ‘Yes, please’ and I wondered why accepting hospitality was at odds with respecting hospitality. I had to process my feelings about it. There was so much going on!
I realized that I had been trained to feel–and in fact did feel– a sort of blaming negativity towards my friend for saying Yes, she really did want seconds, that–at least for a moment–I viewed her as the disrespectful greedy little girl my mother so often warned me from being.
Why? It was clear to me that both I and my mother wanted her to take what we offered, that in fact it might be an insult to our hospitality, cooking, and generosity of spirit if she ultimately refused. So why the game in which she must demur and we must insist and she must reconsider and eventually be wheedled into admitting something that she may have felt all along? What was so wrong in saying she wanted something?
And, more interestingly, why did my friend seem so oblivious to these rules, so quiet and sure in what she wanted without exhibiting any shame for it?
I later chalked it up to her having an American mother, because I learned from my limited experience with Americans that they did not offer you food or a ride unless they truly wanted to give them, and did not expect people to say No unless they really meant it, and that they’d take your words at face value if you said No and not offer again.
Such a simplistic conception of American culture was later shattered as I realized that there were strikingly similar parallels with hospitality in various conservative and/or Southern US cultures. I also realized just how many situations there were where girls shouldn’t or couldn’t say they wanted to do A Thing that was somehow Not For Them, or that held some shame for a woman. I learned that sex and womanhood were treated with different standards than hospitality, where there is an entire culture of expectation surrounding the games of playing hard to get, saying No at first to mean ‘try harder’, of women shamed for admitting they wanted things that were assumed to be not for them, concepts that the clothing and appearance of a dissenting person might indicate that they really, secretly want “it” despite their words–in short, a culture where shaming consent and ignoring non-consent is normalized in various ways–but only in some contexts.
What is it, I’ve been wondering, about some forms of American culture, that makes it okay to say ‘Yes’ when you mean it and take ‘No’ at face value in the contexts of hospitality but not in the contexts of sexuality? Why is there such shame attached to a woman who admits she wants sex, why such flippancy towards a statement such as ‘No, I’m not interested?’, and why do those two things interplay in such a way that if a woman has sex and wants it sometimes that makes her less credible when she refuses it with other people or at other times?
Here are some broad cultural differences I’ve been thinking of as potentially related: America is a place where general self-sufficiency is prized, where taking charity is often full of shame and stigma and never a virtue, and where individualism is heralded as a sort of master value. In the Arab world, in contrast, being dependent in various ways is prized, taking help extended to you, as long as it follows the correct ritual, does not bear the stigma of shame and is in fact expected, as it honors those who extend their generosity, and, for men, supporting your family, being in a dominant parental or familial role, and giving to charity is a consistent marker of the same virtues of hospitality and generosity prized so much.
It’s also generally true, I noted, that the same things are often markers of deficiency or shame when women do it, implying the lack of a male presence to take on those proper roles. In short, in Arab culture there is a sort of undercurrent that– although you are expected to refuse at first in order to not seem greedy or disrespectful–you must, yes, you must, be open to receiving what others seek to ‘give’ you in various ways circumscribed by rule or law, without ever acknowledging that you really want those things.
Regardless, in fact, of whether you actually do. That’s what I missed when I was a little girl thinking over this problem–I wondered why it was so horrible to say you wanted a piece of cake if someone offered it to you. I didn’t realize that you would be both obliged to say No even if you meant Yes…but also eventually say Yes even if you meant No…that many, many times people ended up eating an extra bit of something even if they really were too full or didn’t actually like it, for fear of insulting their hosts. I realized, too, that accepting food out of politeness would later, for a woman, come to be at odds with remaining trim enough to be desirable, a worthy match…and thus a further dimension of tension would ensue, where mothers and aunties would tsk and say just this once, and do you really want to be eating that? in tension with the hosts’ insistence. And even later on I’d come to realize that women were, in various ways, expected to say Yes to things they did not like or want all the time, including marital choices, career choices, bodily choices, clothing choices..all the way down to the sexual advances of their husbands, as a matter of course.
In short, neither consent nor nonconsent is even a relevant consideration for all these things. (See my post about Sex and Virginity for more about that side of this issue).
And oh, what a horrendously destructive set of values these are, that have ultimately worked towards silencing and marginalizing women and children, forcing them to be dependent and choice-less, and hashing those things as virtues.
How dare you refuse what someone is so generous to offer? How dare you not want what is given with such magnanimity?
And if you do want it…how daring, bold, and without shame you must be to admit it!
And what an almost unnavigable double-bind it is, to find yourself in a place where your own desires must be neutralized in favor of the desires of those under whose power you are–under their roof, under their employment, under their provision, and where you simultaneously must not express personal affinity with those desires.
One of the real-life stories that struck me the most from the novel Girls of Riyadh when I read it was Sadeem’s, whose husband divorces her after she has sex with him before their official move-in, because he thinks she must be lacking all virtue to have welcomed him into her body so easily. It reflected to me how often women and girls are told to show shame, to have shame, to have haya, even about those things that were lawful or permissible: sex with your husband, eating food…no, we are told to look down, to not show that we like or enjoy it…otherwise, we suffer consequences.
And it’s true, I realized–it is viewed as only natural when men eat heartily, desire sex, or speak forcefully–in the most literal of ways, with the divisions of gender roles in Muslim-majority cultures appealing to the so-called ‘natural’ differences between men and women. Very ‘boys-will-be-boys’-esque, very much reinforcing damaging myths about dominant intellect in men that naturally inclines them towards choosing, speaking, and leading, myths about the prominence and uncontrollable nature of male desire and how those ‘needs’ pose a sort of privilege and right to women’s bodies, myths about the natural ‘weakness’ of men in resisting the wiles, charms, and temptations of the female body, myths about men needing more space, more food naturally because of their bodies…myths that are not reciprocated because women are not constructed in the same manner, do not have the same abilities, desires, and needs…
No wonder our cultural norms train women to have haya, to have shame, to neither tempt nor acknowledge ever being tempted, to neither resist the will of others nor exhibit our own will…because heaven forbid we view women as people with agency, desires, and needs.
No wonder we say ‘No’ because it is shameful to say ‘Yes’, then say ‘Yes’ because it’s insulting to refuse…
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