(HH here: It seems that it is not the leers and stares of Western men that Muslim women are hiding from in their veils. It is from MUSLIM men that they hide. This is a very interesting look through the eyes of a Muslim woman at the inequities of her society. Take note how she holds the West up as the sin qua non of RESPECTFUL behaviour toward women.)
by Hamida Ghafour
Hey, woman, wash my clothes!”
“How much do you cost?”
When I heard men shout these insults on two separate occasions as I walked down the street in Kabul and Abu Dhabi, respectively, I was stung.
Being stared or yelled at is just part of the experience of working and living in this region. But I never get used to it. Indeed women all over Asia and the Middle East are harassed constantly.
” The Abu Dhabi beach was quickly divided into two sections last year after women expressed their discomfort at gangs of laborers roaming about and leering. “Western women are targets, but so are our Arab, Indian, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani sisters. We are stared at, called names and sometimes assaulted by men. Which is why part of me cheered when al-Bawadi Mall in al-Ain announced earlier this week that laborers had been banned on weekday evenings and weekends following a litany of complaints about harassment.
The Emirates is the most female-friendly country in the Middle East. The Government’s efforts to encourage women to use public spaces is admirable. The Abu Dhabi beach was quickly divided into two sections last year after women expressed their discomfort at gangs of laborers roaming about and leering. Emirati men are courteous. They never stare.
By contrast, sexual harassment levels in Egypt are endemic. In the Punjab and Karachi, images of women on billboards are defaced or just banned.
(HH here: remember, in Egypt something like 70% of all adult women have been “circumcised”.)
When I lived in Kabul, cars with men at the wheel occasionally raced in my direction and swerved out of the way just before hitting me. A British-Asian friend of mine was once pushed into a ditch of raw sewage on her way home from a press conference in the Afghan capital. The Taliban used to say a woman’s place was in the home or the graveyard.
Across the region this message is given in many variations, but the gist is aggressive and clear: respectable women do not belong in the public sphere. And those who venture outside the home are objects of scorn or fascination. There is certainly an element of racism and snobbery in al-Bawadi Mall’s decision. The laborers are poor South Asians and Arabs. Although it may be offensive to westerners, in some Asian cultures staring is normal behavior. It is a popular pastime in India and Pakistan, where people stare at others to see what they are buying or wearing.
Many of the laborers in the Emirates have also had little exposure to the outside world because they are from small towns. When they move here, it is often their first contact with the rich and developed world. They have a natural curiosity about the way westerners live because they have snatched glimpses of it in films. European and North American expatriates have a lifestyle laborers can never hope to attain, and wandering around a mall on a hot Friday afternoon is an opportunity to experience that which embodies all the wealth, glamour and power of the West: the mobile phones, the high-definition televisions, men in clean, pressed suits, women in skimpy clothes.
I can’t blame them for that
(HH here: It is interesting how Middle Easterners often fail to see that the point of the West is not skimpy clothing but being free to wear what we want, skimpy or conservative without the intervention of controlling neighbors or thought police.)
” Men who have no shame at leering at women make clear distinctions between those who deserve respect and those who do not. “But the way many of them look at women is not the glance stolen by the man sitting across from you on the train in London, New York or Rome. In the West a stony look is enough to put an end to that. Instead it is a penetrating gaze that goes right to your core, combining lecherousness, intense curiosity or just hatred. It is sometimes accompanied by clicking noises meant to get a woman’s attention. It is humiliating.
(HH again: Note that it is not the gaze of the lecherous kafir that hurts and offends. It is the intense, over the top Muslim man who causes his sister pain.)
The images of the riches of the developed world beamed from satellite TV also send a second message: western women are easy. This is the fault of Hollywood films featuring bimbos and the proliferation of pornography on the internet. Yet western women are also fascinating because they are considered a third gender. They look like females but have the independence of men. Men who have no shame at leering at women make clear distinctions between those who deserve respect and those who do not.
(HH: Men who leer at women in this way are adept at blaming the women for their lack of control and politeness.)
This view reveals itself in small ways. When I wear long, loose tunics and trousers it is much easier to flag a taxi in Abu Dhabi. Drivers will invariably stop for women in abayas or, even better, the niqab, because they are perceived as modest and good. But the drivers sometimes breeze past a woman in a dress with spaghetti straps because they assume she has no self-respect.
(HH: I feel sure that is what the taxi drivers SAY, but knowing men as well as I do I would say that it has more to do with “good” being equal to “submissive and easy to dominate” and “she has no self respect” translating as “she had the nerve to not allow me to take advantage of her or disrespect her. Plus she looked me right in the eye!!!”.)
I have two wardrobes: one I wear in places like Egypt, Afghanistan and India; the other I reserve for parts of Dubai and Europe.
Many women wear a hijab to prevent unwanted attention but it doesn’t always work. In Egypt, harassment is part of daily life. In 2006, women in Cairo organized a demonstration with the slogan “the street is ours” to protest about the groping and taunting. In the 1990s, Moroccan women went on strike for the same reason.
Afghan women wear a burqa for safety: it is a barrier between them and the abuse. (HH: this means that unless a woman is in a burkha she is harassed and taunted and even offered violence until she “Chooses” to “embrace the freedom” of the mobile tent.) I sometimes wished I had one to slip over my head.
The concept of respect and the presence of a woman in public are linked. In most parts of South and West Asia and the Middle East, there are few opportunities for women to work outside the home, and education is partly to blame.
In Afghanistan, when I stopped at villages to talk to people, word would get out that a single woman was on the street and I soon found myself being followed by dozens of men pointing and whispering. They would often point at my pen: the image of a lone woman writing in an illiterate society was alluring.
If they are allowed an education, in many Muslim societies children are segregated from an early age. Girls are covered from head to toe and they are taught that any interaction between the sexes before marriage is forbidden. Marriages are arranged in their late teens and there are no opportunities for the sexes to mix.
As they grow older, boys fetishise the female body so even a glimpse of an ankle or a wrist is tantalizing. As adults, living in labor camps in the Emirates, they have no contact with wives back home, but there are plenty of Bollywood films for distraction with scenes of pouting girls in clinging wet saris dancing in the rain to heighten the excitement. By the time they encounter a blonde woman in jeans buying chicken at Carrefour … well, it all becomes too much.
In Kuwait, women have been trying to resist efforts at segregating men and women in schools to prevent this fetishisation. It would be easy to blame the lechery on the rise of political Islam, which emphasizes a traditional role for women and the need to protect women’s honor by limiting their mobility and access to the public sphere. But a colleague in Cairo once told me that she enjoyed going to Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations because the crowds of men always respectfully parted to allow her through. (HH: here we have the obligatory white wash of any responsibility belonging to Islam. I notice though that the author does not say how her friend dresses at these meetings. Can she walk through in jeans and a blouse? Or only in hajib or niqab?)
Most of the men here who leer at women know it is wrong. They are from cultures where they are taught to avert their eyes when they see a girl, out of respect for her father and brothers.
I recently moved house and hired a moving company, staffed by Indian and Bangladeshi workers. The foreman in charge was more interested in watching my movements than doing his own job. I finally snapped.
“Why don’t you get on with your work? What if someone stared at your sister like that?”
When it becomes too much I create a mental buffer zone to tune out the calls and stares. If that doesn’t work I try the shoe trick. When the offender shouts an insult, I stop, point at his shoes and laugh.
It subtly shifts the balance of power. And I won’t get arrested.
(HH: This woman has a game attitude but ultimately it is the attitude of a slave or prisoner. All the power is in hands other than hers and subtle ridicule is her only weapon.)
*Published by the UAE-based the NATIONAL on July 11.