North Africa, West Asia

Tired of being 'treasured'

Women in the Gulf are still waiting for paternalistic social norms to catch up with the economic and political freedoms they have gained.

Rawan Maki
17 October 2014

In the past ten years, GCC women have made large strides in the political and economic realms. They make up between 40 to 45 percent of the labour force and around ten percent of parliament seats in more liberal states, such as Bahrain and Kuwait. Bahraini women have won the right to pass on their citizenship to children from non-national husbands, and Hanadi Al-Hindi has become the first Saudi female pilot.

However, these strides, one-off appointments, and scattered success stories tend to follow a policy-based approach, which paternalistically and selectively allows GCC women to participate in the economic and political sphere, while continuing to constrain their social self-determination.

These policies essentially showcase ‘modernity’ abroad while brushing over the mismatch between local social norms and norms that allow for true social agency. Ultimately, the development of social norms that are in line with the economic and political opportunities available to GCC women is essential for their pursuit of a fulfilling life.

Bathroom signs in Burj Al-Arab. Flickr/Asim Bharwani. Some rights reserved.

Bathroom signs in Burj Al-Arab. Flickr/Asim Bharwani. Some rights reserved.

We approached the border, handed over four passports: one Bulgarian, one American, one Jordanian, and one Bahraini. “Who is the Bahraini in the car?” the officer asked, straightening his back and squinting into the car and back at my passport in his hands.

“I am,” I leaned forward from the back seat and waved. I was wearing a flat cap, a tank top, and my hair was not at its tidiest. As the officer walked away with our passports, I smirked, saying, “I’m probably getting the special GCC treatment.”

As our wait drew longer, I started to worry that one of my car-mates’ entry papers were off. As a GCC citizen, I did not need papers or visas to cross borders within the GCC, but they all did. As a GCC citizen, I had nothing to worry about.

The officer came back. “Can I talk to the Bahrainiya (Bahraini woman)?” he asked. Convinced I was going to be asked to join a separate, faster line, I leaned forward and smiled.

“Who are you?” he asked.

I was stunned—was he asking a rhetorical question? “Sorry, but what do you mean? My name is Rawan and I work in Dubai, you’re holding my passport.”

“No, really, I mean who are you? What do you do in Dubai? What are you, a GCC woman, trying to do by crossing this border?”

I responded with the confidence that underlies any casual truth. I explained to him that I was on a trip with my colleagues and friends. We were all twenty-somethings working in Dubai, and were taking a trip to Oman for the weekend.

“Where did you come from?” his response was severe, almost mocking.

“You mean right now? We all drove here from Dubai,” I said, my aplomb quickly souring in response to his disdain.

“Well turn your car around and go back to where you came from. As a Khaleeji woman (a woman from the Gulf), I can’t let you through the border without papers from your male guardian saying you can pass through, it’s the law.” His lips curled up into a self-satisfied, humourless smile.

My initial shock and panic quickly gave way to affront, as I recollected that this was not the law. I argued, and saw the derision in his eyes grow with every syllable that came out of my mouth. I pointed out that a Saudi friend, also travelling as part of our group, was in one of the cars ahead and he had let her through. She had even chosen to use her Saudi passport over her American one, since it would grant her visa-free travel within the GCC.

His response was automatic and indignant. “Well maybe she wasn’t in a car full of men. You’re one of our own, a Khaleeji, I can’t let you pass through. Why are there no other girls in your car?” His displeasure at ‘one of his own’ attempting to travel–and talking back to him in the presence of men–only grew. He asked us to turn back once more.

We parked to the side, letting others pass through. I told my friends I was going to go down and talk to him. I took off my cap, tied up my hair, and put on a sweater despite the blazing sun. On the seemingly long walk to the border, I told myself that I would be kind and patient.

I told myself he had been taught to ‘protect’ women like me. I thought of calmly explaining to him that I did not need protection and that I had not realised I was the only non-male in the car until he had pointed it out. This is what he wanted, right—my protection? I would make sure he knew I was safe, in control of the situation. I would reassure him.

“Hello, excuse me. Hi.”

“Yes? I thought I told you to leave.” His humourless smile was back, and I sensed that the situation had become amusing to him. I tried to look past his mocking grin.

“I just wanted to ask you about the law you referred to. I have never heard of needing papers from your male guardian to travel, unless you are in Saudi. I travel often for work within the GCC and I have never needed it.”

He asked me for my passport once more. Opened it, read it, scoffed. I tried to understand why but struggled.

“Why do you have so many travel stamps?” he finally asked, as if the notion was foreign to a border officer.

“I travel for work. I’m a consultant, and some of our clients are abroad. I’ve also travelled for job trainings, and to study.” I was calm and collected, speaking to him in a professional manner. I have learned over the past few years this was the correct way to deal with travel bureaucracy.

“So, do you ‘consult’ the guys in the car with you?” he asked, the humourless smile giving way to a wider, toothier taunt, culminating in a chuckle.

“No, they are my colleagues.”

At this point, a group of border control officers as well as bystanders were gathering. “Listen Randa, Ranya, Rana, Reem…” he started.

“My name is Rawan,” I said, and I felt my earlier confidence giving way to thinly-veiled irritability. Having studied my passport for four hours, I didn’t think he would brashly play the ‘I forgot your name’ card.

