Flatsharing with a Refugee #4

on sex, love and relationships

I have never asked myself so many questions about the subject of relationships, as since I’ve been living with Izat. Never before have I had so many problems expressing myself and explaining things to someone else when talk turns to the Belgian view on love and friendship. And to be honest, it’s the cause of a fair amount of frustration because our views on these themes are so vastly different.

“Our differing views are the cause of a fair amount of frustration.”

As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over six months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“Our differing views are the cause of a fair amount of frustration.”

I have never asked myself so many questions about the subject of relationships, as since I’ve been living with Izat. Never before have I had so many problems expressing myself and explaining things to someone else when talk turns to the Belgian view on love and friendship. And to be honest, it’s the cause of a fair amount of frustration because our views on these themes are so vastly different.

Let me begin by answering why our views are so different. In Afghanistan almost all (99%) of inhabitants are Muslim, of which 80-85% are Sunnite. The Sunnites follow, besides the Quran, the Hadith, which is a vast collection of established Islamic legends about the life of the prophet Mohammed. The Hadith is essentially an extension and interpretation of the Quran, with often strict rules to be followed. Additionally, Sunnism is subdivided into different ‘madhahib’ – also known as hadis – which are different schools of religious thought. The most important of these are Hanafism, Malikism, Shafism and Hanbalism. Each was named after an ‘imam’, or pastor in prayer. Izat and his parents follow Hanafism, which means Izat was raised according to certain religious rules which influence his interpretation of the differences in sex, love and relationships.

“You need to be respectful of women, turning round to look at a pretty girl is not acceptable.”

One of these rules is that Muslim women should cover their entire body and wear a headscarf, or ‘hijab’ in Afghanistan. They do this so that men in the street would not look at uncovered parts of their bodies. Here in Belgium we’d be up on the barricades if we were not allowed to dress in public the way we want to, and see this as repression of women. When I speak with Izat about this, he explains: “You need to be respectful of women and turning round to look at a pretty girl is not acceptable. It’s very disrespectful for the woman, she could be married. She must be able to stay pure for Allah and her marriage.”

“My feminist beliefs tell me it sounds like a lame excuse to keep women subservient.”

I struggle with this last part. My feminist beliefs make me think it sounds like a lame excuse to keep women under some sort of control and keep them subservient. Even so, I can’t deny the fact that I’ve been stared at hundreds of times and don’t particularly enjoy it. When I confront Izat with the fact that I’ve been stared at by Muslim men too, he explains that not all Muslims know how to behave as they don’t know or understand enough about our Belgian customs.

“Many of the young men who come here for the first time are simply shocked by what they see. This can cause strange behaviour or expressions that we struggle to understand in Belgium. Good guidance and follow-up are essential so that newcomers learn how to deal with differences and not to misinterpret Western behaviour, or dress sense,” Anneloes Van Osselaer, project leader at Curant explains. “A few lessons during an integration programme simply aren’t enough as these programmes usually only cover some theoretical knowledge. In the best case we can discuss these topics in a group with other young refugees. Themes like these require more in-depth and sustainable guidance and follow-up; by OKAN schools, teachers, imams, role models from their own culture, social assistants and youth workers.”

“No matter how hard he tries to explain the premise of our cohousing project, his friends don’t understand.”

I can imagine that it’s not easy to understand Belgian freedom when you come from a completely different culture. And if you have to make do with the limited information given during your integration course, you end up with more questions than answers. Izat honestly shares with me that he’s looked at a woman here before. His friends tell him off immediately; he’s not supposed to be looking at women when he has one at home (me). No matter how hard he tries to explain the premise of our cohousing project, the boys don’t – or won’t – understand. As far as their concerned, when you live with a woman, even in Belgium, you are a couple.

Within the Afghan culture, women stay at home to take care of the children. They run the household and the man has very little input on this. Most adult Afghan women have never been to school, but considering the country has been plagued by war for 30 years, this is hardly surprising. Even so, things are slowly beginning to change within the educational system. Girls in Kabul have been going to school for a while now and a school has just been built in Tagab* where young girls can follow classes.

“Who else would take care of the children and the family?”

When I ask Izat whether men and women are equal in his culture, he emphasises they are equally worthy and women are considered enormously important. Families in Afghanistan are almost always large, with everyone living together under the same roof. “Without women, who would take care of the children and the family?” It’s not because women don’t work, raising large families instead, that they are treated as lesser.

Afghan women’s lives are traditionally controlled by their male relatives. Women symbolise the honour of the family and community and they are expected to be pure and modest. Over the last two decades however, armed groups have used these cultural norms as a weapon. The arrival of the Taliban in 1994 caused an extreme increase in violence against Afghan women. Using rape and sexual assault, they are able to dishonour entire communities. So what does this daily reality do to your views on sexuality and relationships as a young man?

“You need to be respectful of women and turning to look at a pretty woman is not acceptable.”

When Izat and I had been living together for about a month, I met someone. Just like many Belgian couples, we regularly met up and started spending the night together. I always let Izat know whether we would be staying at our apartment or at his place. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything, because I soon realised that Izat would disappear anytime we were in my room. When I asked him about this, he pretended nothing was wrong and he had no idea what I was talking about. His curt reply was clear: “no, no problem”.

Only after many conversations with him did I begin to understand how incredibly uncomfortable this made him feel in his own home. He was already living with an open minded young woman he often struggled to know how to be around. But her sleeping with a partner who was not her husband, was simply too difficult to understand. Staying over at a friend’s house seemed to be the right solution; this way I wouldn’t feel guilty. I’ve now come to accept this, after all, it seems a little absurd to change my love life to meet his religious standards.

The truth? Living together will always be a quest to find the perfect middle ground, but I consider the freedom women enjoy here a vested right. A hard earned right I wouldn’t like to see changed.

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