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What (Unhelpful) Beliefs to Unlearn as Women From Traditional Cultures

What (Unhelpful) Beliefs to Unlearn as Women From Traditional Cultures

by Mai Abdeljaber


Fortunately, feminism and women’s issues have been at the forefront of most social change movements as of late. When we talk about feminism, it’s much more complex than equal pay and better maternity leave policies. As an Arab-American woman facing the realities of inequality in different ways, I find myself asking questions about how I can show up better. Better for myself and the collective. This begins by asking really difficult questions. So much of what we need from society begins with internal realizations about what we need to unlearn. When we can identify the beliefs that have been ingrained within us, we can start applying those changes to our outer world. 

A very critical component to the feminist movement factors in intersectional identity. Women of minority, non-Western, and specific to my experience, Middle Eastern groups have multiple layers of beliefs to shed. The tricky part is figuring out what principles to keep and what habits to leave behind. I’ve been thinking about this, especially when considering how all the women I know, regardless of their background, face somewhat of an identity crisis when they awaken to what we believe about ourselves that’s holding us back. It can be overwhelming and scary. We often think letting go means letting go of who we are, which is why it’s common for resistance to surface. The good news is, we can carefully and purposefully choose what doesn’t work for our evolution, growth, and progression and keep the parts of our culture that we love and cherish.

Some of the most common themes that come up for many of us women from more traditional and conservative cultures are over-extending ourselves, basing our life plans and worthiness on marriage alone, feelings of inadequacy without children and maintaining a “perfect” reputation for the sake of the family name, to name a few. Most of us have moved through life without recognizing these patterns. Instead, we suffer the consequences and oftentimes are left feeling frustrated, ashamed, resentful and deeply burdened. 

We’re finally coming into an era of bold dialogue, female unity across all races, cultures, religions with easy to follow calls to action. I’ll attempt to break this down further with the intention to push us forward without guilt or feeling like we have to compromise our identity: 


Unlearn over extending beyond your personal capacity

Culturally, women are expected to be hospitable, welcoming and generous. These are all positive traits. However, there is a thin line between sincere hospitality and this becoming an obligation expected from others. If we don’t decide what works for us, when to say no, and when perpetual acts of service become draining, our resentment grows and our once well-intentioned offers become lifeless. 

Pay attention to when you’re giving from a place of joy versus when it feels like a task. If certain invitations and acts of hospitality feel like an obligation, it’s absolutely necessary to take a step back until you can find the desire to give again. Giving is a gift and if you want to share that gift with others it should be under the conditions that leave you feeling valued, appreciated and seen in return. 


Unlearn that marriage equals worthiness

Many women begin to feel pressure to get married starting in their early 20s (sometimes younger) stemming from societal and family expectations. We’ve been conditioned to believe that this is the ultimate goal for a woman and anything we accomplish outside of marriage holds a lesser significance. Marriage and partnership can bring fulfillment, peace, and support to one’s life, but it definitely doesn’t add more legitimacy to who you are as a woman. No matter how independent, accomplished, stable, and intelligent, I’ve gathered that many single women tend to unknowingly question their own value if they are still single by a certain age. Instead of celebrating their achievements, societal constructs have convinced us to subconsciously believe that something is still missing. 


What was most helpful for me in shifting these thought patterns was to ask myself these questions:

  • “Who is the best version of myself?”
  • “How far am I from becoming that person?” 
  • “What are the qualities that my ideal partner has?” 

    When you can answer those questions specifically and with certainty, then you can focus on becoming THAT person. If you are consistently and confidently showing up for yourself, then marriage will be an added bonus to the full life you’ve already given to yourself. Expecting that someone can give you more than what you give to yourself will leave you in a perpetual state of lack and neediness. 

