Growing up an American Woman Interview with Renea Thompson

Renea, also called Ayah by her Muslim friends, is from Mississippi but currently resides in Guangzhou, China with her husband. When she’s not teaching, she’s traveling every chance she gets and collecting things along the way to sell in her upcoming shop, The Village Marketplace. She’s also writing her first fiction novel that highlights the struggles of marriage and the process to find the one as a Muslim woman of color. Y

What were the stereotypes of women in your culture growing up?

My maternal granddad used to say, “A woman belongs in two places: the bedroom and the kitchen”. The stereotypes surrounding women at that time pretty much agreed with his ideology. Supposedly, we were all destined to be barefoot and pregnant as a result of growing up in Mississippi. Also, we always seemed to be consistently ranked as the state with the highest rate of teen pregnancy, further pushing that stereotype. To this day, education isn’t something that we are known for as a state, so it was often thought that Mississippi girls weren’t educated or yearning for an education. On top of that, we were thought to be the best cooks because Mississippi is a fat state, but we don’t all grow up being chefs or fat even. We can eat though! 

What were the roles taught to you as a girl?

Although I’m Muslim now, I didn’t grow up within Muslim culture. I was raised the way most southern black girls were. A clean house was crazy important. My mom and dad would say things like, “You’re girls. You can’t be filthy and nasty.” My pet peeve to this day is a dusty, unorganized house, and I crank up my music on the weekends as I’m getting my house in order. However, cooking wasn’t something that was deemed important really. My dad, of course, thought it was important for a girl to know how to cook, but my mom wouldn’t teach us. She would shoo us out of the kitchen when she was preparing meals. Instead, she would say, “Don’t cook for a man every day. You don’t have to cook for them at all. They get spoiled and think that’s all you’re good for. Make him cook for you.” I guess it was her way of defiantly unteaching us what she had been taught as a girl. My dad wanted me to be dependent on him, to never ask for anything from any man except him. My mom, however, taught me to only depend on myself, and I’m still that way. I struggle to ask my husband for help.

What were the cultural expectations that existed for you as an adolescent girl?

A big thing during my youth was appearing to be saved and saving yourself for marriage above all else. It was such a big deal to appear to be loose and wild. At least, appear shy. You couldn’t talk too loud. Be seen, not heard. Let the man feel like a man. You weren’t supposed to outshine him. Girls weren’t supposed to play with boys anyway, and my mom was really cautious about it. I could only play with my uncles (same age as me), and my mom was skeptical about boy cousins (for good reason, I suppose). 

Have you observed a difference in gender roles in your culture vs. other cultures?

It seems that many cultures have the same or similar ideas about gender roles. I’ve made so many friends across different cultures, and it always seems as though the woman is supposed to be home making babies and not traveling the world or pursuing her career or just whatever the hell she wants to do. However, men have free reign and choice over their lives. I only felt liberated after becoming Muslim. Education is encouraged, and the religion pushes us to be entrepreneurial as well. If any Muslim woman feels held back by anything, it’s the cultures and societies that we’ve been born into and not the religion itself. I have to make this clear because people always think that we, Muslim women, hate our lives and are being oppressed in the religion. Negative. 

Have your views on what a woman’s role in society is, changed since you’re able to consider it on all levels at this point?

I think so. Growing up, I resented being a girl. I wanted to be a boy because boys seemed to get all the privileges. I was raised up Christian, so I was taught that women are cursed with periods and painful childbirth as a result of Eve’s actions towards Adam in the Garden of Eden. How am I supposed to feel about myself? I always felt that everything was just so unfair. Now, I feel better about being a woman, and I think my views changed after converting to Islam. In Islam, we’re given privileges for being a woman. For example, we’re taught that heaven lies at the feet of our mothers, that our wealth is ours and doesn’t have to be shared unless that’s what we want to do, that education is ours and that we should go after it, that we should demand respect and be treated like royalty. That completely changed how I view my role in society. I’m not saying that I don’t second guess myself sometimes as a woman in this world due to my upbringing and past experiences, but I feel more confident out in this big world.

Do you think there is a relationship between gender and culture?

Yes, I think that they are intertwined. I think that our concepts of what gender is and our roles are linked to the cultures from which we come. If the perceptions are to change, we will have to change them, but I think the metamorphosis has already begun at this point with all the different movements and solo traveling women. 

You can connect with her, follow her travels, and receive updates on her upcoming projects on her Instagram @muslimblackandtraveling, or follow her blog blackmuslimandtraveling.wordpress.com.

One response to “Growing up an American Woman Interview with Renea Thompson”

  1. […] The Southern American Woman: Interview with Renea Thompson […]

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