What! Me, Oppressed? Questions. Questions.
This is me wearing a traditional Al-Battullah. (This one made in China)
I get e-mails from time to time from readers who are contemplating a move here to Abu Dhabi. So far, it’s mostly women and their questions are no different to the ones I asked just last spring before we came. Do you have to wear a Burkha? Can girls wear bikinis? Can I jog there? Is it safe for Westerners? Can I drink/buy alcohol? All the important questions, I tell you! The answer is a resounding No to the first question and Yes to all the others. People from home ask me all the time if I have to “cover up.” I assume they mean do I have to dress head to toe in traditional garb? The answer is of course not! I don’t have to. This is the United Arab Emirates, not Saudi Arabia or Iran. In fact, it would be probably seem very odd if I did dress like Muslims here. To say Life is very different here than other parts of the Middle East is an understatement; it’s akin to comparing 21st century America to Victorian era England. Now, I am no expert on this place, but I am about to pose a lot of questions. Pause, and give them some thought.
Who Me? Oppressed?
A few weeks’ ago, a friend posted this cartoon on Facebook. It so truly captures my world these days and all the things I ponder as I meander through life while rearing my two soon-to-be teenage girls here in the Middle East. It so brilliantly illustrates the perceptions and misperceptions that the West and the Middle East have about one another, or perhaps about themselves/ourselves.
When I first got here in August and it was 115 degrees in the shade, I have to admit, I’d watch women dressed in their full abaya and nijab trying to eat a piece of pizza while clumsily shifting their nijabs so as not to outright consume them, and I wondered why. They cannot want to wear this! That would be impossible. I just couldn’t fathom it. Why didn’t they rise up like women did in the 60s in America when they burned their bras in protest of the patriarchal system which dictated social mores about how we women were supposed to dress, act and comport ourselves? Why didn’t these women burn their abayas? Were they not longing for social change deep under their seemingly hot robes?
It turns out that no, a lot of women here aren’t seething under their traditional garb–it’s rather the opposite. Some are upset about other matters, as we have seen in Saudi Arabia. Many of those ladies want on the roads, and they want to drive now! While Saudi Arabia scrambles to silence those uppity women banning the very act of protest, much of the rest of the Middle East continues on living very much in the 20th century, let’s say (early 20th?!). Some tell me that what they wear is very practical for the climate. I don’t entirely understand this, but I believe it. What the women wear here isn’t very different from the men–just a much darker color.
Here in the UAE, women have many rights. They hold high positions in government. They work. They drive. Some are entrepreneurs, like my friend Latifah–the Camel Cookie lady. While women here are a far cry from equal to their male counterparts, they are moving slowly in the right direction. So far, the vast proportion of local ladies that I have met very much choose the traditional dress over western dress, though they probably could eschew it if they so chose. They don’t. I have been told by one or two that they choose not to draw attention to themselves; a concept inconceivable to the West where grabbing attention by any means whatsoever is spoon fed to all little girls in probably the largest con on women ever called Disney. Yes, I am a Disney-hater. Hate the parks. Hate the movies. Hate the TV shows. Hate. Hate. Hate. (Maybe I don’t “hate” hate Frozen?! Still on the fence about this one. It’s got a couple of strong female leads.)
Anyway, would you be so judgmental about the dress these women choose, if you knew it was truly their choice and not laid out for them every morning by their domineering husbands? Could it be that these women are saying we like our traditional ways and want to keep our culture alive and strong and perhaps not let it become a messy, but free-ish, civilization like many western countries with very questionable social mores? After all, the Middle East is not the first to vehemently reject the western way of life though the west sort of demonizes them for doing so. Remember Ghandi--Most people revere him? Well he too wanted nothing to do with western thought and way of life. I find it so interesting how Ghandi gets a pass here, but anyway. I digress. I always do.
What if we, western women, are not dressing the way we do for ourselves and doing so in the spirit of being liberated as so many of us probably like to think we are doing? Instead, are we not perhaps being manipulated en masse by media, social mores, and culture, et al to dress in the way that we do? Are we not possibly being influenced by the likes of Disney, make up companies and fashion houses to live up to some ideal of how a woman should look? What if we are being coerced into thinking that we really do like to wear shoes that hurt us and mutilate our feet just to make our legs look longer and slimmer? Do we really wear the modern day girdle, Spanx, because we want to? Do we diet, exercise and obsess over our bodies to look good for ourselves or to feel more healthful? Does the average woman spend over $15,000 purchasing and over 474 days in all putting on make up in her lifetime because she is not herself without it? Is this for us, or is it for them? This begs the question what exactly is oppression? Are we, as women, being oppressed if we firmly believe that we are making these fashion decisions of our own accord? If you posit that women in the Middle East or women in the West were being forced to dress a certain way by a male dominated society, then who is indeed being oppressed?
Maybe no woman. Maybe every woman.
I really don’t know. Just a deep thought for the evening from Lizzy.