Loving by Covering—How Gender Frustrations Showed Me The Real Meaning Of Preemptive Love

A photo of summer intern

One of the most well-known Muslim values is modesty.

Foreigners, however, often have a hard time adapting to the culture because they simply weren’t brought up in it. Women especially are expected to dress and carry themselves modestly, which I really appreciated throughout my internship. I learned a lot from women who saw my head covering as a sign of self-respect rather than oppression.

Needless to say, because this culture values modesty so highly, foreigners are generally perceived to be very loose. Something I didn’t expect before I got here was the local stereotype of Chinese women. It’s no secret to any of the locals that many Chinese women come to work at “massage parlours,” and that many of these establishments act as a front for prostitution. When I discovered this stereotype, I decided it was even more important for me to fight against these preconceptions by dressing and behaving modestly.

Despite the fact that Iraq arguably has some liberal cities, it is still very much a patriarchal society. Anything “shameful” between genders is usually put on the woman, and men are afforded much more flexibility. For instance, when a man and a woman shake hands (a rarity), it’s more likely to be viewed as shameful for the woman than the man. Obviously this means lots of leering and inappropriate comments, which we girls have to learn to ignore.

I felt like developed pretty thick skin to the men’s heckling, but one day when I was alone at the downtown bazaar, I had an entirely different experience. I definitely felt more targeted and men would come up behind me saying, “Massage? Massage?”, “How much?”

sisterhood soap

After several advances, I could feel my blood beginning to boil. It took all my willpower to avoid turning around and lashing out at them. As I was seriously contemplating yelling at someone, I asked myself, “What would that achieve?” Acting in anger would only make them think that foreigners are uncivilised. But what else was I supposed to do?

As I thought about this more, I realized it was ignorant for me to expect a perfect culture that required no adjustments and had no issues. Like every other culture in the world, Iraq is far from perfect. How hypocritical of me to say I want to care for these people and yet only include my girl friends and children with heart defects in that group.

But how do you respond in (the appropriate kind of) love to brazen advances from men? How do you even begin to love people who reduce you to little more than an object or idea? And what difference would it even make to them? Yet this is a perfect example of what “preemptive love” means. I cannot count the number of times our Executive Director, Jeremy Courtney, has reiterated the meaning of preemptive love. As a part of this organization, preemptive love should go beyond my work. It is a love of initiative; it is unconditional. If we cannot show preemptive love in our daily lives and difficult circumstances, how can we claim that our love is genuine? I should not demand respect from people in order to love them.

It sounds simple in theory, but in practice it is still beyond me. Dressing modestly and covering are obvious ways, but these are just starting points for me to adjust the lens through which I view people. Living in Iraq for the summer has made me more aware of my circumstance and interactions with people, and the lessons I’ve learned here about modesty and love will stay with me for the rest of my life.