All posts by Zainab

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On Beauty

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I’ve always thought of myself as a woman who was not good looking. Sometimes I thought I was ugly, and other times I thought I was fat. Perhaps there were momentarily feelings of beauty, but mostly those emotions were punctuated with clear awareness that I was not beautiful. When I tell this to friends they find it surprising, and sometimes they think I am exaggerating or lying. But I am not. Not identifying as beautiful was part of my truth for most of my life until recently.   The transformative magic was not due to exterior change. It was not related to losing weight or changing my hair cut; and it was definitely not about considering plastic surgery. The shift in my understanding of personal beauty took place within a very internal process. I wish to extend great gratitude to two female friends who work in the hearts of the fashion industry and helped me take a different look at myself and see the beautiful part I have always ignored or denied.

In the process of this most recent transformation, I learned that what mattered the most was my own attitude towards beauty. To start with, I thought beauty was something to be hidden and that triggered a relationship of shame rather than celebration. It also prompted me to cover up my body with loose and baggy outfits. I would often go out of my way to “uglify” by hiding as much of myself in my choices of clothes and the way I walked, with a hunched back—almost wishing to disappear into the background. I did all that was possible to make sure that people see what is in my mind as opposed to any aspect of natural beauty. And that entails often talking a lot and putting the confidence in my opinion, as expressions that distract from any definition of beauty. Now, mind you, this may very well be a mind game that I played with myself without others being aware.  But again, what mattered was not the outer world’s perception but my own self-image and feelings.

When I hang out with other female friends I perceive as beautiful I never feel jealous. I respect and admire their beauty and always feel that it was something that is just not related to me. I am comfortable with what I observe as my physical disappearance. For example, if a group of female friends enter a restaurant together, I always assume that I am the one who was not seen by others. And I was always comfortable with that. It’s always surprising and even shocking to me when I’m told that I was noticed. And that story goes as back as my teenage time in Baghdad Iraq.

You may think of some of my behavior as modest and good but that was not how it landed in my heart. When the relationship with beauty is out of shame rather than celebration, it leads to a form of self-torture and denial of the most essential blessing of God.  As a woman’s right activist, I particularly took on the “lack of beauty” as a form of identity. I wanted no one to pay attention to how I look and everyone to hear only what I say. But that way I only took on one way of expressing change I wanted to see in women’s lives, as I was only speaking through the power of words and actions.

The change of attitude first happened when the women I was working with in war zones started asking me to bring them lipstick. When they saw my flabbergasted reaction, they quickly explained to me that lipstick is the simplest way to show beauty. It helped them feel good about themselves and that, in turn, was an essential part of their resilience. That captured my attention and I started noticing women who witnessed and survived the worst acts of humanity in the wars of Congo and Afghanistan were carrying themselves with such graceful beauty. That’s when I first noticed that beauty is not to be denied. It should be encouraged and celebrated, as it is a core source of human spirit. It was then that I started applying my own lipstick and paid a bit more attention to my clothes.

Still, the change that occurred in my relationship with beauty was more out of my activist self rather than the primary woman within me. The relationship with beauty may have transformed within but it was still not a settled matter within my heart. But unsettled matters are also the source of our vulnerabilities, where our insecurities lie, and in our securities there is always the risk of our own self-betrayal. I know I betrayed myself by denying the peace of beauty from within for way too many years until my friends started helped me, at the age of 44, to transform my relationship with beauty from within. Not as a political aspect. Not as a goal to help women—but as a process from within to create inner peace.

That is when I started working out as my duty towards my body. That is when I started paying attention to what I ate and showing respect to the body that God gave me. And that is when I started wearing clothes that celebrated my entire being and worked with my body instead of shapeless outfits whose purpose was to hide and deny. This led me to walk with a straight back rather than the old hunched one. I am neither denying nor fearing whatever sense of beauty I feel towards myself. Indeed I am grateful for it every day as I wake up and put my feet on the floor as I step out of bed. In that moment I start my gratitude towards God for giving me a functioning body from my smallest toe to my big nose. Suddenly, I love every part of myself as part of my gratitude towards God’s gift. How dare I deny my blessings for so many years and consider it a source of shame. Beauty, as the saying goes, helps us get closer to peace and, consequently, peace helps us get closer to God.

