Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Problem with Labels

What are you? Are you a conservative or a liberal? A capitalist, socialist or communist? A believer or an atheist? A right winger or a left winger? Are you male or female? A primarily Arabic or English speaker? Are you Sunni, Shia, or as a friend put it, Shunni? Are you even Muslim? If you aren’t Muslim, are you a Christian, min ahl el ketab? If you are a Christian, are you a Baptist, Catholic or a Mormon? Are you… are you … are you?

Can we mix any labels? Are we able to be two opposite things? Say a conservative liberal or a liberal conservative? A right winger with left wing tendencies? A religious person with secular leanings? I know some self-professed communists that are the embodiment of capitalism.

All these questions and numerous others serve only to label you. And thereby the problem starts. The problem with labels is that they by definition serve to classify and describe someone or something. The label becomes your identification. Once you are labeled you are confined to an expected set of actions, views, opinions and beliefs. Think different, act different and you are ‘labeled’ a fake at best or a ‘traitor’ to your cause/sect/faith/politics.

I think it is human nature to label something. It makes the object easier to understand and deal with. We tend to peg things and try to make them fit in the tapestry of our lives. So either the piece goes along or we discard it, reject it as an unfit addition. But are humans like objects, so easy to label with predictable modes of behavior and actions?

When applying labels to people, aren't we setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment? Someone is bound to act in a way unbecoming of the label and then what do we do? Either we realize that labels really don’t work but use them anyway, or we become more rigid in the label system, writing the person off as a deserter of the cause, whatever it may be.

Labels limit our opportunities and bind us with their chains inside a box. When we do manage to break free, the damage to the box is substantial and those left inside suffer the consequences.

Labels also employ our preconceived notions and subconsciously play on our prejudices allowing us to pass judgements on whole groups of people. Labels can have you instantly dismiss a person as someone who at best has nothing in common with you and at worst, an enemy. Labels are also syptomatic of societal tensions and problems. If a person acts outside of what is expected, this person or even the action is seen as the exception to the norm. Even though he/she is ------, they do not act like it/are not lazy/are nice.

Here in Bahrain, labels are busy at work leading some to believe that a figure is for a certain group or against them not based on the person's actions but to the group such figure belongs to. Our parliament is a prime illustration with encumbants serving another term simply for belonging to a certain group (and thus labeled as a 'friend' or 'pro-this or that') when their track record proves other wise.

Ask yourself, would a shia candidate with the best professional track record and high morals ever win a seat in a primarily conservative sunni locale ex. Riffa? Would a sunni ever win a seat in a conservative shia village ex. Daih? The chances are remote not because of the candidate's credentials but because the candidate lacks the right label, he/she (don't even get me started on the she issue) doesn't belong.

I try to think of what labels I want, other than those I have to carry. I find myself shying away from defining me. The chant “I am more, I am more” keeps ringing in my head loud and clear. There are certain truths that I know about myself. Yet I hesitate to speak them out loud for fear of being pegged.

It is true that there are some labels we can’t escape. Others we proudly carry. I am a Muslim Bahraini female. These are labels I am proud to have. But they are not all that define me.

Everyone expects me to act a certain way: Because I am female, my society restricts me (ex. can’t be out after 11pm, can’t expect to enjoy the same freedoms as your counter males).

Because I am Muslim, often the world discriminates against me (ex. I thought you were progressive, what do you mean you are a practicing Muslim? You are Muslim, but you are so normal! If you were a good Muslim, you would wear hijab).

Because I am Bahraini, certain behaviors, choices and actions are expected of me (ex. Why are you still abroad, don’t you love your country?)

At times, I can't help but disappoint those around me. It is inevitable. My existence goes beyond my labels. That catches the people around me off guard and makes them wonder if they really knew me. Sometimes, I wonder too. Do they really know me, or do they know my labels and what I am ‘supposed to be’?

So fellow reader, think some and share if you like, what labels define and confine you?


SoulSearch said...

GOS, your article blew my mind. You hit the nail on the head with the labels... Bahrain is one ripe example for labels. Everywhere you go, you will be able to attract 3 million labels on the way. I have been labeled many times myself, some people see me as a religious conservative, and get flabbergasted when they hear me singing along to Nickleback's Someday. Some people label me as a Sunni Bahraini but get blown away when they know I'm originally Lebanese with a Bahraini mother! Some people call me an aethiest [believe it or not!] because I wear the hijab but listen to music or enjoy life or whatever!!! Seriously, people will label you no matter what you do. And this will never stop, unfortunately labels grow everyday. People keep labeling one another hence all the hatred, wars, and whatnot in the world.


Gardens of Sand said...

Thanks Soul, lately I am measuring up to the labels assigned to me! Let us all break out of the box, shake things up! Sometimes, the look on a person's face is classic! hehehehe


PS: listen to Nickelback's If Everyone Cared and Savin Me. They are gr8!!!