Posted by: j | December 8, 2008

An American Girl in the Middle East

Like most cultures, the Middle East is often stereotyped and misunderstood. But perhaps the subject which receives the most attention, besides the issue of terrorism, is the question of women in Arab society. Western critics often chastise the Arab world for its treatment of women. And although the American media has flooded the press with sensationalist pictures and stories of oppressed and brutalized Middle Eastern women, in reality, most women in the Arab world are highly respected and revered. In fact, it is not difficult to argue that women here are treated better than women in the West.

While much has been written on the question on Arab women, little has been said of Western women who find themselves in the Middle East. The level of discomfort varies from country to country, but in general, Western women face harassment. It isn’t the fact that Middle Eastern men disrespect Western women that disturbs me so deeply; this happens in many cultures. Travel to Italy or Spain, and the degree of harassment there will rival the harassment in the Middle East. What does bother me is the bigotry that Western women are forced to deal with in the Arab world. Seemingly without explanation, men here assume that white women are willing to hop into bed at a moment’s notice. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have been propositioned since I’ve been here. The sick fact of the matter is that these requests aren’t even subtle or private; men blatantly ask these women to go home with them in public.

There is a reason for this bad behavior, however. An overlooked but relevant pitfall of American hegemony is the exportation of our relatively liberal culture. In conservative cultures like the Middle East, where premarital sex is especially taboo, seeing American movies and television which include sexual promiscuity has left a less-than-respectable impression of western women, and American women in particular.

This is not to say that I in any way am opposed to the liberal values of the United States, in fact, I am a Democrat who will die before I vote Republican. But while America experienced somewhat of a sexual revolution in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Middle East has yet to go through something of that nature. Even in America, female sexuality is still plagued with double standards and intense scrutiny. I’ve sat around and watched the television hit, “Sex and the City,” with friends who have commented that the female actors on the program are “skanks,” and who say nothing of the male actors. For a region like the Middle East to see American women behaving this way on television and not find them scandalous is absurd.

Still, I cannot express how much I despise the assumption that because I am foreign, I therefore must be promiscuous. Despite the fact that I dress to meet cultural norms, avoid talking to or even being physically proximate to strange men, I am still met with dirty stares and unwanted advances. It’s almost as if my efforts are completely futile.

What infuriates me the most are the double standards. Recently, a member of our hotel staff offered a very indecent proposal to one of the young ladies on our program. Of course, she immediately refused and got herself out of that unfortunate situation. But when the hotel management was informed, they did nothing but scold the employee. If the man had propositioned an Omani woman, or any Arab woman, he would have been immediately fired. I wouldn’t even want to know what the woman’s family and/or husband would have done. The fact that society here “looks the other way” when foreign women are harassed is despicable. I get the feeling that in their minds, foreign women are “asking for it,” simply because they are foreign.

The fact of the matter is that I do make a huge effort respect the cultural norms of the Middle East, and should be offered the same level of respect.


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