Talking about Women in the Middle East by Jillian Schedneck
Jillian Schedneck is the author of Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights, a travel memoir that will be published by Pan Macmillan Australia in March 2012. Her work has also been published in Brevity, Wet Ink, The Common Review, Fourth River, among others. She is also a PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, where her research focuses on the relationship between gender, national identity and creative expression.
As the author of a travel memoir about my experiences in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and a PhD candidate doing research on women’s experiences with modernization and national identity also within the United Arab Emirates, I speak about the Arab Gulf often, and brace myself for the myriad of Orientalist responses: You must be so brave to live in that patriarchal society.… It’s wonderful that you worked with the women there. I think they are the only ones who can save that culture. … When you go back, I hope you can convince those women to take off their veils. After all, every woman wants to show her beauty… Did you hear about the reporter who was assaulted on Tahrir Square…Did you hear about the woman in Saudi Arabia who was beaten for being raped…Did you hear about the Muslim woman who…. I try not to balk at these comments for their conflation of the UAE and Arab Gulf with ALL Middle Eastern nations and their Eurocentric, sensationalized accounts of ‘other’ cultures. Instead, I try to explain that I found more commonality than differences, that a woman’s freedom can take many forms, and that we all live in patriarchal societies. I am most often met with blank stares.
After reading a year’s worth of scholarly sources on Orientalism, Eurocentrism and colonist attitudes, it is even more difficult to listen to these comments. It would be easy to think of these responses as merely cartoonish, vanishing attitudes from an era long past. Yet then I am reminded of the students I tutor in a course called Gender and Race in a Postcolonial World, who admitted that because of American movies and international media, they assumed the word ‘jihad’ meant terrorism, that lifting one’s veil meant liberation; they thought that Muslim women who cover their bodies and faces were unnerving because their appearance was alien to their experiences. These admissions, then, are understandable, and in the context of a classroom, I am much more sympathetic. The issue gets thornier when I speak to men and women older than myself, who respond knowingly about life in the Middle East even though they have never been. At these times I am proud of my students for acknowledging and correcting bias.
Yet I am not an insider on Arab Gulf or Middle Eastern culture. I am a white American woman who moved to Abu Dhabi at twenty-six because I wanted a radically different experience from the world I knew, and Abu Dhabi University was the only institution I contacted willing to hire a young graduate. I felt alienated by my first Ramadan, when public eating was banned and all the shops were closed. I felt uncomfortably exposed in a classroom full of fully covered girls and as if on enemy territory on the Abu Dhabi city streets full of South Asian men. Again, my teaching aided in real understanding, sympathy and camaraderie.
In my travel memoir, Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights, I write about teaching on the female side of the university building, and the connections made with female students through our common experiences as women. They shared stories of successful arranged marriages and their thoughts on the poor, jilted Western women they watch on Dr. Phil; they told me about divorce and single-motherhood, the choice between single life and becoming a second-wife. They complained about their lack of access to meeting men and begged me to escort them to the male-side, all while acknowledging how fortunate they were to live in a culture that prevented them from making “mistakes” with men before marriage. While some of their talk was wildly different from what my American girlfriends and I would chat about when discussing the men in our lives, the basic ideas were the same: the struggle of finding a reliable partner, and the gratefulness of those who had. I interrogated my own “mistakes”, the context in which I forged my own beliefs about romantic relationships, what I wore and why and how I expected men to treat me. All of these conversations with my female students took place while I was involved in a serious yet still uncertain relationship, and those talks helped me better understand what brought me to this point in my life.
But it’s difficult to get all of this across to the people I speak with about my experiences in the UAE and the Middle East in general. Their minds already seem set against the idea that there are other ways of being a woman in this world. This is why I hope that teaching and my travel memoir can do some of this translation work through telling the story of my experiences, unfolding what I learned from my years spent teaching women and men in the Middle East.