    I’m a major advocate for quality social connection. The need for us as humans to be closely and intimately connected to others is real. It’s crucial to our survival, psychological and emotional well-being and ultimate sense of happiness. However, the belief that there is something “wrong” with you or “invalid” without a relationship can be self-destructive. Remember these beliefs are subconscious, passed from generations before us. Marriage was viewed as an obligation, a means to survive and procreate. Decades later, it’s no longer a necessity. We must confront these beliefs, sit with the discomfort, and move through them like a wave. As we would with any other emotion that comes up considered “negative” or unsettling. Using your single time to learn what it is that you really want (for yourself) and in a partner will serve you so well when the time does come.


    Unlearn that you are inadequate without children

    It’s only natural that historically, the highest value women held in society was the ability to reproduce. Growing the family, multiple offspring to carry the name, and in most cases follow the same path as their parents was seen as a success and means for sustainability. In many traditional non-Western societies, the more children you have the more likely you will have a reliable family unit that will support you in the future. Because Middle Eastern culture is more tribal and community focused, the bigger your family, the stronger sense of presence you hold in your community. This is what made sense for our ancestors. 

    Although the definition of family has completely shifted, our ingrained beliefs on what the traditional family unit looks like is still within us. Remember, that you get to define what family means to you, and for many, that means not having children. In many places, it no longer makes sense to have multiple children. It doesn’t make sense economically and physically (since women are starting to have children later). I find that many women who choose this often feel guilty or that their femininity is discredited. It’s normal for these feelings to come up because we are the pivotal generation, caught between the old and the new. Change is unfamiliar, and redefining all that we’ve ever known can certainly leave us questioning our adequacy. Don’t let it. Again, define what family means to you and make it your own, without the pressure forced on us by society. 


    Unlearn that society’s definition of *your* reputation is not your business

    This one is definitely something I struggled with in my early adult life. There is an insane amount of pressure put on women from conservative backgrounds to maintain this “perfect”, untouched, ladylike, submissive, quiet image. Often, if you make any move that deviates from that image, you’re automatically labeled as a woman who wasn’t “raised properly” by her family. This bothers me to my core. Besides the fact that it gives men a free pass to make all the mistakes they want without being scarred with judgment, it means that women are not allowed to make any mistakes. There is a difference between being human, experimenting, making mistakes, and behaving in a way with no self-respect or respect for your family. Society confuses the two, a lot, and it makes women feel unfairly judged and ashamed for having human experiences.

    In my opinion, a powerful strategy to alleviate this type of thinking is to simply talk about it. Own who you are, your experiences, and what you learned. The women who have managed to maintain that “perfect” reputation according to society's standards either feel extremely sheltered and inexperienced or did a much better job at hiding their personal lives from the community. The more we become comfortable openly sharing our stories, the more we’ll realize that we’re not as different from each other as we think. Being vulnerable is hard, but it also creates powerful connection and long lasting change. 

    It’s safe to say we’ve unknowingly adopted beliefs that can have us questioning our self-worth and womanhood. Culture and social constructs create expectations that we can’t necessarily meet. Nor should we want to meet these expectations if they don’t align with who we are. That shouldn’t make us feel like outcasted members of our community. When we start noticing insecurities about different aspects of our lives, we can reframe the question back to ourselves. Do I feel this way because I actually want this or was I convinced this is how I should be? 

    Trust what comes up and proceed with certainty and confidence.

    Previous article 4 Important Qualities to Look For in a Multicultural Mental Health Expert


    Reem Jamil Mustafa - June 29, 2022

    We’ll said Mai

    Shireen - June 29, 2022

    Amazing article 👏🙌👌

    Yasmin Alzibdeh - June 29, 2022

    Wish I read this in my late teens although I still may have needed to go through the awakening and unlearning process as slowly as I did. Just now emerging as a new and true me. Great read!

    Saeda Abdeljaber - June 29, 2022

    The daring truth most don’t have the courage to verbalize!
    A very well written, articulate, and sincere piece.

    Farah Qutub - June 29, 2022

    I relate to this article like no other, as a modern Muslim in America. Some might say, I can’t call myself Muslim, due to the way I choose to live and think, but I still consider myself one. A modern one and proud. I would love to contribute to your blog, “Coochiology”, sucha cute name! I have my own blog,, if you would like to get a sense of my writing!


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