Tag Archives: Egypt

How Leaving My Comfort Zone Changed My Outlook On Life

This piece was originally published in ThoughtCatalog on January 9, 2017.

I was never much of a “doer.”

As a child, I rejected my parents’ encouragement to get involved in “activities”—things like French Club or our church’s youth volunteer program.

My favorite thing to do as a teenager was get into a car with my friends and drive around our small town, maybe stopping at a party or the beach (to meet up with more friends driving around in their own cars). But ask me to go to the movies, see a concert, or participate in any other pre-scheduled, planned event, and my answer would probably be no.

This trend of not really wanting to “do things” continued as an adult. I belonged to a gym, but I could never quite get myself to sign up for group classes, preferring to drop-in and hop on a treadmill on my own schedule. I worked in the political science department at college, but was reluctant to join any of the clubs or organizations my school offered, even ones that worked towards issues I really cared about, like gender equality.

In fact, the question “what are your hobbies?” that I’d receive at job interviews or from a new acquaintance always filled me with anxiety—does going to brunch with friends on weekends count?

Sometimes my antipathy for doing activities caused rifts in my relationships. While I was perfectly content with doing little to nothing after work save for ordering dinner and watching Netflix, I’ve dated more than one man who resisted against my penchant for vegging out. I would be asked to go to Broadway shows, listen to live music at a local bar, and take cooking classes. While I mostly refused these invitations, the few I accepted I attended begrudgingly, and often dreaded the very act of participating.

I’m not quite sure what caused my rejecting of doing. I wouldn’t consider myself a boring person, and in fact I have done things—big things—in my life, like completing a doctorate in political science and building a successful career in the consulting industry. At times I rationalized my need to do little more than watch Law & Order SVU marathons as a consequence of the amount of time and energy I put into my job—I work in the public opinion research and consulting industry, and most of my days are spent creating work for my clients—perhaps this act of producing all day meant that all I could do was consume in my downtime, whether that meant watching TV, reading, eating, or drinking (or sometimes all four).

And even though very few people would guess this about me because of the confidence I project to others, I’m somewhat of an introvert. I don’t get energized from being around large groups of people and need to step away and be alone after a few hours of socialization. Many of the “doing” activities outside of work require a level of extroversion that I save for events with friends and meetings with clients.

For a long time, I felt like something might be lacking in my life. On paper, everything was great—I had an amazing career and was living in one of the best cities in the world—and fairly comfortably at that (something very hard to do in New York City as the middle class slowly disintegrates). I had good friends, a family close by, a cat, and as of October 2015, a husband. But producing all day long just to go home and consume for a few hours before bed didn’t always feel great. Sometimes it got pretty boring. And I increasingly felt a need to really do something and force myself out of routine and complacency.

So—my husband and I did the whole clichéd “quit your job and travel the world” thing. It makes me cringe a little to write that, precisely because it’s so hackneyed. It’s also something that might be more acceptable to do when you’re fresh out of college, not a decade out, like me. But I think we both felt a strong need to do something out of the norm and shed the predictability of our lives. Traveling wasn’t the only answer to our problem, but it sure was a fun one to entertain.

We left New York on a journey set to last six months. The beginning was hard. When you decide to shake things up like we did, you don’t always anticipate how the transition to that sort of lifestyle might be just that—shaky. I was so used to my routine and especially the producing part of it, that walking around cities and visiting sites was a complete 180—total consumption. I found myself trying to “schedule” time to write blogs, or to keep up with my professional networks, anything to feel like I’ve accomplished something. Without work, I was in some ways lost.

But this feeling didn’t last long, because I actually started doing things, in addition to consuming. And the things I did were productive in that they helped me work toward a better version of myself. I’ve never gone camping in my life—even as a child, I’d pitch a tent with my siblings in our backyard and last an hour in a sleeping bag before running back inside to the comfort of my own bed and room. So when I camped in an Omani desert in a straw hut with sand as the ground and an outhouse (read: a hole in the ground) for a bathroom, it’s safe to say I was lightyears outside of my comfort zone. But sitting under the stars that night sipping tea with other foreigners and talking about everything from the joys of traveling to what it’s like to have kids, I felt a sense of accomplishment—not only could I survive, but I could thrive and really enjoying doing something totally new for me.

In Egypt, we visited to slums of a river town not far from Luxor. I thought I had seen the “third world” on trips to Central and South America, but nothing I’d seen was even close to the devastating poverty I saw on my walk through this town. I had to step over mounds of mosquito-infested trash that included feces along a street adorned with makeshift huts that consisted of slabs of wood and a piece of cloth for the roof. But what surprised me most was how happy and satisfied the villagers seemed. We walked through a market and watched some fishermen fry up the catch of the day while they hammed it up for the photos we took of their labors. The children loved to run up to us and scream the only English word they know—“Hello!” while they wave and jump up and down, trying to get our attention. And they just kept smiling—everyone in that town had a smile on their face, laughing with their families and friends as they went about their day amid conditions most of us in the Western world could scarcely imagine.

And the best part of visiting these towns was talking with the locals, who were more than eager to practice their English and share their thoughts on life in their country. I also learned that most people in this world are fundamentally decent humans who will really try to help you if they can. I was amazed by how many locals would stop to ask if we needed directions or try really hard to communicate with us even if they didn’t know English well. I hate to say it, but I personally wouldn’t have gone out of my way to help strangers prior to this trip. I shudder to admit that I actually say no when tourists in NYC ask me to take their photo when I’m rushing to get to my next work meeting. The philosophy of individualism that dominates in America—the idea that we all need to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and make our own way in the world without help—is not felt as strongly, if at all, in other countries. I was so humbled by the generosity so many showed us, and it inspired me to give back in my own life by adopting a more empathetic stance toward others.

My experiences on this trip taught me that doing things in life that have nothing to do with how you make money can teach you a lot—about yourself, about the world, about humanity. I do feel changed from participating in different cultures and experiences that I never would have sought out had I not taken this trip. Many of my friends and family who have followed my journey on social media have made comments like “Who are you?” when they’ve seen pictures of me riding camels in the desert or slathered in mud at the Dead Sea. My uncle even said to me that my pictures on Facebook are “not of the Brittany I know.” But far from betraying who I am as a person, I am expanding my set of experiences and growing because of it. In fact, those comments made me feel embarrassed—had I really limited myself that much by not doing things in the past?

But luckily, the journey isn’t over yet—my husband and I are leaving for a tour of Eastern Africa in just a couple of days. He wants us to trek through the wilderness and explore the parts of Africa that are hard to get to for most travelers. As you can probably tell about me by now, that’s also pretty far from my comfort zone. But you know what? I think I’m going to do it.

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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