My Son Insists on Wearing Dresses in Ramallah

How can we raise our children to thrive in a flawed world, where garb is genderized and Daddy can’t come to Tel Aviv? ■ Post # 16

Umm Forat
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Illustration: My two-and-a-half years old son insists on wearing dresses in Ramallah
Illustration: My two-and-a-half years old son insists on wearing dresses in Ramallah Credit: Orbon Alija / Getty Images
Umm Forat

I’m an Israeli lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah. After years of wandering throughout the world, we returned to the West Bank with our two children, 6-year-old Forat and 2-year-old Adam. We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you here. (Click to read all previous posts). I have changed the names of people in the blog, including my own. “Umm Forat” means “Mother of Forat” in Arabic.

Adam, two-and-a-half years old, likes to wear dresses. Skirts and pink shirts too. They belong to Forat, his 6-year-old sister, whom he emulates in everything else too. He watched her twirl around to make her skirt fan out, hold weddings with Red Teddy Bear as the groom, and reign over her queendom in a ball gown and crown she made from colored paper – and decided that he wanted to get in on the fun.

“White dress!” he demanded when he came home from daycare, and he raced to the closet to select one of Forat’s dresses. The look of joy on his face as he twirled around was adorable. But then came the dilemma.

“Sweetheart, let’s wear pants to daycare,” I suggested the next morning.

Biddush!” he answered in his slightly jumbled Arabic. “Biddi fustani!” “I want my dress,” which in this case was purple with a wide skirt and a shiny picture of popcorn. It’s hard to blame him. His clothes are in solid colors of red, blue or black, at most with a picture of some dinosaur or tractor, and devoid of sequins or fairies.

“The dress is too big for you,” I said, but that wasn’t really the point. I mean, we could have bought a dress in his size. I asked myself: Why not do so?

“Let him go to daycare in the dress,” I told my partner Osama. “His daycare claims to be progressive.”

“I’ll bring a pair of shorts for changing,” Osama said.

“Why?”

“In case he wants.” Meaning, in case the daycare teachers want.

Adam’s arrival at daycare was uneventful and the teachers refrained from commenting on his clothing. We continued to let him wear Forat’s dresses, and he was thrilled. But children and adults – Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners, on the street, in the homes of friends, in video calls with family members – kept raising questions and objections, and I began to worry that Adam would sense the negative feedback.

“Ima, Karam said that boys are not allowed to wear dresses,” Forat reported to me at the playground.

“And what do you think?” I asked, hoping to incite her to a healthy rebellion against restrictive social norms.

“I want Adam to stop taking my Minnie Mouse dress,” Forat answered. “He spilled ketchup on it.”

“Forat, yesterday you told me that Miss Nibal said boys can choose pink paper if they like, right? Because everyone should be able to pick the colors they like.”

“Miss Nibal also said that we are naughty because we didn’t listen to her words, and that she will punish us,” Forat answered.

So much for relying on Miss Nibal to challenge conservative notions of educating children. I quickly reversed course: “You know that Ima and Baba don’t always agree with Miss Nibal. We think that all the children are good, and if they make mistakes, the teachers should help them correct them.”

Forat didn’t miss a beat: “If you don’t agree, why do you send me to that kindergarten?”

Sometimes I feel like most of my conversations with Forat – and I guess it will be the same with Adam – are composed of me saying, “This is how the world is, and Ima and Baba don’t agree.” Why I don’t wear shorts outside the house in Ramallah, why her father can’t come with us to my cousin’s wedding in Tel Aviv, what is a gun and what people do with it. I want to give my children the freedom to be who they want to be. I want them to challenge the flawed world in which they live. And I also want to protect them. How do other parents strike a balance?

On Saturday evening, I took the children to a demonstration in Tel Aviv. Forat and Adam loved the noise, music and socially-distanced crowd. Adam, wearing a flattering floral dress, stood on the edge of the fountain in Rabin Square where huge goldfish swam, pointing and screaming: “Samake! Samake!” Fish.

Protesters attenda rally against Israel plans to annex parts of the West Bank, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, June 6, 2020. The drawing represents Eyad Halaq, a Palestinian with severe autism who was killed recently by Israeli border police officers after a chase in Jerusalem's Old City
Protesters attenda rally against Israel plans to annex parts of the West Bank, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, June 6, 2020. The drawing represents Eyad Halaq.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

The organizers distributed fluorescent stick lights for a minute of silence in memory of Eyad Halaq, the Palestinian man with autism who was shot to death by Israeli border guards in Jerusalem. Forat mingled among the demonstrators, who stood on Xs taped to the ground two meters apart, and collected the stick lights they dropped, weaving them into a rainbow.

“Who is Eyad Halaq?” she asked.

“Someone who wasn’t treated nicely,” I answered.

When Forat asked what “occupation” is, I told her that it’s when people don’t want to share. We tell Forat that her father, who is Palestinian, can’t cross checkpoints because the people standing there have trouble sharing, and that Ima and Baba don’t agree. I added that the demonstrators also disagree with the occupation and are calling for it to end.

Forat listened to the chanting and speeches, in Hebrew and Arabic, her eyes wide and alert. At 9 pm I tried to persuade her to get into the stroller, next to her sleepy brother.

“Ima, is the demonstration over?” she asked.

“Yes, sweetheart. Everyone is going home, and so are we.”

“So Baba can come now?” she asked. “To Tel Aviv with us?”

“Not yet, sweetheart. It will take time until the people at the checkpoints agree to share.”

“So then why is everyone going home?” she asked. I felt a surge of pride. Maybe she will insist in the places where we adults have given up too easily.

“Because Baba is waiting for us at home,” I said, and I gave her my hand to help her climb into the stroller.

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