After my grade school years in a whitebread American community, my family moved overseas. I spent part of my adolescence in a middle eastern country. The following are a handful of experiences I had that might interest readers of this blog.
-- When I was 13, my class at my expatriate school was assigned to do a comprehensive report of one aspect of life in the country where we lived. We were supposed to do book research and interviews, produce a 20 page report, and make an oral presentation to the class.
A family friend suggested to me that I focus my report on female circumcision, which was almost universally practiced in the country where I lived. For anyone who does not know, female circumcision is the sexual mutilation of young girls (generally without anesthesia) as a means to control their sexuality and ensure their virginity until marriage. It is a major social evil that occurs throughout vast swathes of the Middle East and Africa. I could have interviewed my family's cook, who claimed that the women in his family were the ones most insistent that the younger generation be circumcised.
Unfortunately, as an awkward adolescent, I just didn't have the social courage to stand up and talk about female genitals (much less their mutilation) in front of my middle school class. (If only I could have known that my adult self, in my role as a prosecutor of sex crimes, would routinely discuss penises and vaginas at length in front of packed courtrooms!) So I wound up reporting on the country's school system (ho hum) and missed my first chance chance to establish my feminist credentials in earnest at such a young age. It was one of life's great opportunities missed.
-- I took up cross country running during my teens. When I went off to boarding school (the year after my boring presentation on the school system), I made the varsity cross country team. The problem was that when I went back to the Middle East on school holidays, there was no place to train except on the public streets. My parents felt it was important to respect local standards of female modesty, which of course, didn't have much truck with young girls running through the streets. So my solution was to go running every morning at 5 a.m., wearing an oversized long sleeve t-shirt and wind pants, and accompanied by my father. The streets were virtually empty at this time of day, but there would usually be one or two old men sitting on the sidewalks. They chucked little pebbles at my ankles and called me a whore. I actually felt bad that I was violating local standards, until one day when I was out walking with my parents, covered from neck to ankle in a loose t-shirt and long skirt in a different part of town. A different group of little old men I'd never seen before chucked some pebbles at me and called me a whore. At that point, I decided, "Screw it. I'll just train my little heart out and not worry about it."
-- I hate to be entirely negative about my middle eastern experience, so I should say that I really enjoyed most aspects of life overseas. I should also stress that female circumcision and chucking pebbles are NOT sanctioned by Islam. On a positive note, I recall that on Christmas Day, we often received a number of visitors from our host country, who would drop by with presents and well wishes "on the Birthday of Your Prophet." Muslims tend to be quite respectful of Christianity, and I never felt that any Muslims held it against me that I did not belong to their faith. (While I have noted elsewhere on this blog that I do not consider myself Christian, I am of both Christian and Jewish heritage and my family has always celebrated Christmas.)