Sunday, May 21, 2006

What (Arab) women want - May 06

Ever since I moved to the Middle East, Arab women have fascinated and perplexed me. As Westerners, all we seem to focus on is the hijab, niqab, shayla, abeya and burqa – all names for various ways of covering up, or being ‘modest,’ as the Quran requires. These varying forms of cover have only served as a red herring, in my opinion. It’s like worrying about a paper cut on your finger when you’re paralyzed from the waist down.

Many of my male colleagues are also fascinated by the abeya-clad local women – but for very different reasons. They say the sight of large, dark, kohl-lined eyes peering out from behind a black veil is a thousand times more seductive than Jessica Simpson’s tanned bosom clamoring for freedom from a too-tight top.

I’ve always liked to think that these women secretly harbor the same spark and vitality of independent thought that Western women have. That once they get their act together, they will unleash themselves in a fury of civil disobedience and overturn the cowardly patriarchal society that tells them they are like children who need protecting from the world, that they are to blame for men’s sexual weaknesses, that they are too fragile to travel alone, that they are not worthy of keeping their children after a divorce. I’ve read the works of Muslim feminists like Asra Nomani, Leila Ahmed and Azar Nafisi. I took comfort in believing Arab women are just biding their time, waiting for the perfect moment.

Unfortunately, my views on Arab women took a turn for the worse last week after attending a seminar called “What drives Arab women?” As you can imagine I was extremely curious and excited about the seminar which unveiled a recent survey of women in Saudi Arabia, and my host country, the UAE.

The survey drew up five categories of types of women from these two countries. Of the five types of women, only one type sees herself as equal to a man. Three of the types are happily subservient and feel – either out of love or duty – that their only role in life is to keep the family happy. It was the last type that struck me as the saddest, however.

This type suffers from extreme internal conflict. She sees the independence and freedom that expat Western women enjoy – and it makes her jealous, insecure, and spiteful even. In her frustration she wants to feel that her life is superior to those women, so she spends lavishly and shows off mightily. She drives a Mercedes (in the UAE at least where women are allowed to drive), puts diamonds on her fingers, her purse and even her cell phone. She brags openly about her riches. At home, her frustration and inability to stand up to her husband manifests into masterful manipulation. In lieu of being equal in her husband’s eyes, she “beats” him by conning him into spending more money on her. Thus, she feels some modicum of power and control. Her biggest fear in life is feeling invisible.

The Arab women in the audience were unfazed, unsurprised, and unmoved by the results of the survey. What happened to that spark?

It’s only fair to point out that of the local women I have come into contact with, most are representative of the first category – which makes sense as it is only the first category of women who hold jobs. Obviously, these women are educated and feel they can and do contribute to society in more than just one way. But can this minority group pull up the rest? If Arab women want their societies to change, I fully believe it up to them. Just like it was for the women in my country whose fight culminated in two landmark events the year I was born – the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment and Title 9, both of which helped push women’s rights in the US. If Arab women continue to allow themselves to be treated like children, like second-class citizens, perhaps it is meant to be.

Hey - this is SO interesting and well written - any chance it could be cross-posted at (Obviously with links back here).
really interesting and (( so true )) sssssssh i didn't say anything lol
Very interesting read.
With regards to this posting, western men may be more attracted to Emirati women as there is a fascination with mystery and perhaps boredom with their lives and wives possible feminist rants :)
LizzieD, can you provide more specific information on the seminar (date, place, sponsors, speakers, etc.) and on the survey (sample, method, questionnaire, researchers), or at least where it's published or posted.
The seminar was a one-off. No speakers or sponsors. Just the company unveiling part of the survey which they will be selling. I don't want to be helping or hindering sales of the survey, so I don't really feel comfortable giving out the company name in this context. However, if you are here in Dubai, just keep your eyes open in the next week for stories in the press as I wasn't the only journo in the audience. And keep in mind, I have only highlighted one part of the survey here that I was affected by.
Emirati...I have no doubt that you are right. I am sure Western men would love a break from us big-mouth wives! My hubby, however, fantasizes more about Indian chicks in colorful saris than the Emirati ladies. Which is fine by me, as I prefer to fantasize about your brethren. lol.
Oh so "category five" women-- the lazy, limp-wristed, manipulative, materialistic types-- are unique to the UAE?

You mean once I cross the border into Saudi, there are no women like that?

Or even any other rich neighborhood anywhere in the entire goddamn world?

Riiight...that's some hard hitting stuff, very factual.

Come on people. Ever heard of "Desperate Housewives"?
Unique to the UAE only in this survey...don't shoot the messenger.
I have always wondered why so many college-age young women in universities, who would rather die than give up the right to have an abortion, believe that all men are out there to rape, and believe that they are smarter than men overall, find common cause with Palestinian women, who are denied basic rights like the right to defend themselves to court, forced to live under a patriarchical situation, do not have the choice of changing religions or deviating from customs and who's net worth in society is as childbearers and caregivers?

