“You’re going to Dubai? Will you have to wear a burqa?” I was asked this question all too frequently before coming to the UAE this summer.
As a student of Arabic in the UK, I am used to curiosity. But often, the reaction to my degree spills over from curiosity into incomprehension, exposing common generalizations about the “Middle East” and “Arab women.”
These latest questions about how I would have to dress in Dubai reminded me of a similar conversation last year with one of my fellow students at university.
Smugly, as if he had come up with a question that would really stump me, he asked: “How can you be a feminist and study Arabic at the same time?”
This assumption riled me for what it revealed about the ways even educated Westerners continue to stereotype the Middle East. Would I have had to defend my reconciliation of feminism with another subject, like English literature or physics? Of course not. This friend was implicitly saying that by studying Arabic, and therefore the Middle East and Islam, I would have my Western liberal feminist sensibilities offended – that I was learning the language of the “enemy.”
His question exposed the persistent idea, perpetuated by groups seemingly as disparate in interests as the Bush administration and topless protest group Femen, that the Middle East (by which they most often mean the Muslim world) is a place universally hostile to women. A place where women are forced into burqas, behind doors and out of classrooms.
For anyone who has actually been to the Middle East, it should be clear that this is not the case. I have seen more tight jeans than burqas on the street in Dubai, Amman and Lebanon. The outfits and status of women in the region are as nuanced and varied as the region itself. Such blanket assumptions about oppressed Middle Eastern women are problematic because of what they say about women’s own agency, and because they seek to make black and white a situation and a mixture of countries which are clearly colorful and widely varying.
Achieving gender equality
However, of course the region (like the West) has a long way to go in achieving gender equality. My interest in women’s issues and gender was one of the triggers for my initial interest in Arabic and the Middle East. In fact, one of the biggest influences on my decision to choose my course was Geraldine Brooks’ ‘Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.’ The book was published in 1996 after Brooks’s stint as Mideast correspondent for the Wall St Journal.
The outfits and status of women in the region are as nuanced and varied as the region itself. Such blanket assumptions about oppressed Middle Eastern women are problematicFaith Barker
“My husband [a freelance journalist at the time] was getting to go off on all the exciting adventures, but I realized I could have a way in through women’s lives,” she told me.
“For me realizing that I could get access to women was a huge turning point in how I could be as a reporter.”
For Brooks, her experience in the Middle East was a challenge to her beliefs.
“I was in the Mideast at a time when the return to orthodox Islam, especially among young women, was very prevalent – for me the book was a journey to understand why that happens. The point I came to was that there are infinite varieties of reasons that women might choose a more orthodox version of Islam,” she said.
“I felt I was always talking to people in the West and saying, it’s not like you think. Women exert opaque powers.”
Brooks notes that when she was doing her research, “people were ignoring the bedroom and the mosque as centers of power.”
Undoubtedly, that is no longer the case. The rise of Salafist Islam has drawn attention to the mosque, and a proliferation of books purporting to “lift the veil” on the true lives of women in the Middle East have brought these topics into public consciousness.
But despite the reams of paper and oceans of ink devoted to the topic, women have still not escaped stereotypes or become better understood.
There are some aspects of life for women in the Middle East which I find difficult – but as Brooks says, “it would be lazy only talking to people who are easy to talk to, waiting for you in universities, and to not be willing to go a bit deeper.”
I am learning Arabic not so I can evangelize about Western liberal feminism, but rather so I can find things out for myself and avoid the generalizations so common when talking about the Middle East, or women, and especially women in the Middle East. These are complex issues – too complex to be understood after my two years of study or explained in a short article – but the only way I know to understand them is through conversation and interaction, not judgments made in ignorance.
Faith Barker is in her third year of Arabic and Spanish at the University of Cambridge and a graduate of the Al Arabiya English student internship program. She is currently spending a year in Beirut to learn Arabic and Arabic classical singing. She can be reached on Twitter @faithbalebarker
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