Content warning: mental illness, misogyny, domestic violence and abuse
According to the Australian Medical Association, many Australians will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, and almost every Australian will see the effects of mental illness manifest in a family member, friend or work colleague. A quick scroll down Facebook pages like USyd Rants reveals a large amount of anonymous posts on depression, anxiety and attention disorders, all at varying severities and within different contexts. As a university student who has been diagnosed with a severe anxiety and panic disorder, these posts are all too familiar and relatable.
My first experiences with mental illness are not my own. To be an Arab woman in this country is to know heartbreak, hazn (sadness) and depression like a second language you will never unlearn. It is from the generations of women who have come before me, whose lives have been continuously harmed by patriarchy and whiteness, that I have learnt what survival means. I have learnt that, despite different historical contexts, our experiences will always be similar, bound together by the resilience we have to learn from the pain we are forced to experience.
To be an Arab woman is to know that mental wellbeing and illness do not exist in isolation. The two are inextricably linked to traumatic experiences relating to patriarchy and whiteness. These experiences are embedded into the lives of all Arab women who battle between being foreigners in the West and restricted in the East. We battle between finding comfort in a culture that confines them and breaking free from the chains that they don’t often know they have. As a result, it is impossible to have even a slight understanding of mental health issues among Arab women unless an intersectional and intergenerational lens is used.
It is the year after the Nakba. A woman named Inaam is born in August as the summer sun rises to kiss the horizons of a newly independent Lebanon. Just under eight years have passed since its liberation from French colonialism. My grandmother is one of eight children born to a poor family in a tiny coastal village north of Trablos, named Deir Ammar.
My grandmother, my Tayta, is a tiny, quiet and poised woman. She is infinitely proud, defiant and the definition of resilient. She has raised seven kids in a foreign country, and had to bury one of them just before she turned 26. My mother is her oldest daughter. She once told me that my Tayta said that she had never felt true happiness in her time living after losing her son Hassan.
In the year 1976, my Tayta, my Jedo and their kids came to Australia. My Jedo swears on his life that they came on a vacation to take a break from the war, but 43 years on and he has only ever gone back for six short stays. Tayta says that there is nothing left for her in Lebnan anymore. Her parents have long since passed away and she now struggles to find a feeling of home in the land that she was born in; in the land that she had to bury her first son.
I know only a little of the pain my Tayta has had to deal with. In her 43 years here, she has never learnt English. Her limited vocabulary extends to what she learns from my sisters and I. Words like “hectic” and “wow” are sometimes incorporated into her conversations with us, but it never extends beyond that. Despite this, she is one of the most intelligent women I know. Born one of ten siblings, seven of whom were girls, my Tayta was also one of the few in her family who did not go to school. A mixture of poverty and patriarchy were the reasonings, with my great grandfather often jokingly boasting that she did not need to go to school. “For what?” he would say. “So she can write letters to all her lovers?”
Tayta often whispers to me that one of the few pains in her life is that she did not learn how to read or write in English or Arabic. She says this with a heavy weight in her voice – it’s obvious that it is not only her love for learning that inspires this feeling, but also a mixture of terrible experiences.
To be an Arab woman is to be socialised to want to marry from the moment you recognise that boys are boys. To be an Arab woman is to think of planning our lives around children who do not even exist – before even thinking of our careers, our education or our futures. Children are blessings, and the Arabic word for womb is rahm, with a root meaning of ‘mercy’. It is in this mercy and the loss of these blessings that some of my Tayta’s worst pain has been felt. On her belly are several large scars. The marks are still criss-crossed on her skin from one end of her rib cage to another. Some of the marks are testaments to the children that she has lost. My Mama says that Tayta has had 14 miscarriages and counts seven as somewhat traumatic. It is in these losses that Tayta wishes the most that she knew how to speak English.
Of all the losses she’s had, from her first son when he was seven years old, to one of her younger sisters, the most chilling is her recollection of her first hospital experiences in Australia. Tayta often jokes about how when she first arrived, she learnt the hard way that concentrated cordial needed to be broken down with water, and that dog food was indeed not food for humans. But it was her descriptions of her experiences at Bankstown Hospital which surprised me. I was only 14 years old when my Tayta told me that she had lost a child that she almost carried to term. She never got to see what he looked like. She vividly remembers trying to mime to the white nurses that she wanted to see her baby only once. That she wanted to hold the baby, skin on skin in her arms, just one time before he was buried. Her requests were misunderstood, refused, confused — whatever you want to call it. Not only was she denied her child — her mercy — she was denied a moment to see her blessing before he joined his oldest brother Hassan in Jannah.