“I don’t want to remember your name. I don’t want to know it actually, it doesn’t matter, and it won’t change a thing. You are one of our own. If you were American, British, or even Lebanese I would let you through. But you’re not, you’re one of our own. If you were my daughter or wife travelling in that car, I would not want you to go through, so go back to where you came from, and don’t come back again or I will get you into trouble.”

A group of men had gathered and was watching the scene, smirking. I could sense them breaking out into a silent cheer, applauding their manly comrade, the protector of their social values.

The deification of woman they had been taught as children evolved into a need to protect her as they grew into teenagers, and then to control her as they grew into men, and ultimately to resent her free will. So they resented this woman standing in front of them rejecting their protection, their manhood, talking stridently and not lowering her gaze.

Such a perilous thing to teach little boys; such a pitiful thing to see full-grown men hold on to.

Four hours I waited. Four hours characterised by mockery from the border control, bystander amusement and curiosity, and frequent orders to get out of the border control line. Four hours of waiting and jeering, which only came to an end with the arrival of the male Omani sponsor of the snorkelling resort we were headed to. He took me through the border.

It took us three minutes.

While at the border, I asked the police officer, almost done with his shift for the day, why he had not let me through.

“Oh, I thought you were under 18 years old. In that case, you would have been legally obliged to have papers from your legal guardian.”

“You had my passport in your hand,” was all I could say before the Omani sponsor, Ali, drove us away.

“Relax,” Ali urged, almost apologetically. “We’re through now”.

I didn’t want to relax, I wanted to cry, but I did not want to cry for me. I wanted to cry, shout, and throw punches against the perception of the Khaleeji woman as ‘national treasure’. No different from the oil, the islands, and the luxuries Khaleeji men fight each other over. We were fertile, treasured, valued–a gem to be protected and displayed at the right time, and in the right way. It all made me sick.

In the Gulf, women are dangerously placed atop the social pyramid, where they can be scrutinised, adored, and resented at the same time as unreachable, fragile beings. This ‘shelved trophy’ mentality is dangerous, because women are so easily and frequently dragged to the bottom of the pyramid through notions of patriarchy—at any moment, every Arab man can assume the right to behave like her angry, dishonoured father.

Khaleeji men are taught to honour women by upholding the pillars of benevolent sexism. Khaleeji women are taught to be beautiful, elusive, and silent, like butterflies. You sit properly in public, you avert men’s gazes, and you watch what people say about you, because you do not want to be hauled off the top of the pyramid.

The GCC woman, even with the law on her side, does not have the social infrastructure to ‘fly’ once laws permitting her to travel, study, and work are in place. A national treasure, these butterflies are kept indoors and immobile, where they can be ready for a man’s gaze, love, and protection.

I am not calling for Khaleeji women to tear off their veils in fury, talk louder, or show more skin. I refuse to feed the notion of the oppressed Khaleeji woman, refuse to ignore the love and regard for the modest woman in her community, and the compassion, strength, beauty, dignity, and assertive spirituality she embodies. This socio-religious status has been a long-standing source of pride for many Khaleeji women.

I am also not attributing the placement of Khaleeji women to backwardness. This is not an issue of modernity or adopting a western social system. The social revolution should not spread through the fetishised western image of screaming angry Arab women taking to the streets, but a cross-gender discourse in Khaleeji societies on the fundamental right to pursue a happy life. The kind of ‘empowerment’ that Khaleeji women need is the development of social norms to complement the expanding socio-economic spaces they are conquering.

We do not need to pat ourselves on the back for the Harvard studies and discussions in the World Economic Forum telling us we are making great strides, that we are converging with the west’s legal standards for women. (The rest of the world is already patting us on the back for that, anyway.)

The rising statistics regarding women graduates and labour force participation should not be celebrated; they should be cemented, by legal and social frameworks that promote female mobility and independence. We need to know that not only are women legally allowed to cross borders, but also that haphazard sexism, masked as an authoritarian argument for protection, is illegal.

While legal frameworks are starting to be put in place, the lack of social equality for women remains an issue. My experience with the Emirates’ border control is anecdotal but it is far from unique; it is not an outlier in a social system that allows and encourages arbitrary paternalism towards women.

For the Saudi women who want to drive, the women in GCC who want to cross borders, and every woman who feels resentful eyes on her when she is laughing too loudly, walking too springily, or showing too much of her calves at a mall, we need to change the way women are deified, protected, and ultimately controlled.

We need to teach our little boys about Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the merchant who sent the largest trade caravans at the time to Syria and Yemen, and the defiant Zainab bint Ali, who stood strong against her captors’ oppression. We need to teach them that these female heroines did not ask boys or men to protect them, but demanded their own respect and social equality from men, so that they could fight alongside them for social justice. We need to teach our boys that, in the fight for social justice, women and men are soldiers alike.

As Khaleejis, we need to know that to truly ensure the fundamental right of the Khaleeji woman’s pursuit of happiness, we must defend her social agency. A Khaleeji woman’s right to a self-determined life is robbed by the social expectation of preserving her ‘treasurehood’. When she chooses to cover her head or avert her eyes, it should never be for fear of losing her good name, but for her individual appreciation of modesty and rejection of worldly vanity.

By removing the Khaleeji woman from her status as a ‘national treasure’, we finally grant her the liberties that our governments say we have on paper. Only then will we able to honestly display all aspects of our determination and character—be it modest, coy, shy, loud, or calm.

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