Seeing Past Stereotypes
By Dafne Bravo
Nearly 6 percent of the entire world speaks Arabic. This may not seem like much, but if you do the math, this adds up to 420 million people. Although this language is fairly popular, I had no idea it existed before my freshman year in high school, when I was forced to take an introductory class. This language that I learned to admire is offered as a class because my high school’s community is full of Arab people. Although they are loved and welcomed, there are also disrespectful jokes thrown loosely by classmates. Some include: Arabs being “loud and annoying,” the girls being extremely submissive and obedient, and everyone being a “terrorist” or “bomb threat.” Before studying abroad in Morocco, I never bothered to second-guess or care about these stereotypes.
During my senior year of high school, ten non-native speakers including myself were gathered from the class and given the chance to travel to Africa. Before the trip, I believed some stereotypes that I deemed realistic. In my mind, most female Muslims covered up their bodies and wore hijabs. The fact that the girls and I were asked to avoid revealing clothing further fueled my subconscious judgments. But upon arriving, I immediately noticed that all the women were different. Some were covered from head to toe, some wore shorts cut off mid-thigh, some wore hijabs with spaghetti-strap shirts. My inability to generalize all Arab women shocked me. As this was my first grand eye-opener, I decided to pay more attention to the culture.
The first few days blew away quickly and were full of exploring family-owned restaurants. Every place we went to had a warm environment with a well-respected mother figure known for being the best chef in the house. On our second night in the city of Fes, we ate dinner at a rooftop restaurant. One of my peers ordered her plate but decided she wanted something else once it was placed in front of her, including a new drink. About 15 minutes pass and her new meal arrives, but her drink is given with ice cubes. She sheepishly asked for a new drink because we were told to avoid water and ice. At this point we nervously waited for the man to show signs of irritation or frustration, but to our surprise he gave her a kind smile and did as she asked without any rude comments or hesitation. We met up to reflect on our day later that night and found ourselves talking about the man’s friendly hospitality. It suddenly came to me that we were all expecting Arab men to be disrespectful and loud because of their higher status of gender in society. This stereotype was embedded into our minds, hidden until it wasn’t.
If I could relive the entire adventure once again, I would. Not only because the country was beautiful or because I built relationships with amazing people, but because I felt like I discovered a new part of myself. This is the part that is unaware of the critiques and judgments I make without context. Experiencing a new culture first-hand changed my perspective on everything in my life. Instead of believing what I hear, I ask “why?” or “is that true?” Instead of listening to one side of the story, I ask “well, what else?” or “what about them?” This major issue doesn’t necessarily need to be corrected by traveling, it just needs to be corrected by someone with an open mind.