Setting Boundaries

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In Session 4, we talked about setting and respecting our own boundaries–placing boundaries for how much we offer of our time, space, energy and selves. We discussed signs and examples of healthy and unhealthy boundaries using a checklist for each participant that asked us to mark if we practiced the listed behavior often, sometimes or rarely. One thing many people identified as an issue they had is “saying yes when I want to say no” and “accepting things (food, gifts, touch) that I do not want”. Some participants said that they may do this sometimes so as to not embarrass the person in front of them. One of the older khaltos hit the nail on the head right away, telling us that if we did not respect our own boundaries when it came to little things, we would gradually lose control of our own boundaries for more grave situations or for values we hold dear.

The conversation segued perfectly into our next activity. We got into pairs and handed out cards to everyone with various scenarios written out that one of them was supposed to act out to the other. The cards said things like “offer her baklava,” or “offer her a ride home,” or “ask her to hang out and go to the movies,” or “invite her over for dinner.” The challenge was for the invitee to refuse the offer in the way she saw fit, with the inviter being rather persistent and pushy. Initially, there were a lot of giggles, and even “sure, yeah, why not, let’s go to the movies!” We reminded participants that we were role-playing; that they should see the person in front of them not necessarily as the actual person in front of them but perhaps as an acquaintance, a coworker, stranger, or even a friend, etc.–the point is to practice saying no when you don’t want something across different situations and contexts, so we asked them to envision someone they needed to practice saying no to.

In the second round of practice, the responses were impressive. People declined offers and invitations in unique and competent ways. Some offered an unapologetic and curt, “No thanks,” and walked away, while others named an excuse or reason to escape the situation even amid overbearing pressure to give in. 

Our next activity took boundary-setting a step further. We learned how to value our space, and mark it. We learned how to take up a lot of space, with our bodies and with our voices, and to not always bend so that others may extend. To not prioritize others’ comfort over our own. We learned how to identify and imagine actually “carving out our space” (s/o to Angela for teaching me this concept). How much of a circle do you need around you to feel comfortable? To feel safe? Draw it out, mentally. Imagine it is there, and it beeps when someone crosses it.

Participants talked about how this circle would look different depending on who is with them and where they are, and we agreed that this changing meter is totally acceptable and needed (e.g. it is not a “double standard” or problematic for “lacking in consistency” as trolls may point out). The first rule in self-defense and self-care is that, precisely, there are no “rules”–you set and decide what resources to use and decisions to make based on the situation you find yourself in and your capabilities in that moment. 

People lined up in two lines on either end of the room facing each other. We told them to find a partner across them. One side of the room walked toward the other side briskly, making intense eye contact, maybe even saying something. The goal was for the people standing on the other side to tell the person walking toward them to “stop!” whenever they felt that they were encroaching on their marked space. After doing this in pairs, the QUWA organizers role-played a situation with each person individually in front of the whole group, where we asked each person to diffuse, evade or stop the situation in the way they saw fit, using their tools (voice, posture, situation-assessment, etc). We had scenarios at a quiet bus stop, for example, where a stranger or perpetrator would come too close or ask invasive questions like, “You Syrian, huh?” or “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Sometimes the questions were more simple, “Do you know what time the bus comes?”

The responses were amazing. People practiced their “power poses”–they practiced “making themselves bigger” with their shoulders back, hands up, no smiles, and most importantly, using loud and firm voices when they felt it was necessary. The smiles were difficult to get rid of; not necessarily anymore because we were role-playing but because it is very common for women in vulnerable or uncomfortable situations to smile. 

The debrief at the end of the session was raw and vulnerable. We talked about the transgressions we’ve faced–from people we know and don’t know–the times we resisted, the times we didn’t, and the times we didn’t know we could. It was amazing to see someone like Manar*, who on the first day openly told the group she had no self-esteem and doesn’t like talking about herself, volunteer to speak first today. To speak about how she can’t let shyness keep her from not saying no or defending herself. 

Hand in hand, we closed with one-word check-outs. This is usually a closing activity that many of us find heart-warming and spiritually/physically connecting. But the true treat came when 12-year-old Rana* used the same powerful voice she used to yell “no!” just moments ago to now serenade us with her sweet, sweet singing. 

with love,


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