3 Lessons I Learned About Gender In The Middle East

As part of a round-the-world trip I’m on this year, I recently traveled throughout the countries of Oman, Egypt, and Jordan. While these three nations are distinct in their own ways, all three rank toward the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which ranks countries based on the difference (gap) between men and women on economic, political, education, and health indicators. Out of 145 countries included in the index, Oman ranks #135, Egypt #136, and Jordan #140. For comparison, the United States ranks #28 while Scandinavia occupies the top spots for gender equality.

As a long-time advocate for women and student of global gender issues, I was excited to see what I would learn from my travels to the Middle East. The lessons I took away from the experience surprised me, and called into question many assumptions I (and other Westerners) hold about gender in the Middle East.

1. Gender ideology varies widely

One of the major lessons I learned from my travels is that there is little homogeneity when it comes to opinions about gender and the role of men and women in society. In Egypt, I had the pleasure of spending time with two different tour guides—both Egyptian men. The first I met in Luxor, Egypt, which is a city of about half a million people. The tour guide, Mohammed, grew up in a West Luxor village but was college-educated in Cairo and spoke excellent English.

Mohammed* was our tour guide for several days, so I had the opportunity to have deep conversations with him about his life and his views on Egyptian society. Mohammed was quite conservative in his attitudes toward gender. For example, he told me a story about how he was briefly engaged to a woman but he broke it off when she began asking too many questions during one of their meetings. In some parts of Egypt, an engagement involves a short courtship of several “meetings” between the man and woman (usually in the woman’s father’s home) when the couple gets to know each other and make sure they both want to go through with the marriage. Mohammed told me that during the courtship period, the woman is supposed to “act shy” and let the man do the talking. Apparently, the woman he was engaged to did not adhere to these norms of behavior, and so he broke off the engagement.

Mohammed also told me that when he sees women arguing in the street of his village, he feels it’s his duty and right to step in and break up the argument. He commented that women shouldn’t “behave” like that in public, and it is his right to stop them and make them go inside.

Several days after our time with Mohammed, I met another tour guide in Aswan, a city of about 300,000 people, in lower Egypt. Hassan* was around the same age as Mohammed (late 30’s) and also college-educated. But their views on gender couldn’t have been more different.

Hassan believes strongly in gender equality as a principle and in practice. He encourages his wife and his sisters to get educated and work outside the home and believes Egypt would benefit with more women in political office. Hassan was very liberal in his attitudes toward gender roles, and even takes on a lot of the domestic work in his own home, a fairly progressive practice for Egypt.

One factor that would explain the differences between Mohammed and Hassan’s views is where they grew up. Despite both of them being college-educated, Mohammed’s upbringing in a small village may have contributed to his more conservative views, including his paternalistic attitude toward women. These villages are more isolated, less educated, and thus more likely to harbor and perpetuate strict gender prescriptions.

I also encountered different opinions about gender in Jordan, among women themselves. In Amman, I stumbled across the Arab Women Organization of Jordan and stopped inside to meet the staff. I talked to one woman there who told me this about the status of women in Jordan:

“We work toward empowering women, ending discrimination, and encouraging political participation. Women face a lot of problems in Jordan, but the biggest one is that society does not believe in women. They don’t think women are capable. They don’t think women can make decisions for themselves. So we are working towards changing that.”

While this particular woman had a more dismal view of gender equality in Jordan, others I met believed women were more liberated than ever. I met two sisters who worked at a tourist shop near a mosque outside of Amman, and both talked excitedly about how Jordan is the land of freedom and that all people—men and women—can behave anyway they want. Notably, both sisters did not wear the hijab and were dressed in Western-style clothing. They talked about the many opportunities for women in Jordan, including education, and overall felt positively about the direction of the country toward liberty for all human beings.

So in sum, Middle Easterners differ vastly both in their experience of gender and their beliefs about women in their societies. There is little uniformity when it comes to gender norms and expectations, which may be contrary to the stereotype of the Middle East as the bastion of gender inequality. More liberal, egalitarian ideas and behaviors are definitely present, which is a good sign for the future.

2. The meaning of the hijab is complex and often misunderstood

Most women I observed in the Middle East wore some form of the hijab. In Oman, I saw more burkas and abayas, while in certain cities like Cairo and Amman, women were more likely to don Western-style clothes with a simple head covering. Islamic tradition requires women to dress modestly and hide signs of their sexuality and femininity, including their hair.

Many Westerners believe that the hijab is the ultimate sign of gender inequality in the Middle East, and that women who wear the hijab must be oppressed by their husbands, fathers, or other men in their lives. And for some women in the Middle East, that’s exactly what the hijab represents. Some choose not to wear it, though many more wear it despite their personal feelings because of the immense social pressure to do so.

However, not all women feel negatively toward the hijab. One woman I talked to told me that she takes pride in wearing it, because the type of veil she wears signifies the region of Oman that her family is from. Others use the veil as a fashion statement and wear beautiful hijabs of different colors and patterns to match their outfits.

Some Muslim women believe they benefit from wearing the hijab, because men will focus on their minds rather than their bodies. They want to be valued for their intelligence instead of their looks, and wearing the veil is a way to ensure no one credits their success to their sex appeal over their personal merit.

I met several Westerners on my trip who would comment on how “tragic” and sad it was to see so many Muslim women wearing the hijab. I found these comments to be judgmental and condescending, because they allow only for one interpretation of the veil, when in fact there are many.

3. Contact between members of the opposite sex is limited

As an American, I’m used to striking up a conversation with my barista, bartender, or taxi driver. But in the Middle East, contact with the opposite sex is limited to family members. In fact, it would be considered highly inappropriate for a Muslim man to talk with a woman who was not of familial relation. Even cousins of the opposite sex do no more than wave hello when they see each other, as anything more would be considered taboo.

There is a little more leeway when it comes to tourists in the Middle East, as contact with the opposite sex is necessary in many cases. But whenever I was with my husband, the men we interacted with would only address him, basically ignoring me. This was the case with taxi drivers, hotel staff, bartenders, and restaurant servers. It almost felt awkward when they would ask him questions about our experience but only expect an answer from him, not from me. I often felt invisible during these interactions, and couldn’t help but interject my own opinions from time to time. When I did, some of the men would become visibly uncomfortable and avoid eye contact with me.

The day I left Egypt, I really wanted to hug one of the tour guides who we spent a lot of time with. I had really gotten to know him during our week together and felt a connection with him. I asked one of my fellow travelers if it would be appropriate for me to do so, and she said that even though I was a tourist, a hug would be way out of bounds for a Muslim man. I took her advice and settled for a handshake. But not being able to express my (platonic) affection for another human being really bothered me—it felt like someone had put a cage around my emotions, and all I could do was slide a finger or two between the bars.

An interesting corollary to the custom of limiting contact between the sexes is that for members of the same sex, affection is actually very common. I saw many instances of men holding hands in public as a sign of friendship—something that would actually be rare to see in the United States.

While my travels to the Middle East were by no means comprehensive or representative of the Middle East as a whole, they did offer me glimpses into different mindsets and traditions that I otherwise would not be privy too. Overall, I felt very welcome in the three countries I visited and am grateful to the Omanis, Egyptians, and Jordanians that took the time to talk to me and teach me about their beautiful countries and their customs. Learning from the locals challenged my preconceived notions about gender in the Middle East and taught me that like most issues, gender in the Middle East is nuanced, complex, and varied.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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