September 13, 2012

Arab Women And Me: We're Not So Different

I was pretty nervous to travel to the Middle East as a woman.

Me at the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE
 Years ago, I saw Not Without My Daughter about an American woman, her Iranian husband and daughter going to visit his family in Iran. She ends up having to smuggle her daughter out of the country because her husband was using Islamic law against her. The movie affected me so deeply that I never dated any Arab men. I didn't want the same situation to ever happen to me.

Have you read 1000 Splendid SunsIt's about the experience of two women in Afghanistan who are married to the same oppressive man. They didn't get along at first but soon enough they find friendship in each other. Their intricately woven tale raised the question within me about how far I'd go to get personal freedom.

We also have an Iranian family friend who is very kind and generous, an excellent chef (prepared the feast of Persian food at Tymon's and my wedding reception) and a cunning businessman with a fiery temper. Not seeing eye to eye with my parents on some of their business dealings left smoke coming from my mother's ears (sometimes for days) after one of their meetings. 

Currently, I follow a blog about Saudi women who are fighting for the right to drive. They are being jailed for their civil disobedience.

Bottom line, Arab men are strong willed and if they live in an Islamic country then men's rights supersede women's rights...which becomes important when there is a disagreement. While this viewpoint may be have some truth to it, I'm also convinced that it is short-sighted. 

Even though I know that our Iranian friend married an Iranian woman with a Master's degree, in my mind Arab women were uneducated...that's part of the oppression, after all. The men force their women to wear a burqa (the black garment that covers everything except the eyes and hands) as a part of the power play. So imagine my surprise when I'm in a shop and a woman in full burqa dress speaks to me in English. With a good accent. She welcomed me to the United Arab Emerites and answered a question I had about cardamom. 

Even though I know Tymon has a couple of colleagues in Bahrain who are women, in my mind Arab women didn't work outside the home. Imagine my surprise when I found out the person I was corresponding to via email about a desert driving class is a woman. Not being familiar with English names, she addressed me as John in one email. Me, not being familiar with Arab names, assumed she was a man...and worried that I might not be able to take the class if "he" knew my gender.

My thoughts on what it must be like to be an Arab woman don't even make sense to me. Women walk down the street in their burqas while texting on their phones. The malls are full of clothing that you would see in any non-Islamic nation.

One of Tymon's colleagues wears modest clothing (covers everything but the head, hands and feet) with a head scarf to cover her hair. This woman is attached to her phones - all three of them, traveled to UAE without her husband and earns a decent living. She loves her husband and isn't bothered by his insistence that she not cut her hair. 

Tymon's other female Arab colleague chooses not to wear a head scarf at all. She's also separated from her husband and gets to see her children on the weekends (she was transferred to Abu Dhabi from Bahrain as the UAE is expanding and the company needed her there). 

I asked my tour guide at the Grand Mosque what she wore under her abaya (long robe). A tee-shirt and jeans. She also said she has a college friend who sometimes wears an abaya and sometimes not. When she asked her about it, her friend admitted that she wears an abaya when she runs out of clothes to wear...reminds me of me when I wore skirts to school if i neglected to do my laundry. 

I asked her if she knew how to drive. Yes, she does. I asked her why men wore white robes and women wore black. I'd mislead you if I didn't admit that I wanted her to say it was because men hated women and wanted them to be the hottest they possibly anyone would really say that. And why do only men get to pray in the main room of the mosques while women had a small room to the side? Because women are not asked to come to the mosque to pray 5 times a day. Only men are. Thus they need a larger space. I should've asked why they don't pray together. Doh!

I want to talk with these women more. To understand their struggles and joys. These women don't view themselves as oppressed. And neither should I. Is everything perfect in their world? No. It's not in mine, either. Like them, I get unsolicited advice on how to best live my life. I cannot judge or "help" another culture based on my own skewed perceptions of it. These Arab women and me? Yeah, we're not so different.

2 Riveting COMMENTS:

  1. That movie was so scary!! I think Sally Field starred in it. Kudos to you to brave that part of the world. I wouldn't do it.

  2. while I was in china there were alot of things I didn't agree with when I came home I wished I had not been so judgemental . I loved your post and your so right.


Go ahead. Comment.
You know you want to.
And I love hearing from you.

Design by April Showers