Saturday, June 30, 2007

"What if you were a woman?"

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-


Anonymous said...

It is a mysterious world, that of women in Eastern societies. So many things, for the most part trivial, are left to the imagination.

Being discreet and demure is much more of an asset than people think.

I am a female, not born in an Eastern culture, but I admire their courage and steadfast determination in getting their point across at times, even if they only have to show a sliver of a boot cut jean within their "street fashion". You don't have to show your natural attributes purposely to the world as so many Westerners do.

What is said, on the other hand, has much more impact than what is shown. Words mean a lot in the East. No distractions. You go deeper.

So you let it be.

Anonymous said...

I think the negative impressions that we have about women's issues in the Middle East are similar to the impressions that we have about America pre-women's movement. We think about the lives of our great grandmothers - their right to vote denied, their options in life were dependent on finding a man to marry, no property rights, no legal rights to their children if they took the unusual step of divorce, most professions were barred to them simply because of their gender - and I think we equate it with women today in the Middle East. We also read about the crackdowns in Iran, where women are held because their hair is exposed, or we recall the dire situation of women under the Taliban and recall the stories of women being beaten for talking in public, as we get the impression that's how it is in all the Middle Eastern countries.

M Glad said...

I found myself snickering quite a lot reading the parts of Live from Jordan pertaining to the "secret world of women." As a woman, that "world" certainly has not been quite so elusive to me -- not only because I am a woman, but also because of the country in which I have chosen to study: Lebanon.

For the most part, Beirut will shatter an American's preconceived notions about the region. To say the least, I was utterly taken aback by the appearance of my fellow classmates during my first day of grad school in Lebanon: plunging necklines, skin-tight jeans, and flashy jewelry characterized the sense of Lebanese style. Not only that, but students were actually walking around with bandaged noses, indicating recent nose jobs. It felt more like Beverly Hills than the Middle East.

As time passes, my life here increasingly resembles what it was back in the US. My friends and I wait for "Bonus Time" before restocking our Clinique cosmetics; I am vigilant when I walk alone at night; and when out at dinner with someone of the opposite sex, I frequently wonder if I should offer to pay. (Note: in this part of the world, a man absolutely will not let me pay. Checks have literally been wrestled out of my hand before.)

I find that women here struggle with the same issues as their American counterparts. It is commonly believed that in all Middle Eastern societies, women are oppressed. While oppression certainly exists, it manifests itself differently than most people realize. The stereotypical images usually include honor killings, head-to-toe garb, and abusive arranged marriages; however, as far as Lebanon is concerned, issues regarding the oppression of women are strikingly similar to those back in the US.

In Beirut -- and definitely on AUB's campus -- there is tremendous pressure for women to look a certain way. Girls experience pressure to wear the latest fashions, have trendy hairstyles, and even have plastic surgery if their facial features are deemed imperfect. With the extreme emphasis on appearance, it is perhaps befitting to refer to this as a form of oppression. If a woman's outward appearance plays such a pivotal role in her self-worth and/or acceptance within society, it is a problem.

However, if we refer to this behavior as oppressive, our first step requires introspection. While young girls may not be getting nose jobs en masse in the US, there is tremendous pressure to be thin and have model bodies. It's ironic that occurrences of eating disorders are so prevalent in the US, a country that prides itself on the empowerment of women.

Recent stories in the news involving honor killings and illiteracy among females are certainly true in isolated cases, but they are not representative of the entire Middle East. All in all, I believe women in the US share much more in common with their Middle Eastern counterparts than they realize. It is a shame that inaccurate stereotypes cloud our understandings. I actually think we have a lot to learn from each other when we pay attention to our commonalities, rather than sensationalizing our differences.

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Anonymous said...

last year i travelled alone to tel aviv, israel (during the weekend the war ended with lebanon) and spent time in cairo, egypt.

as a young, cuban american dancer, reactions to my presence ranged from the incredulous and curios to hostile.

my collective experience included exposure to varios religious and artistic groups from a variety of social/economic classes and denominations.

in hindsight, i believe my gender helped open rather than close doors during the course of my journey.