Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stop Calling Me A Prisoner

From CNN to Marie-Claire Magazine, we hear the media refer to Muslim Arab women as prisoners of their culture and faith. Sometimes it’s the men who keep them down; sometimes it’s Islam, and sometimes it’s political turmoil. This is true. However, the one oppressor who is rarely, if ever, mentioned is other women. The community of women in Oman and elsewhere in the Middle East far too often act as a self-censoring, self-disenfranchising and self-oppressing unit that limits women’s mobility and freedom. Some call me a feminist, and I am, if that means that I believe that women deserve the same rights and freedoms as men, be they political, cultural, sexual, or economic. However, I do not blindly support women qua women. It is unfair to Arab men and to the Islamic faith to assign the often low status of women in the Middle East, and particular the Gulf region, solely to these causes.

To begin with, let’s look at this issue through the lens of fashion, or the lack thereof, for women in the Gulf. The expected and uniformly worn clothing is the ‘abaya and hijab (called by various names according to country). This is basically a black, formless garment that covers all skin except for the hands and face (in the most conservative areas such as Saudi Arabia and Musandam, a small region of Oman, women also wear black gloves and a mask). In Saudi Arabia, these clothes are required. In other Gulf countries, though not required by law, the social pressure to conform is enormous. It is undeniably true that in many cases, fathers, brothers and husbands force women to cover in this way, but most of the time it is voluntary. Again, the main source of pressure is the community of women. All over the world, it is recognized that when primarily with others of the same sex, social coercion and competition (be it for sexiness or respectability) is at its highest.

Think of an all-girls American high school and a co-ed American high school: Where is the greatest concentration of girls with eating disorders and fashion obsessions? Usually the former. Yet, despite this trend, it generally goes unrecognized that women in the Gulf region act to oppress themselves, at least in terms of repressive fashion styles. The fact that this black, formless cover is perpetuated and supported by women seems to fly in the face of the efforts made by women world-wide to liberate their oppressed sisters in more traditional and conservative sectors of society. However, many women do not realize that their daily choice to wear the ‘abaya and hijab and their decision to wag fingers at those choosing not to, is a powerful force that keeps them at the back of the bus. It has become so much a part of their identity as Muslim Arab women that it is no longer seen as a daily sign of being hidden, but rather has become fashionable and chic. ‘Abayas are adorned with everything from cheap pastel rhinestones to diamonds and gold and are made by everyone from the corner seamstress to Donatella and Christian.

A student recently asked me with a proud look in her eye if I liked Arabic fashion for women. I thought: “You mean the lack there-of?”, but responded, “No, not really. I like colors.” Her face fell as she insisted that the ‘abaya is the most beautiful fashion. Has the most visible sign of female oppression in the Gulf been raised by the women themselves as their primary means of individual expression? The irony is stunning. So let’s stop calling these women helplessly restrained prisoners of their culture and religion. While we must take into account cultural limitations and laws, most men do not violently enforce this dress on their sisters and wives, and Islam does not require women to wear a black sheet. It’s time for these ladies to step up and realize that they and no one else must take the first step towards greater empowerment and freedom.


Mom and Dad said...

I agree with your point, but would add that the pressures put on women and girls who live within western consumerist culture also keep us "at the back of the bus". Advertising, marketing, and the resulting social pressures influence women more than we realize, to the degree that individual expression is stifled here, too. But most of us don't even see it -except perhaps for the ones who design and sew their own clothes!

clare said...

I have to disagree that individual expression is stifled in Western consumer cultures as much as it is in the Arab Gulf. You can decided to wear whatever you want in New York, for example, with no tangible consequence. Somebody might laugh. You might not feel quite "fly" enough for the advertisement-steeped culture. HOWEVER, you won't be punished. You won't be labeled forever as a whore and revolutionary, and you won't be under the scrutinizing eye of a powerful and literally uniformed society of women.

umm qahtan said...

Being a non muslim in arabia for 19 years and then reverting to islam, i find the words used about the black abaya and dress code kind of stone cold. I wasnt a muslim, living in uae, a country where ur not asked to wear abaya at all & yet i wore it before i was even muslim by my own will not because i was asked by a muslim man or something to that affect.

Many western women i have known over the years and still know would wear abaya any day of the week. it may be blck but soo what,black doesnt cause death if u wear it nor does it belittle. Abaya covers one from the sun, the strong rays of sun, covers ones body instead of having to wear long sleeves, one can put on a t shirt and then the abaya and still feel cool.

I think the word Wh*re also is rather over used, we dont call people wh*res because they dont use abayas or hijab. I'm sure if i used that sickly word infront of my non muslim mother, she would slapp my face black and blue even though im married and over 18. Its not thought of to use such words about others and those who do use it are not carrying out the adab - manners of a muslim what so ever.

Yes what your exspected to wear as a muslim woman is something that covers you from head to toe like the abaya, how ever there are different types of coverings which are islamic, they are called " jilbab" long trnch like coats that the jordanian, pali women wear with their hjab (headscarf) over the top.

I feel there is more a negative pressure in the uk for example on teeneage girls and women to be dressed a certain stylish way than there is about wearing the required islamic dress. I dont see myself in a mini skirt, never did, never will not outside of my home not because im a muslim now but because my dear mother (non muslim) taught me as a small girl here in arabia that wearing short and indecent cutt clothing was not respectfull.

Its amazing how a non muslim womans child becomes a muslim just because of a small thing like being taught to dress covered from wrist to ankle in respect of the muslims and the land we lived in. I love her for it, the best mother ever !

Clare said...

Unfortunately then, many women here are not carrying out their "adab", for I've been called a whore (in Arabic) numerous times. Additionally, I am clicked at and given extremely disparaging looks for dressing in normal western business attire, and this is in the college environment

Anonymous said...


I am sorry for the grief you have been receiving in this regard. It's an unfortunate situation that is part of a broader cultural confusion in the Gulf in general.

Ramadhan must be a nightmare for you.

-Omani in US