I only attained this attitude about a year ago. Yes, believe it or not, only a year ago. It took a series of events, some pain, and immense openness to the possibility of being wrong in my past attitude and letting a new one in. As my friend Donna Karan always says, “Clothing is not in the mere act of dressing. It takes dressing and addressing for women to feel beautiful.” And, indeed, she was one of the critical friends who helped me address my inner sense of beauty to arrive at the outer comfort with it.

That transformation revealed other realities. First, I buy much less clothes than ever before. Now that I am actually comfortable with loving myself, I do not feel the desire to buy clothes at all. The few pieces I have—and I promise you my entire wardrobe fits four medium suitcases—is more than enough for me. The pieces I buy are ethically produced and fitting for me. They are less about the new fashion and much more about what my heart desires. And I could not feel more beautiful than I am feeling these days. Secondly, the pressure to constantly change one’s appearance is so huge that it can easily lead to self-doubt and more buying-obsessed behavior. I am constantly asked to dye my hair, adjust my look, get new makeup, change my nose, buy a certain color, and do this and that. And if I listen to everyone around me I would easily slip back into an unhealthy relationship with myself. My own self-love and comfort within my skin is the only foundation that keeps me centered and released me from succumbing to pressure to change anything.

Ultimately, one qualification or another does not measure beauty. I am convinced beauty is a source of inner light and that light knows not a color or size or shape of any body part. A light is a light and it is that beacon that is the source of beauty. I am in my mid-forties and I love my gray hair, my big nose, my big thighs, and I welcome these kind wrinkles around my eyes. What I see of myself is not the imperfections. I recognize my beauty unconditionally and I cultivate that understanding from a source of love and peace within myself and to God.  If I could do this transformation then any woman and man can. It is all in our hands and has nothing to do with what we purchase—but who we are.


On Vulnerability

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Most people are uncomfortable with showing vulnerability to others. As humans, we are used to presenting the strongest and most positive images of ourselves rather than the vulnerable parts we all possess. We are more likely to talk about the things that are going well in our lives than the things that are bothering or challenging us. More attention is put on our positive accomplishments rather than failures and obstacles, on our happiness rather than our sadness, and on our strength rather than on our weakness. And yet it is in our vulnerability, the very thing we avoid sharing with others, where stronger and more truthful connections between people reside.

I have had the privilege to live in various countries and cultures in my life. And in the process I learned that each culture deals differently in which emotions they show and how they choose to show them individually. Americans’ first response to the question of “How are you?” is always “Great!” to Middle Easterners, on the other hand, always put a melancholy tone on the answer by saying “Thank God”—mostly as means to avoid saying “I am bad” or even “I am good” for cultural reasons that combines a show of gratitude with a worry that of being envied by others. Some cultures like to brag of happiness (mostly Western cultures), while other cultures like to speak of sadness (mostly Eastern cultures). I know I am highly generalizing here, but I do so to make a macrocosmic point that what people in various cultures choose to show or not to show does not always equate with openness.

The concept of vulnerability transcends all cultural boundaries. It is a human emotion that deals with our doubts, fears, and worries—something that each human being has no matter where you live and what you have or don’t have in this world. Our vulnerabilities stem from our individual stories and life narratives. Particular uncertainties may vary from one person to the other given their backstories, but fears always revolve around the concept of whether one will be accepted, loved, safe, and successful. Although we all have these emotions running in our minds, we worry about revealing them for fear of being judged.

