2005/07/09

Last thoughts on differences for a while

One of the things that Americans asked me about moving here was what it was like for women. Can they drive? Do all women have to cover their hair, their face? Would Bss have to walk behind me? (The answers are yes, no, no, and no). Women are allowed to drive and encouraged to attend school and work. (The university's student population is about 75% female.) Everyone, male and female, is expected to dress modestly.

But things are different here, and in a way that a lot of people would probably think are unfair. For example, men are allowed to have more than one wife at a time, and it is much easier for a man to divorce his wife than vice-versa.

But this is only seeing this from one side. While I was in the process of applying for this job, I read Writing Off the Beaten Track by Judith Caesar. She taught writing at the American University of Sharjah. She tells about some conversations that she had with her students about women's status in the Middle East and the West, including this one:


I thought about what a Saudi graduate student I knew in the United States had told his wife when she wanted to return to Saudi Arabia by herself. Away from her family for the first time in her life and knowing no English, she was lonely and miserable. The only other Arabic-speaking woman in the small town was an Egyptian graduate student who snubbed her, and it wasn't proper for her to talk to men. She didn't know how to drive and her husband wouldn't t teach her, so she was stuck in their small apartment all day with no one to talk to. Of course she wanted to go home.

"Go ahead and go home," her husband told her. "I can get an American girlfriend to come and live with me. She'll sleep with me and take care of the house and she'll be grateful if I don't ask her to pay half the rent. I can throw her out whenever I want and there's nothing she can do about it. The police aren't going to arrest me for living with a woman I'm not married to. Her parents aren't going to complain if I live with her and then kick her out. Women don't have any rights here and their families don't protect them. So go home if you want to. I'll have a good time." And unfortunately, he was probably right. I knew of several women graduate students who stayed with abusive boyfriends in part because they couldn't afford places of their own. There probably were many American women who would move in with a married man whose wife was away, especially if he were financially generous, as this man could afford to be. To both students, it was the American society, not their own, that abused and exploited women. Was the image of Arab misogyny really a way of avoiding an examination of the extent to which our society is patriarchal and misogynist? Certainly, American women usually had choices that many Arab women did not, and yet there was truth in what the Arab graduate students had said. Without financial security, a woman's choices are limited no matter where she lives, and without emotional security, it can be hard to make choices that are not self-destructive.

It was good to keep this in mind, but more important to remind myself that just as their view of the status of women in American society was incomplete, so was my view and perhaps any westerner's view of the status of women in Arab societies...
(pp 127-8)


I think that this struck home with me because I want my daughter to be able to do whatever she wants, even if it is being an "astronaut veterinarian ballerina" as she told me at age four. But at the same time, I worry about her being respected and protected in a way that I don't worry about my sons.

I only know that I don't understand everything about the status of women here yet. I'm sure as I learn more, there will be things I'll like, things I won't, and things I won't understand. I just want to make sure that I understand before I decide.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

what others dont seem to comprehend is that arab women do not want many of those extra choices or freedoms that western women have because they are allien to our religious beliefs ,traditions and customs certainly not those mentioned in the article.

Anonymous said...

Well, the society here does tilt unfavourably towards the womenfolk. However I do not think that the overwhelming majority of them regret living their lives under apparent limitations, etc. Also, the strong line here on morality, though it may be absent in some Middle East people abroad, at least accords them respect. As you've mentioned, women in America (not all) are treated like chattels, thrown out whenever the "master" doesn't consider their presence necessary. This is regrettable and can be linked to the fact that common law girlfriends are considered acceptable. Marriage is losing its place in society, with celebrities apparently being silent yet visibly outspoken proponents of the trend of having children out of wedlock.

Brn said...

I agree, like so much in life, this is a balancing act. Gaining more rights in some areas will probably cost you some in others.

I also think that Americans, with our divorce rate and out of wedlock birth rates, need to remove the beam in our own eye before we start worrying about what is in others' eyes.

I may disagree with the practice of polygamy, but it is a lot more honest and fair than fathering children with many different women, none of whom you are married to and then abandoning them or cheating on your wife.

secretdubai said...

What I do understand is that some women DO want these extra choices and freedoms. While no one should be forced to uncover, or mix with men in the workplace, or drive - those women that DO want these freedoms and privileges should be given them.

Fortunately in the UAE - thanks to the wisdom, grace and tolerance of Sheikh Zayed - this is possible. In other Islamic countries, specifically Saudi, it is not.

ROSE said...

not in my wildest dreams would i imagine arab women wanting western women rights such as living with a boyfriend,premarital relationships,kids out of wedlock.
i see them having those extra choices, education,driving,working with men ,,etc. Dont think they want to uncover ,the sheela &Abaya (head scarf & cloack) is considered a symbol of femininity as well as a traditional dress and islamic cover ,it comes in all shapes and designs , all sorts of fashionable clothes are worn underneath.Well maybe more rights would be fine that fits one particular identity and relates to it`s society values.

Abby said...

Arranged marriages. I recently had an interesting conversatin with a young and bright guy, aroung 25-years-old, a degree-holder from an American university, well read for his age, reflected approach to life and the ways in which cultures construct gender. As we were talking about the latter, he carefully inquired about the phenomenon of "dating" in Europe and the US. I did my best to explain the unwritten rules of this hazardous game, but also told him about the numerous Arab friends I have whose parents do NOT arrange meetings with suitable young women. As I was about to stress that there are Middle Eastern families who do not INTERFERE in the private lives of their adult children, he finished the sentence for me. Though rather than saying INTERFERE he chose the word HELP and was appalled by those uncaring parents. Needless to say, this made me re-think my stance on the issue and although I continue to be grateful for having chosen my husband, the category of "arrange marriage" clearly takes a variety of forms and meanings.