Then it hit me with LizzieD's response: Most of them are pretty CLUELESS about how the world really is!
I have always wondered why so many college-age young women in universities, who would rather die than give up the right to have an abortion, believe that all men are out there to rape, and believe that they are smarter than men overall

I have always wondered why men feel the need to create this strawman stereotype of women in order to put their own offensive viewpoint across. In this case a poorly veiled Bushian rant against abortion, feminism, and Palestine.

Most women believe in equality, not superiority.

Though in your case, the latter would be a more appropriate belief.
I cant say I haven’t seen such a mishmash of ill-informed survey “findings” before (ex. Arab women like to release their anxiety by spending some time alone in natural surroundings; Expatriate Arab women envy those of the Gulf because they believe that they are more relaxed and live a prosperous life) but I take issue with Lizzie’s assessment of Arab women as a result. If your views on Arab women took a turn for the worse based on one suspect survey, despite being familiar with the works of Arab feminists and coming into contact with empowered Arab women in the workplace, then I must say I’m disappointed.

I know a young Dutch woman who is subservient to her husband because she wholeheartedly believes that is her proper role in life (and her experience is not an individual one, as it is the viewpoint held by her entire church) – can I make a similar conclusion about all European women? Can I assume that if she continues to treat herself as a second class citizen, then it is meant to be for all Dutch, and by extension European, women?

I, as an Arab woman, can certainly do without your “concern” for my well-being, if your viewpoint is built on broad generalizations and orientalist views on dark and mysterious Arab women. I would most definitely be interested in sharing our experiences as women if you could genuinely see that Arab women, like women worldwide, have forged different paths to realize their rights and goals, and to assert themselves in their communities. The tremendous progress and work carried out by countless famous feminists and unnamed regular Arab women, from all walks of life, can’t be dismissed so off-handedly.
I still find it hard to discuss this issue without studying the survey and reading the report. I know from SD's post to a relevant Khaleej Times article the name of the company (Synovate). They apparently have done a lot of market research around the world; for more information, this is their website. But it was curious to notice that the KT's piece didn't sound half as negative as the "results" reported by LizzieD. For example the articel emphasizes strategies used by Arab women to achieve their goals, rather than their personality types. This is how KT’s article describes the so-called fifth type of Arab women:
”The fifth strategy is to break through. This type of Arab women are assertive and have a rather aggressive outlook on life. They try to compensate frustration by projecting themselves as superior and powerful. They are frustrated at being seen as submissive, so they want to prove the opposite by competing with men. They have inferiority complex that is expressed in drawing comparisons with their western counterparts and by outlining contrast with Arab men who are their competitors whom they want to overpower. These women are ambitious, dominant, leaders, have self-esteem, sophisticated, strive for power and proud.”
So, these women are self-respecting, driven, competitive, proud and potential leaders; overall, not bad, even more on the positive side! Perhaps the Synovate research results are not as negative as first thought; but I’d still wait for the full study to clarify some of these points.
Lujayn: Your response made my day. I was hoping to get some kick-ass Arab women comments. Wish you had been at the seminar!
Bandicoot: That is KT's understanding and I have mine. They too have selected only specific parts of the survey as I have. Again, I was pointing out one part of the survey that struck me as sad. That "strategy" of the category 5 woman was described in those terms used in KT, as well as the terms I used. This category is agressive and, as the survey says, she goes to great lengths to prove her worth, typically through buying posessions. This woman also, according to the survey, sees her husband as an "opponent" to manipulate. It is too bad that the survey isn't free. Perhaps the complete survey is more positive. Who knows? I can't afford their fees. But I stand by my personal interpretation and sadness of two points in particular -- the material possession one and the fact that most women said they were not equal to men.
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"Just like it was for the women in my country whose fight culminated in two landmark events the year I was born – the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment and Title 9, both of which helped push women’s rights in the US."

The Equal Rights Amendment was never passed.

It was very controversial and finally dropped in the late '70s.
interesting read.