To show vulnerability—genuine and truthful vulnerability—is the exact opposite of learning what societies have taught us for so many years, which is to hide our weaknesses deep in ourselves. But if we do not show vulnerability, we continue holding the mask over ourselves and, therefore, alienate others as opposed to sharing connections. So what happens if you expose your most intimate worries? Perhaps you fear not being accepted or loved by others if you speak your truth, or you’re concerned that you cannot achieve what you perceive as the expectations others have for you and who you are. Being fully vulnerable is like being naked with no clothes to cover the most private parts of the self.

That is not an easy task by all means. As a matter of fact, it requires a leap of faith in the goodness and the love of people around—something that cannot be guaranteed. Yet to avoid expressing your true self and desires is to be stuck in the shell of your fears and often leads to self-fulfilling prophecy where your worries become manifested. This can lead to isolation from authentic relationships and friendships.

Showing vulnerability started with the journey of truth. I couldn’t be truthful to who I am if I didn’t also expose my hopes and fears honestly. The responses I got each time I showed vulnerability varied. Sometimes people were uneasy seeing me vulnerable, and would rush to try to make me happy and tell me everything is OK. Some felt a duty to “save” me, which was not necessary needed. Others felt uncomfortable and turned the other direction immediately. But, thankfully, more often than not people showed up in the most loving, kind, caring, and generous ways. People listened and helped me reflect as I processed. Often just their presence and the smallest acts of kindness would make a huge difference in my life. The gift of that connection with some helped me filter through the meaning of friendships in my life. Knowing friends in happiness is a very different experience than knowing people in times of trouble. Vulnerability forces facades to be broken down and with that we encounter another reality of the self and the people around us.

Still, you may wonder, why should we show vulnerability? After all it is indeed a very uncomfortable feeling to share. Well, it is because you accomplish two things. First, you can at least cathartically reveal what is inside your heart and be in your truth no matter what the issue may be. And second, instead of living in fear and worry based on your own assumptions of how people may respond, you gain insight into the people around you. You will indeed go through some process of sorting that will tell you with more clarity what is worth going through. I know that in my experience witnessing the vulnerability of others—even someone who I perceived as a distant friend at first—made my relationship with them so much closer and real. It has lead to the most beautiful friendships with the most unexpected people.

The way to deal with vulnerability is not to worry more, but to open your heart and with that your mind and connection with others will follow. When it was I who showed vulnerability, the process felt like vetting through the “truth” verses the “bullshit” of people around me. In the time of thoughtful language brought by the life coach industry, expressing yourself helps you distinguish between those who only “speak” from those who actually “act.” The experience will always lead you to a more truthful place with yourself and with others around you. And the taste of truth is always, always worth it!

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On Darkness Within

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Conversations on all the bombings and terror that are happening around the world have been dominating not only news channels but also all my conversations with friends and colleagues.  This fear that is spread by ISIS around the world is bringing all kinds of feelings in people.  From those who are retreating and saying we have nothing to do with this terror and we just want to be left alone, to those who are saying we need to engage and bomb the heck out of ISIS and win the war, to those who are consumed by conspiracy theories about the origin and the funding of ISIS.  Middle Easterns are blaming ISIS on Americans (yes, that is a true widespread belief in the Middle East), some just call ISIS crazy dysfunctional people who are gathered from all over the world to join ISIS as it provides a sense of purpose to them, to those who are trying to understand the underpinning behind ISIS growth from economic to social and ideological.   There is a place for all of these arguments of course and sometimes they co-exist together.  What they all have in common is pointing the finger at ISIS as the “other”.  And of course they are the “other” but we will never be able to understand the darkness in others unless we understand the darkness in ourselves.