Some would argue that there is no literal Arabic translation for the word “depression.” The Arabic word most adjacent to the word depression translates to “sorrow.” When she talks about health, my Tayta says that a lot of these “mental illnesses” are new. That, “back in the day,” there was no such thing. But there are moments when I see my Tayta force a smile, or a laugh that never quite reaches her eyes — and I understand that she has never felt true happiness. It is definitely sorrow, but it is also so much more.
Born the oldest girl, Mama knows tough skin like no other. Between being a translator for her migrant parents, and helping Tayta raise her baby brothers and sisters, Mama has had the experience of mothering to last a lifetime. Born in Bhanine in a tiny house in the middle of a farming town, my Mama arrived in Sydney with a single word of English on her lips. Her name is Kadije, like Khadija, the Prophet’s ﷺ first wife. She once told me that in high school some students nicknamed her “cabbage” because they couldn’t pronounce her name. She laughs it off, says it was normal at the time, but can now acknowledge that those students were probably racist.
In the early 1990s my mother was an accomplished fashion designer, working hard to become an assistant at Supré and living the life she dreamt of. She was successful, came from a well respected family and was a hard worker. Men all around flocked at the family home one by one, asking for permission to “get to know” my mother, all with the end goal of marrying her. She never really gave many men time of day until she went to visit Lebnan.
Calling him the handsome boy next door, Mama always reminds me that she should’ve paid more attention to many of the ways my father made her miserable before she even married him. When you are taught that you exist only in relation to men, it is often difficult to not make excuses, to not ignore all the fuckups, to not shrug off everything as a “mistake.” My Mama often tells me that in her childhood, both boys and girls were raised the same, but I often wonder whether this is completely true. I have seen both my aunty — my Khalto — and my Mama marry young, abandoning careers and education for children. I know that deep down, no matter how much interpersonal education passes between generations of women, these practices are embedded within culture.
My mother doesn’t speak much about my father anymore. When my sisters and I were younger, her commentary about him ranged from sadness, to anger, and then to downright despair. My mother is still recovering from the long term trauma inflicted upon her, even over 15 years after their divorce. In the eight years they were married, my mother cannot recollect a single moment where he put a smile on her face.
A study undertaken by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare found that intimate partner violence has one of the most serious impacts on women’s health. In 2011 alone, it contributed to more burden of disease (the impact of illness, disability and premature death) than any other risk factor for women aged 25 to 44. Among these, mental health conditions were the largest contributor to the burden due to physical/sexual intimate partner violence, with anxiety disorders making up the greatest proportion (35%), followed by depressive disorders (32%). Dealing with emotional, financial and physical abuse, alongside cheating, I still know that my Mama was one of the lucky ones.
Mama has thanked God many times for the fact that she has only given birth to girls. My father was the oldest of his family, and, in a twisted and old cultural practice, wished that every single one of us were boys. For my Mama, this meant more abuse targeted at another element of her life that was out of anyone’s control. She gave birth with only my Tayta as support.
Many times during my childhood, I knew my mother, though extraordinary in many ways, continued to battle demons long after her divorce. Years after she had resigned from fashion designing, she studied social work. Though the profession is rigorously focused on wellbeing and coping, I still see the struggle. I still see the post-traumatic stress with which she is forced to navigate the world. I still see the scars that my father and the patriarchy have left on her.
I was born the second of three girls to a passionately Lebnani family in the suburb of Bankstown, and I am well aware of the fact that being born in this country affords me the utmost privilege. For that I will be forever grateful. However, despite this privilege, to be born in this violent settler-colonialist country as an Arab Muslim woman is also to be caught between two different forms of patriarchy: one that is rooted in whiteness, and one that is deeply entrenched in the culture that one has learnt by heart. It is to be told that, despite the so-called progressiveness of this country, my anxieties are absurd. That despite my depressions, I need to remain positive and grateful.
My Tayta and my Mama have endured pain too long and too deep to describe, and I will never know the full extent to which they are still suffering. It is through their experiences that I am able to recognise that the long-term trauma of the Arab woman is intertwined in the registers of race, gender and class. It transcends as a physical and psychological memory. It is and is reinforced by culture and daily experiences of exclusion and domination. To mobilise against this is to recognise that my Mama, my Tayta and myself are just some of the few that exist in a collective state of depression around the world.
For us, it is something akin to feeling. These dark shadows that accompany our lives are embedded within our daily experience. From fleeing war, to losing children, to living in a violent settler-colonial islamophobic state, to being policed on our expressions — our experiences are intergenerational. They are not passed down but passed through, and all we have is each other. To be an Arab woman is to know sorrow like another language, but to live despite this. To exist is to resist, and to resist is to survive, and survival will only continue if we erase the problematic masculinities that are embedded within our culture.