im glad i have my rights.
Its always interesting to see the "expats" opinion about Arab women..
I'm sorry you are dissapointed, but I guess thats your problem, because us Arab women here are satisfied with our lives and can point out alot of things you weseterners lack and suffer from..but I won't even start.
I had the luxury to get into the lives of the western women by working in an area where I hear the most intimate details of their lives and how they value their self worth...and what drives be honest, I was shocked...I always thought of western women as strong women who knew what they wanted and were more secure with their role in their society...I was pleasantly suprised...they are not..they are more confused about their roles...I have no statistic or a study to analyze for you..but let me tell you..I am glad that I am not living their mess.
Let me talk to you about the Arab women's life that I live and seen others live and I lived in (no as an observer, not second hand stories)...women here are more serious than men about their education, they are hard workers, independant and creative. On the outside they are the obedient wife who only does as her hsuband says, but go inside their houses and see who is the boss, they do it in such a subtle way that even the husband doesn't realize he is being the obedient good husband. They like the show, and dress up all the time, many of them are engineers, doctors, lawyers and many own their own business..I guess that makes them independant in our standards...these pampered woman who wear the big diamond rings and drive the mercedes leave thier country to study abroad all on their own, walk their way to university, ride the public transport and take care of them selves while getting all these narrow minded judgments from westerners like you...let alone the racist comments...
I guess your trouble (and many other westerners ) is that you base your standards as norms...says who?
by looking at western women, we think western women are too available, skimpy, indecent and lack the femininity of that fair for me to say without really knowing who they are?
We are not jelouse of western women, let me assure you, many times we question their value to their men as they are passed on from on hand to another...and treated like a man...we on the other hand like to be pampered by choice and we like it, we don't complain..and to have a goal to keep our family happy is what has created a warm environment in our houses, its why our elderlies stay at home not at nursing home..why we continue to care for each other and respect each other no matter how independent we no, its not sad we are proud to have it as a priority...and for ust to succeed in doing so..its a merit and just makes us more worthwhile.
another educative post!

women's lib is great, but i have very little faith in the women's lib movement in my homeland, Uganda.

I imagine the women as cows being let out of their kraals. Sure they're liberated, but to do what? To chew cud and sh*t on themselves??

I respect more the women who don't just champion the 'status-quo' but totally ignore it! Live like your life is your own, that's liberation!
It is interesting to note that this brave american adventurer(who does not do the tourist thing) chose to live in dubai.

Why don't you come back to America and live in the ghetto or on a reservation and maybe you will learn a whole lot more about america and yourself, that is if you aren't being too busy patronizing everyone with your enlightened view of the world. If you are really brave you will go to Gaza or Darfur or Chechnya.

I am not a female so I don't purport to speak for them. But I imagine the following to be true:

Women can not be categorized no matter where they are living.

Your conclusions based on anecdotal evidence from your limited and myopic experience means they are at best : limited and myopic.

A subset of women in the "middle east" suffer from domestic violence.

A subset of women in "the West" suffer from domestic violence.

A subset of women in the "middle east" choose to be modest, while some others are forced or coerced.

A subset of women in "the west" choose to be modest, while some others are forced or coerced.

There are differing standards of modesty in given communities.

How men perceive women is not how women should define themselves.

Men's views of women are also compicated, that is why I as a practicing Muslim have respect for women even if they are half-naked and why some non-Muslim men view modestly dressed women as sexual objects.

The author "LizzieD" makes the common mistake of equating Arab with Muslim and seems to use the terms interchangeably.

Unfortunately, this list of errors is not exhaustive and I would urge you all to educate yourselves and to be curious rather than haughty.
One more thing:

The common belief among "liberated western women" is that they have really solved the issues and problems facing women here in "the west". But if you closely examine the reality you will find this is far from true.

So it boggles the mind how these same failures can then express sadness and condescension upon women in the "middle east" who do not in reality may not actually suffer from such women specific problems at greater rates than women in "the west" but the "liberated women" believe that by telling these poor "middle-eastern" women to change their mode of dress, their religious and cultural values that these probelms will somehow disappear even though this magical scenario has not materialized in "the West"
As a western woman who has lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years I really appreciate your honesty and insight. Since I've been here I can see Arab women having a love/hate attitude toward the western woman. They vacillate back and forth from righteousness about Islam and "modesty" to very revealing western dress, and really imitating western looks to the point of blue contact lenses and MTV videos imitating Marilyn Monroe. I have realized it isn't about being jealous of western women, of their beauty, but simply identifying with them as a form of flirting with freedom from Islam. It's not OK to be a normal Arab woman showing her true beauty without her hijab, but it is OK to go to a party "playing western" and taking off the veils for that reason - or in the media, too. Deep down there is an inner battle about resenting Islam going on, and what it is doing to their lives, and yet feeling that Allah and their country will punish them to express those feelings. It's the proverbial paper cut when you're paralyzed from the waist down, that you likened to the hijab. They don't really want to be like western women, and they aren't jealous of them. They are just totally thwarted from expressing themselves as Arab women, and they are thwarted by Islam, and they can't complain about that. In the USA we could complain that men and society were thwarting us and we dealt with it. But Arab women are dealing with going up against God and Shariah law and how dare they not like it? They might even be stoned to death or killed for such a sin. I have met plenty of Arab women who openly dislike their hijab and have discarded it, and are at various levels of either feeling safe expressing their true selves or feeling they have to hide behind heavy makeup and push-up bras and dyed blonde hair. But it's not that they aren't ready to be free. It's just that it is much more unsafe for them to try than it ever was for us.
Thanks for your comments. It's been so long since I posted this, but it all (including most of the comments) still rings true for me, for the most part.
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