I spent August 2014 in Sharjah and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates visiting my in-laws but also getting to know the migrant women and men who live in the Gulf. As I toured malls and hotels — that’s almost all there is to do in the summer with kids when the heat outside is unbearable — I struck up random conversations with families. I didn’t ask them what country they had come from or what religion they believed in but many volunteered to tell me they were Muslims and foreigners to the UAE.
Dubai is one of the most liberal cities in the Middle East where most can wear and do as they wish as long as they don’t flaunt it. The freedom includes human trafficking, including one of the biggest migrant slave trades in the world and prostitution. After two hours in a mall, four business cards with promises of “free massage” from “girls of any Indian origin” laid on our car’s windshield. The city’s clean and peaceful, and you can buy anything you want for double the price available in the U.S. They have one of the most effective crime prevention tactics: deportation for most foreigners who break the law.
Just south of Dubai is Sharjah, another Emirate, with a much more conservative vibe. In the early 1980s, Sharjah was socially wild when Dubai was tame but the former fell into debt only to be saved with Saudi funds. We all know Saudi money comes with strings attached and soon bars in Sharjah closed and alcohol was banned in public. Men and women who are not related cannot mingle in public. And the random tourist rarely sees women in shorts unlike Dubai. The conservatism stuck until today. Many migrant families live in Sharjah because it’s cheaper and for the menfolk afraid of their women seeing too much skin and partying, Sharjah provides a safe haven. It seemed that some of these families had more freedoms in their home countries, especially the women. Living in Sharjah forced them to practice a stricter, more Wahabbi version of Islam. They adopt the black abayas and headscarves, some choose the niqab, and begin to judge everyone and everything through the eyes of Wahabbi clerics.
The following are snippets of the random conversations I had in these two Emirates. The subject I was interested in was gender equality, and I posted the dialogues on my personal Facebook account almost daily in August. The feedback from friends convinced me to share these talks publicly here. It’s important to emphasize that these snapshots do not represent the entire UAE population. Women are in a far better place compared to their sisters in other countries.
August 18, 2014
I know where I stand on most human rights issues, but here’s one I may pull out the cultural relativity card. I met a 16-year-old bride who’s happily married to a man 10 years older. She was 13 when they got engaged. No one was forced or persuaded. She has absolutely no interest in education or work outside the house. Her sole purpose in life is to be a wife and mother. The legal age for marriage in the UAE is 18 so under the law, their marriage should be illegal. But under Islamic law, it’s legal. Never mind the local legality — are the rights of this child bride being taken away? Should a 13-year-old have the right to marry if she/he wants? Most of the girls I have met in the Muslim world were forced and so the answer was clear, but I’m on the fence on this one. Thoughts?
August 16, 2014
Today I had the pleasure of speaking to my elderly woman friend in Dubai. She’s the comical warrior among the brainwashed, submissive, sexist lot I’ve been meeting. She told me her husband beat her numerous times when she was young. and her only solace was her sense of humor. It wouldn’t be funny to translate her jokes because they make me blush, and they lose their meaning in English. Older women gain a special status and have the leeway others don’t. This is how she stands up for herself now:
Me: What would you do if your husband beats you now?
Woman: He couldn’t now. He’s too old now. I’m probably stronger than him now so I might just hit back.
Me: You’ve had so many kids and grandkids together. Do you love him?
Woman: I love those green plants more.(She points to a fern in the house). At least, they’re going to grow and blossom. He’s just going to shrivel up and get older. It’s hard to forget the pain he put me through. If I could write, I’d write a book with endless tears. And maybe add a few jokes. Have you heard the one about the boy who goes to the public bathhouse?
Me: Yes, you told me that one. But you still care for him. Why?
Woman: Because I feel sorry for him now. It’s more from pity. I have the compassion he didn’t. Where we come from, you stick it out. We don’t have the options you do.
Me: What would you do if one of your sons hit your daughters-in-laws?
Woman: I’d pick up my shoe and beat him black and blue.
August 14, 2014
While my daughters were yet at another mall in Dubai having ice-cream, I started talking to an older gentleman who seemed to have a dozen grandchildren around him.
Me: What would you like your grandkids to do when they’re older?
Man: The boys should become engineers and doctors. The girls of course will become mothers and wives, the greatest gift God gave them.
Me: God also gave them a brain to become engineers and doctors.
Man: They can try but women are “naqis ul-aql” (mentally impaired).
Me: You know that there are women who are finding cures for diseases and others who are going to space.
Man: Men are stronger physically and have built the pyramids. Women can never do such things.
Me: How do you know women didn’t help in building the pyramids?
Then his grandkids and my girls screamed so loud, we could no longer hear ourselves speak. That was probably a good thing because it’s too late for him to change and pointless for me to keep trying to change his mind.
August 10, 2014
It’s very hard for me to watch little boys learning to control and hate women. I’m still in Dubai observing.
Six-year-old boy: If my mom ever took off her headscarf, I would tell my dad, and he should punish her. Women are required to wear the scarf in our religion.
Me: Shouldn’t they have a choice?
Little Boy: No, that’s God’s choice. Women have to listen to men who are their “raiis.”
Me: Don’t you think men and women are equal?
Boy: No, my dad is my mom’s boss and whatever he says, my mom has to listen to him.
Me: Does your dad ever listen to your mom?
Boy: He doesn’t have to because he’s her husband.
I hope he’s not the future generation of UAE but he’s definitely representative of many households here.
No University for Girls
August 4, 2014
Me to 15-year-old girl in Dubai: Do you want to go to school?
Girl: Only to finish high school. In university, boys and girls are mixed here and that’s not right.
Me: Why not?
Girl: I’m not comfortable. Besides, women are not meant to know more than men. We should allow men to know more so they can guide us. I feel blessed when my brothers tell me what to do.
Is this what they call colonization of the mind?
August 3, 2014
When the men are away, the women sure know how to play. Dirty jokes and dancing are the favorite pastimes. Yet it only takes the sound of the doorbell to put the fear of men in them. They scurry to grab their headscarves, sit cross legged and quietly drink their tea. Life among women in the Gulf.
I was getting letters in my email criticizing the dialogues as I posted them on Facebook, and this was my response to the critiques. I’m not posting the feedback from friends because the comments were posted on my private account.
August 11, 2014
I’m not on vacation in Dubai. I came here so that my children could see their paternal grandparents and cousins. The best part of our trip is watching my girls enjoy the family. Meanwhile, I’m taking the opportunity to talk to people I meet in their building and around town. Then I record it on FB. Some of you have written me letters complaining that I’m pandering to the anti Muslim stereotype. The ugly truth is that these ideas exist, and I’m not going to hide them because they fit the stereotype. We need to face the reality that our society is obsessed with women’s bodies and how to control them. And don’t tell me the West has a problem too. This is not about the West, although I realize the historical connections and implications. This is about Muslim countries where people must confront the sexism, the violence and misogyny. If I come across an example of that confrontation and change, I will share it here. Peace.