A train, somewhere in Delaware – “What if you were a woman, would you have been able to have the same experiences?”
I’ve been asked that question at book talks, repeatedly. Sometimes the questioner is a concerned mother. Other times it is a woman my age who read Live from Jordan and asked herself at the anti-American protest in Aleppo or in the moonlight of the Western Desert in Egypt, “what if that was me?”
Reading Lolita in Tehranis a bestseller and I can’t go anywhere without seeing Khalid Husseini’s new book. The lives of women and the treatment of foreign women in the Middle East are subjects of popular interest. On both of these issues, I’ve found that American women have negative impressions. In a Miami bookstore, a reader told me that we had to liberate the women of the Middle East; their status was the equivalent of slavery in the United States. At a book club in Washington, we discussed whether certain rights are universal and whether Betty Friedan and the women’s movement in America should have an impact beyond our borders, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
If Saudi women had the right to drive, though, how many would want to get into their cars by themselves and zip over to Starbucks for a latte?
I don’t know.
There is a “women’s only world” in the Middle East that I know little about.
My life in the Middle East was spent mostly in the company of men. As a man, I was able to do certain things like camp in the desert by myself or stay in dodgy hotels without worrying about the underlying sexual connotation or the personal safety that a female traveler has to consider.
I was also able to be a fly on the wall in a way that I don’t think is possible for a female foreigner. I’d talk with other men late into the night in coffee shops. If a foreign woman was there, she was the center of attention and the topic of conversation, for everyone there. In a male only setting, though, conversations ranged from politics and work to sex. Frequently, after the usual topics were covered, my otherworldliness would recede and other conversations that didn’t include me would sprout up. It gave me the chance to listen.
If I were a woman, I don’t think men would have spoken about sex with me. More importantly, I don’t think they would have spoken to a female in such an unguarded way, in such a public venue. People would take care with their words and topics of conversation. There would be a question of personal boundaries and whether something more – in either a sexual or fairy tale kind of way – was on tap.
Along these lines, I got to know young men and their problems. In one-on-one conversations, I gained an understanding for the issues my peers faced, whether it was affording marriage or getting a decent job. It is possible that these same young men would have been as open about their vulnerabilities with women, but more likely that they would have hid them out of insecurity, or not felt comfortable talking with a foreign woman at all. As a man, while I had access to a segment of society and enjoyed a kind of carelessness, I also missed out on an entire world that remains a mystery to me.
In my first week in Amman, I was walking up a set of uneven steps in a poor neighborhood downtown. I was lost and sweating through my shirt when a couple of young women in their early 20s popped out of an alley and passed me. They were wearing hijabs and jilbabs (overshirts that reach the ground), chatting, and were oblivious to my clumsy presence. As they descended, I turned and snuck a peak, catching a glimpse at a jean-clad leg and stylish black boot emerging from the bottom slit of one of the ladies’ jilbabs.
“Gadzouks!” I yelled to myself. “They’re wearing jeans under there!”
In the time that I lived in Jordan, I learned that there was much more than meets the eye, on all subjects, but the story of that peek at a jean-clad leg is a symbolic for how I felt about the world of women. I had female friends and I asked questions and had conversations with women about their lives and what they wanted, but the “women’s only world” remained a secret world to me, a foreign man. My Mom entered it when she visited and told me--to my dismay and envy--that the couple of hours she spent in the University library speaking with female students were the most comfortable and safest she felt in Jordan. Rggh.
So, I’ve asked several women I know, Americans who have traveled throughout the Middle East, and women from Arab countries to offer comments on their experiences as either foreigners or residents in that secret world. We should have comments rolling in this week. I’d welcome other, unsolicited comments, too. Thanks-