Friday, January 29, 2010

Doha Diaries, no. 7: A Post on Power

I've been aware for some time now that the majority of my posts since moving abroad have related to the more mundane and practical aspects that surround international relocation. Daily snippets, frustrations with a new culture, occasional interesting observances, rather than extended discussions of a specific topic. This is not because I haven't been thinking about specific topics as they relate to living in the Middle East, but rather because I have been doing my best to think about them for a while before I come to any conclusions (if conclusions can even be reached).

For example, before coming here, the first question almost everyone asked me was: "Will you have to wear the veil?" For some reason, I was always amazed by this question. Maybe it was result of some graduate courses I took, in which I learned that clothing for men and women in the Muslim world is governed largely by tradition rather than law. With only a few exceptions, it is not a legal obligation that women cover themselves with the abaya or veil or that men wear the thobe.

Instead, it is a tradition sanctioned by the Qu'ran that both men and women dress modestly. Since it is a tradition for Muslims, and I'm not a Muslim, I'm not expected to wear an abaya (though I am, as per my contract, expected to respect and be sensitive to the culture, religion, and legal system here).

The assumption long held by many Westerners and Americans (feminists in particular) has been that this aspect of Muslim tradition is just one of the many oppressive practices that Muslim women face. Admittedly, I felt this way for most of my adult life until I met two young Muslim girls in graduate school who became good friends of mine. They had a tough job convincing me that the covering of ones body could be an act of empowerment, one that ensured (among other things) that attention was paid not to outward appearances but to more important qualities like what one had to say. I gradually came to see their point of view, even if they didn't come to see mine.

This is the attitude I brought with me when moving to the Middle East. For reasons I'm not yet sure of, I think I was invested in believing that wearing the abaya (with or without the veil) was a form of power in a specific cultural context. I quickly discovered that the abaya was not only a religious marker, but also a marker of class and nation. Some women have abayas that are distinguished by ornate beading and sequins at the end of the sleeve, and these can be quite expensive. Other women have something more like 'home-spun' abayas, perhaps indicating an inability to afford anything more elaborate. And then there are non-Muslim women who wear the abaya because it is the tradition they must follow as workers for a Muslim family. The latter, however, are usually dressed in little better than a head-covering and what often looks like pajamas. The look they have on their faces will never be lost from my memory. The vast majority of the time, I am convinced it is nothing short of the look of a slave.

This brings me to the idea of power...After conversations with quite a number of people, other expats who have lived here or in the Gulf region for several years and who have developed very close friendships with some very well-off citizens of this country, I have changed my mind about the idea of the abaya as a form of power. That is to say that the idea is much more complicated. I have heard stories of families whose sons gang rape their housemaid as a matter of occasional fun. I have heard of the bodies of housemaids that are found dumped and decomposing in the desert. I have heard of the women--mother and her daughters--who beat their maid with hairbrushes and sticks for no offense at all. I hate to say it, but the first of these doesn't surprise me. It has happened since time began, and it continues to happen everywhere in the world. The last example is certainly not limited to this country, but I can see how and why it goes unnoticed. As my friend explained to me: "They beat their maid because she's the only damn person they have any power over."

As part of a conversation about white people who speak Arabic and how white women in the Middle East are perceived by the women who wear the abaya, we stumbled into a discussion of power. I listened as he described their rage, something he's been privy to because he speaks Arabic. He's heard local women, disgusted at the sight of a Western woman in jeans and a t-shirt, calling her a whore under their breath. It made me at once feel angry at the idea that I might evoke such a reaction from the people around me, but I also felt confusion and pity at the idea that I could be complicit in the sense of rage and frustration building up in women who don't enjoy the same power that I have. This added to what has been a growing feeling of sadness and empathy for the 70% of people here who constitute the imported work force. The housemaids, drivers, construction workers, car washers, etc. It has become clear that, in many cases, these people are not seen as human beings. They are objects, usually identified only by their nationality: "Who cares? It's just a Phillipino." It. Not he or she. And to provide her family in her home country with whatever meager wages she can earn, she serves someone else's family, cleans someone else's home, and raises someone else's children (often falling victim to abuse from them as well). Rather than have compassion for this woman and treat her like a fellow human being, some women see her as the only person over whom they can exert power. All the pent-up rage and frustration is exorcised through violence against another woman's body. The woman who is not protected by the abaya, the culture, or the law.

I still think the abaya offers a sense of power...unfortunately, that's not always a good thing.


Intlxpatr said...

My impression is that the violence is the exception to the rule, but your observation that the labor situation depersonalizes relationships is spot on.

I can't imagine what it would be like living in a country where the majority of people were NOT citizens of the country. It might make us resentful, it might even scare us. I think of stories my friends have told of their elegant parents who are treated as stupid because shop clerks can't speak in Arabic to them. I think how offended we would be if people obliviously took off their tops on the beach in our country.

You are right, the rage is directed against the powerless. There is also an epidemic of animal abuse. The worst of all is the sheer indifference to suffering.

AcadeMama said...

Intlxpatr: Well, if you've seen any of the new reality shows, unfortunately too many people are taking all sorts of things off at our beaches back in the US. A colleague who was leaving here explained that, after you're here a while, you return to the US, look around you, and you want to say: "Go put some clothes on, please!" And, I lived in Texas long enough to see a similar sort of resentment growing at non-citizen immigrants, some of whom came to the US for the same reasons workers come to this country: to do the jobs nobody else wants to do. Frankly, I don't like what I see there either.

I think what I'm trying to work out in this post is the specific relationship between gender(one of my academic interests), power, and clothing in a global or at least comparative context.

I had also previously heard about the abuse of animals, which is why I won't let the girls get a pet here. I know there's a chance the pet would get ill and we'd never find adequate, caring people to care for it.

The indifference you mention is exactly what I see everywhere. No car seats for young children, driving at ridiculous speeds, reckless maneuvering on the roads, the lack of safety preparation for workers, the list could go on. It all combines to a complete indifference to the value of human life, whether someone else's or their own (or their own child's).

I know similar patterns of behavior and problems exist in the US, which would allow the same to be said of our country (drug use, addictions of all sorts, guns, high crime, etc.). That's why I'm trying to figure out why I'm so affected by it here. It's not like I haven't heard of Columbine or lived 30 minutes away from the Murrah Building when it was bombed. So, why is it that I'm so deeply saddened by the indifference I see here?

Intlxpatr said...

I have the same problem. Here's another. If you were to stay a few years, you stop seeing some of the problems. We really do get desensitized.

I think wearing abayas, and especially niqab, is horrid. And I have friends who wear them and no one is forcing them. The young girls go on and on to me for hours about how it protects their modesty. I know their parents; no one forces these girls to wear hijab or niqab. The girls at school, however, mention how it will hurt their chances for a good marriage to be seen as 'going Western' etc. Good old peer pressure, only in this case, for a more rigid morality. Aarrgh.

日月神教-向左使 said...