LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Let's hear now this Mother's Day weekend from a mom in the Gaza Strip and about her small success in modern parenting in a very traditional society. It all started with worry and fear after her young daughter was accused of breaking a social taboo. NPR's Emily Harris met the woman and child in their Gaza apartment.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: And did I see your daughter sort of moving around here. Is she hear? Is she shy?
HARRIS: Shahd Al-Swerki calls to her 5-year-old daughter who's darted off into a back room. The girl had just started preschool a couple of years ago when her teacher called her mother in to report that the child had done something bad.
SHAHD AL-SWERKI: She told me she's a very beautiful girl. She has very beautiful hair, but she did so -oh, my God. It's like she destroyed her future (laughter). It was, for me, very bad.
HARRIS: Swerki says the teacher told her that she had left the room. When she returned, she found Swerki's daughter, 3 years old at the time, with no clothes on. Apparently two little boys had asked the girl to show them her body. There were no allegations of touching or abuse. Swerki laughs now. But at the time, she felt ashamed, even panicked.
SWERKI: I was panicked because she gave me the feeling that my daughter is a bad daughter, afraid because oh, my God - will she be a bad daughter when we - she grows up?
HARRIS: This might sound extreme to a Western ear. Swerki felt so stressed out at this point that she couldn't even focus at work. But it wasn't because her daughter, who we're not naming for privacy, took off her clothes at preschool. In fact, Swerki believes that's not so unusual in a young child's development.
SWERKI: My husband and I are interested in reading about children, about their development stages. We usually log into Internet and read about it. But the way the teacher said it to me - the way she described it - it made me giving different reactions than that what I planned.
HARRIS: This is the crux. Swerki had spent much of her adult life planning to raise her daughter differently than she had been raised. She grew up with a father who would let her brothers study abroad, but not her and went to a high school where the girls sex ed teacher skipped the chapter on getting your period. Yet, despite her determination to make her own family life different, here she was succumbing to cultural pressure, a teacher shaming her daughter - and her.
SWERKI: I don't know. Maybe due to family issues, maybe due to the situation here in Gaza, sometimes people oblige you to think in a certain way.
HARRIS: A community psychologist in Gaza says this is an example of external locus of control - in this case, worrying a lot about what others think of you. He said this is deeply ingrained in Gaza's conservative family-centric Palestinian society. Swerki sought reassurance from a mental health therapist. Her confidence bolstered to stick with her own against-the-grain values, she went back to speak to the teacher again.
SWERKI: I told her you are mistaken. If you are a real teacher, you would know that this is normal and you would deal with kids in a better way. And also, if you were a real teacher, you wouldn't leave kids alone in the class, so it's your mistake, not my daughter mistake.
HARRIS: Swerki resolved to never let others impose their values on her again. But this will not be an easy resolution to keep. For example, Swerki covers her hair out of respect for Muslim tradition, but wears pants in public, which few women in Gaza do. One of her aunts phones Swerki's father to report seeing Swerki in slacks on the street.
HARRIS: In the roomy kitchen of her new apartment, Swerki stirs coffee. She and her husband did break away from the tradition of living in his family's home. Teetering between two desires, to fit in and to carve out a niche for change, Swerki has accepted for herself, and even grown to love, Gaza.
SWERKI: Yes, I love it. I love it because I had no other choice. I love it because I had to love it. But if I had the chance to choose my life from the beginning, it would be different.
HARRIS: She's now set her dream of a different life, travel and independence, at the feet of her daughter. Emily Harris, NPR News, Gaza.
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