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.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Doha Diaries, no. 6

I'm back. Unfortunately. I wasn't ready to get back on the plane when we left on New Year's Eve. Several times during the break, I had half-joked with Hubby that he could just come back and I'd stay in the U.S. with the girls :-) The airport drop-off went much better than it did when Hannah and I went back for Eid break. No meltdowns or long, drawn-out teary goodbyes. Hannah was sad, obviously, but things went quickly and smoothly. The trip back was good because we had the entire front row of business class to ourselves! However, getting the girls back on schedule has taken a full week, Amelia is already sick again (some sort of allergies), and Hubby and I begin the new semester today--blah.

My time back home over break solidified what I'd been feeling before we left: I'm not happy here. While I was home, I felt like someone had let me out of jail...I had the freedom to enjoy all the lazy, American conveniences that I used to take for granted. When I returned to Doha, I felt like someone had thrown me back in the clink. Being home reinforced how much I miss the most important thing about our lives in the States: more time with family (even though they get on my nerves sometimes), more time with Hubby, more time for myself. I talked to Hubby about how I was feeling, and he understands...for the most part. Just to make sure we even have the option to leave our contracts and to find out what the consequences are (especially the financial ones), I spoke with our HR Director. He, too, was sympathetic to my concerns and explained that we would get to keep our travel allowance, and the university would still provide us with business-class tickets back home, cover our repatriation, etc. I spoke with the accounting firm that handles the taxes for most of the university employees and found out that we could still qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Tax Exclusion benefit if we can stay in Doha until July 25th. With these questions answered, I have decided to go on the spring job market.

Hubby and I are applying to t-t and non-tenure track jobs, in the hopes that we can either a)find work at the same school or b)find work in the same town. We knew coming over here that, because of the difficulties of conducting academic job searches from overseas, we'd likely have to take non-tenure track positions when we finished our contracts. Really, nothing has changed, except the timeline. I've already notified my committee and started applying for jobs...knowing that the odds are against me, but hoping that Hubby might find something promising since he's finished his dissertation.

Today, another colleague commended me on the "bravery" of this decision because it involves walking away from so much money. I don't see this decision as brave. In fact, it feels quite the opposite. I feel like I'm limping away with my tail between my legs. Like I've let my immediate family down. Like I've failed my own personal test of sorts. If we don't get jobs back in the States, we'll survive here. I'll survive here. It's just that I want to do more than simply survive.

For now, I'm in the very stressful, anxiety-ridden stages of finishing revisions to my dissertation. Though I'm scheduled to defend Wednesday, April 7th, I remain terrified that I won't be able to make the deadline and that I'll have to re-schedule it, which will mortify me! I HATE, HATE, HATE to miss my own deadlines. My advisor seems to think that my timeline is reasonable, but I'm worried that something will happen (children getting sick, me getting sick, family emergency, who knows?). I am having an increasingly hard time sleeping, which is made even worse by the fact that Amelia is still waking up once or twice (or more) in the middle of the night. Hubby and I take turns each night, but I have to take a sleeping pill if I actually want to get any rest on the nights he's up with the baby. I'm sure some of this just comes with the territory of approaching the deadline, but I'm stuck in a country where anti-anxiety meds aren't to be found!

Almost everything about the next year of our lives is up in the air for now...and there's nothing I can do about it...except breathe.