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.

Co-Education? We All Know What Happens When Boys and Girls Study Together...

Three years ago, the Ministry of Education of Oman decided that government higher education institutions should be co-educational. The students, however, aren’t quite onboard. In most cases, girls and boys would be clamoring to be together, especially at the age of these students, eighteen to twenty-two. But Oman, which is situated in the Arab Gulf, east of Saudi Arabia and south of Iran, tells a different story. Despite the sanctioning of co-education by the Sultan himself, the many of the students here resist any sort of contact, even in a professional classroom setting.

I came here expecting segregation and fear of the opposite sex, but I did not expect a complete rejection of communication. These students are provided with an opportunity outside of their families, outside of their homes and their villages, to mingle and learn about each other. In fact, they are forced to interact. Nevertheless, this chance to satisfy their innate human urge to be with the opposite sex is left untouched. Of course this applies to certain students and not to others. There are young men and women here who make an effort to branch out and experience a new way of being without judgment and bias, but unfortunately they are rare. Nevertheless, although they are few, they make a profound impact on those around them. However, most of the students here are not at that stage; nor are they willing to explore it.

The young women are worse than the young men in this respect. Having been completely isolated from men other than their family members (and they do not even see them very often) for nearly two decades, these girls are completely out of their element at college. They are thrown into the lion’s den of academic co-education. Never before have they been in a situation where it was acceptable to sit in such close proximity, within the same four walls, to a group of men. To many of these ladies’ sensibilities, this is utterly inappropriate behavior hiding under the guise of higher education.

This begs the question: why did these women decide to come here if they were so disapproving and so unable to cope with the situation at hand? They were not forced; they were not lied to. Rather, the majority of these women decided to come on their own, but to do it on their terms. They will attend, but do so without interacting with the men, even in a classroom. No matter what the Sultan says, many of their parents have shamed them and punished them for expressing even an interest in men for their lives so far. Why should this change in a day? Why should they give up their opportunity to be educated just because it is no longer an all-girls school? The answer is that they are right: an upbringing can’t be overturned in a day and they should have a right to study with or without men.

It is for this reason that the first year students who are terrified of men, that the girls who freeze when they see a boy glance their way, that the ones who refuse to respond to a male student’s comment, don’t phase me. What is remarkable, however, is that after three or four years of coeducation, these girls have not become more welcoming to male-female interactions. If anything, they have become more insistent and demanding that they not work with the male students. For the first-year girls, it is a matter of fear and shyness. For the third-year girls, it has become a code of honor and respectability. The fact that these older girls are also members of a different generation contributes to their greater disapproval. This country is changing so quickly that in a span of three years an ideological shift has occurred within the female community. So while the new girls are still cripplingly shy, they are less morally resistant to communication. The older girls, however, were raised in an even more conservative and segregated culture.

As a teacher of debate and communication, this can become quite a problem. Debating requires interaction—albeit professional and distanced interaction. It is also a pair activity. In the easy situation of having an even number of men and women in a class, it is possible to simply pair girls with girls, boys with boys. The problem occurs in the uneven class, when one lone boy and one lone girl refuse to work together. These students have been at a mixed college for three years. They know that they are only expected to be together while in a professional and platonic classroom environment. This is why I am not very flexible with the girls who whine and plead in my office ad nauseum about how unfair and inappropriate it is that I randomly picked partners to debate together, risking pairing a man and a woman.

I feel that it is important to reiterate that this is not representative of all the students. Additionally, this problem goes much deeper than what is evident at this coeducational college. It starts from birth. Despite these criticisms, to a large extent these young ladies are not to be blamed for their views and convictions. Two decades of upbringing indeed cannot be overturned in three years of courses with the opposite sex; and contact with western teachers such as myself only goes so far to influence the students’ mindsets. The issue of male and female interaction continues to loom so large in daily society in much of this region that it is perhaps unreasonable to expect natural and easy communication between the sexes at college. It has been said before and maybe it is true, that the Sultan of Oman is a few steps ahead of the game.