“Culture does not define our roles in society”
Growing up with a family with strong culture, tradition and religion can be a person’s light and darkness. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel can feel like a double edged sword, where what’s trapping you can also guide you too freedom. That light being the realization and freedom from the shackles of culture. Philosopher Plato’s allegory of the cave deals with perception versus reality. Three prisoners shackled in a cave since birth, unaware of the world that they live in. Limited to the sights of each other and the cave walls, the prisoners interpretation of reality was manipulated by the shadows created by the outsiders. These shadows anticipated as a reality and the only way to live for the prisoners and the thought of a world beyond the cave was mentally inconceivable to them. As a prisoner escapes, he soon comprehends that what he thought was reality was far from the truth, and his whole existence felt manipulated “ I think he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner”.
The feeling of being trapped and held back by culture is something I feel everyday. In my life these shackles were passed down from generations. Hiding behind gender stereotypes, religion and culture these traditions were designed to contradistinguish qualities and stop them from reaching self actualization.
Culture is what is composed, practiced and perceived as there being a right way to live. Though culture gives you belongingness, and also make you feel foregen when your viewpoints are different from others. Gender roles is something that comes along with culture. Words like breadwinner reserved for men and homemaker for women, these labels are restricting us from pursuing ones passion, like one’s very own cave. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the prisoners were confined in a cave, uninformed of the world beyond, “they cannot move and can only see before them”. The cave was their truth and reality.
Gender roles for my family is the truth and reality. With my father being the provider of the house and my mother being a housewife. I grew up being encouraged by my mother to attend school, get an education and get a good paying job. But reality would settle in when comments made by other Somali family members, whose mentality have been solidified with the ideology of gender roles. Their comments on my hopes for the future would crush me, saying things like “ you will get a husband and have kids why would you want to waste your time going to university” or “if you waste all your good years attending school, you will be too old to have kids. Who would want to be with a women who cannot have kids.” These comments used to get to me and caused a lot of arguments and disputes and caused a lot of darkness and doubt in myself and my worth. Encouragement was something i lacked growing up.
Being a girl, most of the encouragement from my father was towards my brother. In school when kids would talk about how their parents encouraged them to be whatever they wanted, it really used to upset me. My father is a religious and cultural man. He does not accept or want to hear anything that isn’t “ the Somali way or tradition”. We were never close because I didn’t agree with the rules he placed, not only my siblings but my mother. I couldn’t separate my father being a husband and him as a father. He never took me to no soccer practises or taught me how to ride a bike. He always said that a man’s job is to provide and the kids are my moms responsibility. I would get jealous of other kids when their dad would take them out and just have fun with their dad. Gender roles due to culture was something my father hid behind to avoid taking responsibility for his kids. His strict rules and regulations caused me to be unable to explore and find my own limits as a growing woman when these supposide rules were implied. The prisoners perception of the truth was the cave and my family’s perception of truth was these rules used in Somali tradition.
Religion and culture go hand in hand and when religion is used to justify the actions of inequality, it makes it harder for women to retaliate. Religion is what fuels culture. It enables men to dominate, shackling women. In Plato’s allegory of the cave the prisoners “have their legs and necks chained”.
In my religion, it is often said that you must do as the Prophet says. Women and men are separated during prayer, a man must always lead the prayer and women cannot make big decisions with the husband’s consent. While some things are stated in the holy book, most are not. Gender superiority is not stated anywhere but forged by culture. Religion and culture often get mixed up, and when you are told that the religion states something, you cannot really go against or question it.
I have always been the black sheep of the family. I was always a curious child, asking questions about religion and why we do what we do, but instead of this being taken as curiosity, I have been accused of trying to “question” the religions or undermine its purity. Hearing the excuses for elders, when they cannot explain where in the holy book it says these restrictions or rules. I’ve always been told to do as I was told or not be part of the family. This never used to bother me as a child but as I got older and wanted to see life for myself, it became clear that just accepting things for the way they are is not going to work. Disowning a child is very common for Somalis as anyone who goes against what an elder says will be deemed a “ westernized or problematic”
At a young age my father made it clear it was his way was the right way. As I got older, I had come to realize that things i was that were taught as religious teachings as a child was actually a lie and that religion does not limit women on what they cannot do day to day. Going out with my friends, going swimming or just riding bikes after school was a problem for my dad. He would always say that women should not put themselves on display where i thought of it as just having fun. This made me feel like a prisoner and my shackles were the so called “ religious teachings” that my father preached.
Somalis take pride in reserving the rich and authentic culture that we’ve had for centuries. Traditional clothing, food and weddings are somethings that help preserve and create an appreciation for the culture. Coming from an immigrant family it was hard for them to accept that where they lived now was not Somalia. Rules, laws and language is different and how I grew up is very different to how they grew up. This was very hard for my family to adjust too and it took them a long time to realize that what fire casted for them was going to be different from the fire casted for me. In Plato’s allegory, the fire casted shadows to the prisoners which created a reality for them. “How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?” My parents knew nothing else but the Somali culture, it is what they grew up with, taught and acted according to.
In the story, the fire is what allowed the shadows to be casted and my fire was the traditional acts. Every Friday, there would be some sort of family gathering. It was always tradition for the women cook tons of food and for the men to sit around. As a child this was so fun getting to interact with cousins and new family members that I haven’t seen. But getting into my teens, these fun family gatherings became more like a choir. Wanting to spend my friday or weekend doing something I actually wanted. But in the Somali culture, when an event, wedding or gatherings are happening, it is considered rude for someone to not be there. Family image is a big thing, looking presentable, acting right and religious knowledge is something parents boast about. My father was always about family image, he wanted to control everything from what clothing we wore to what we were allowed to say. Other families did the same thing, and this was what was casted or shown to family members, like the shadows in the cave.
The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t always true, but in Plato’s allegory of the cave there was. The newly unshackled prisoner sees the light at the end of the tunnel and walks towards it. The light at the end of the tunnel for me was coming to an age where i can deny these rules and choose whether these cultural standards were going to define me. l have always put on a face where to family members, i looked like these rules did not bother me but getting into my teens, I had to learn to adapt and create a whole new relationship with my parents especially my mom to get a better understanding of the ideology.While my male family members were out partying i was stuck in the house cleaning and cooking with my mother and other female family members. It was not until I had sat down and talked with my mother, that we came to an understanding that something that may have worked in Somalia would not work in Canada. For once this communication and understanding was my light at the end of the tunnel and I had realized that all this time, instead of bashing these cultural norms, i should try and embrace them in a way that was not only beneficial to me but also my family members.
But with this new found understanding, figuring out things for yourself is hard. Leaving home and attending university is something I’ve always dreamt about, but growing up sheltered and protected, it created a blindness. This blindness created doubt, of what if what i was taught was right. But every time i have those thoughts, I realize that I have to take time to find myself. Take time to get control of my own life and for once not to think about my family and their standards. That is my sun, what keeps me going and motivated to get good grades, to come to school and be the best person I can be. Also seeing other Somali women thriving, graduating and getting their degrees, becoming lawyers, doctors, basketball player and just being apart of society makes me believe although we have these restrictions, it does not stop us from doing what we love.
Plato’s allegory of the cave does relate to my life.“On the walls of the cave, only the shadows are the truth”. Culture is the truth for my family. The struggle of gender roles, religion and adjustment to th western society due to culture affected my life significantly. I have grown up to be a very proud Somali, where restrictions, gender stereotypes and rules do not exist. The comments and doubt from other people does not affect me. Though i still try to find approval from other people, I have learned that not everyone is going to change their ideology. “ Those who are able to see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture, will never be understood, let alone believed by the masses”.