As a matter of fact, unless we dare to see the darkness within ourselves, each as individuals as well as a collective society, we will not be able to address the darkness in others and transform what is happening in the world to a more peaceful and stable place than it is at the moment.   This is much easier said than done.  Each individual and society has a sense of self-righteousness about oneself.  It is easier to believe I am good and this person is bad.  I am ethical and this person is not, etc. But that scenario is always impossible. There is no such thing as any one individual or society as fully good or fully bad. We each have both co-existing within ourselves and within our society. Now I am not saying we all have ISIS values in us.  But I am saying unless we understand the darkness within us, it will be hard to engage with the darkness of ISIS or even another individual who may be hurting you at work or in your personal life.

In a way, we each need to embrace the Batman within ourselves and take on the black mask to explore the darkness in the caves in the midst of the night be it that of the Joker or the shadow itself.  You see, unlike Superman who is a hero from another planet who wants to save humanity, Batman is a human who has been hurt.  He understood to go to darkness, he needed to explore the darkness of himself and even wear it as the mask whereby he enters into others’ darkness and stop it from all its crimes.  You may think this is getting weird. This writing starts with ISIS and ends with Batman.  But bear with me here, it ends with each one of us as individuals and asks ourselves where is the arrogance in us? Where is the racist or the classist in us? Where is the bigot in us? Where is the bully in us? Where is the anger in us?

This is an uncomfortable discussion and even a scary one to embark upon.  And frankly, it is hard to do it in public.  In my personal case, I can only do it in the safety of few friends before I explore it in public discussions.  But I feel it is an inevitable journey that I have to explore for myself as an individual if I am to try to show up in the world at a personal, community or global level to contribute in whatever way possible. You see, ISIS and the likes are ultimately about making “ugly” public.

There is a cynicism in that attitude and even anger.  For most people are not comfortable with “ugly” be it a feature in our body or a behavior of our beings or others.  But “ugly” be it ISIS or the Joker in Batman is consistently making “ugly” public and even celebrated in an arrogant way.  But behind that arrogance, is the scarcity of “ugly” and the fear that comes with scarcity.  We all hide “ugly” as something to put in the basements of our lives or societies.  “Ugly” most people believe exist outside of us. But then there comes a time where a group of people build an identity for “ugly”, gives us acknowledgment, respect and more importantly show it publicly without shame.  Every society has such group that makes “ugly” popular and gives it and those who associate with it in a primary way to be respected.  But that respect can only be implemented from a point of arrogance that drives with the fear of scarcity.  In other words, “If I am not arrogant then I won’t be accepted for who I am”.  So “ugly” becomes a bully; “ugly” becomes an arrogance; and “ugly” can eventually become terror itself.

There is a way out of this though. This can only become a vicious circle of violence and terror within our personal or collective lives if we continue to dismiss “ugly” within ourselves and our surroundings.  What if the “ugly” part of us and of each other is acknowledged with respect rather than hidden in the basement?  We can only do that on the individual level as a path to learn what it means and how that means for the collective level.  In other words, in order to understand the arrogance of the bully be it ISIS or an individual in my life, I need to understand the arrogance of the bully within myself.  I need to explore arrogance, where does it stem from within myself, what is the opposite feeling of my arrogance, where is that scarcity and fear is coming from, etc.   Suddenly when one let themselves simmer in the feeling rather than judging it, you will even understand the enjoyment one can actually get from arrogance.

It is in that moment of enjoyment and the power it gives the individual that one can start to explore what it means to be in it and then how to control it: when it’s good to use it and when it’s good not to use it and ultimately how to transform it in the larger collective.  In other words, we cannot transform the darkness and arrogance of ISIS or the Joker if we cannot understand that darkness and how it really feels within ourselves.  In our understanding of our own “ugly” is the healing for the “ugly” outside of us.  In our respect and control of our own “shadow” is the point where we can start to transform the larger “shadow” of what is surrounding us.

As Rumi says, what cleans the dirt is dirt itself.  I never understood this until recently. What if the “dirt” of ourselves is the path to heal and transform the “dirt” we are feeling in out world these days? That exploration is where the journey starts and may it be a journey of healing.