Tag Archives: travel

I Attended a Whipping Ceremony in Ethiopia

This blog was originally published by Ravishly on May 4, 2017.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I traveled to the southern Ethiopia as part of an extended trip we are taking around the world. We spent six days in the Omo Valley, a part of the country composed mostly of small villages where different tribes live and work on their farms. Tourism is just starting to move into this area of the country, but most of the Omo Valley remains untouched by Western influence and is one of the few parts of the world where African tribes still exist.

As part of our tour, my husband and I had the chance to witness a “bull jumping ceremony,” which is a rite of passage for tribal boys before they marry. The boys must run across the backs of bulls naked four times without falling to be successful, and once they pass this test, they go from being boys to men, ready for marriage.

Though the ceremony may sound strange to Westerners, the substance of it seems innocuous enough — sure, the boy could fall during the jump, but is unlikely to sustain serious injuries (save for a bruised ego). However, before the kid jumps, women and girls in his family must partake in what is known as a “whipping ceremony.” Other men in the village who have recently completed their bull jumps take on the roles of “whippers,” and use sticks fashioned into makeshift whips to hit the women and girls. The whipping is supposed to signify women’s strength and their commitment to the boy who is jumping. The more whipping, the better, because scars from the wounds are also considered beautiful and desirable in this tribe’s culture.

As a feminist, violence against women is an issue I care about deeply, and one I have worked to raise awareness of in my professional career as a writer and communications strategist. I have written extensively about rape culture in military institutions, about sexual assault on college campuses, and about populations particularly vulnerable to intimate partner violence, like immigrants. In college, I volunteered at a domestic violence organization outside of Providence, Rhode Island, and spent time as a court advocate for survivors of domestic abuse.

But in all these years of writing, studying, and talking about violence against women, I never actually witnessed an instance of violence against a woman, at least physical violence. I never saw a woman get raped or sexually assaulted. I never saw a man hit his wife or girlfriend.

Part of what has shielded me from violence is my privilege.

Even though violence against women occurs in every stratum, including the white upper-middle-class community that surrounded me, it was underground, safe from the earshot or eyesight of neighbors.

So it was in this context that I walked with my husband and our guide into the whipping ceremony. I knew what I was about to see, but I was woefully unprepared for how I would feel. The first woman I saw get whipped already had deep scars all over her back, from previous ceremonies. Part of the tradition calls for women and girls to beg the men to whip them. They are supposed to ask to get whipped and antagonize men to hit them harder. Deeper scars show higher intensities of commitment to the men in these women’s families.

The crack of the whip on flesh is a sound I won’t easily forget. The men doling out the whips didn’t hold back either — they walloped these women, enough to draw blood that dripped all the way down some of the women’s backs. As I watched, I concentrated on the women’s faces, for any sign of distress, pain, or reluctance, but I saw none. They looked proud, defiant even, not so much as flinching as the sharp stick cut into their backs.

I walked into the ceremony with a commitment to very consciously avoid imposing my own judgments on the women and men participating in the whipping ceremony.
My guide had told me that the women and girls were extremely happy to participate in the ceremony, because of the reasons mentioned above; enduring the whipping showed their commitment to their families, and the scars were considered beautiful. Also, the women related to the boys jumping over the bulls were happy to celebrate his initiation into manhood and his intention to marry. It was a joyous occasion for all, I was told.

And yes, the women did seem happy, as they danced and sang in between taking turns getting whipped on their chests, stomachs, and backs. But all I felt watching them was pure terror and anxiety. I had to hold myself back from following my gut instinct to run out there and put myself between the stick and the woman. I cried when I watched a pregnant woman get whipped on her chest and back, and I sobbed when a woman, who had to be at least 70, stepped into the ring, offering her back to the boy with the stick.

The whipping part of the ceremony happens intermittently throughout the day, so there are breaks in between the whippings. But even during these breaks, my anxiety levels remained high. I couldn’t concentrate on what my guide was saying and kept nervously looking around, never turning my back to any man or boy I saw carrying a stick. I felt that at any moment, someone was going hit me with a whip. I know that sounds illogical, but I felt a profound sense of being unsafe — like violence could strike me at any second.

After posting my account of the whipping ceremony on Facebook, a former professor of mine shared her own experience of witnessing a female circumcision ceremony in Kenya, also known as female genital mutilation. According to my professor, the girls participating in these ceremonies were jubilant, overjoyed to get their clitorises cut off because it would signify they were finally “real” women. The cost of foregoing circumcision is high and often means being shunned by the community, with little to no chance of marriage.

While whipping carries far fewer physical consequences than circumcision, the symbolic consequences are similar: both practices send the message that violence against women is not only acceptable, it is necessary for them to be considered real and proper women by society’s standard.
Part of what allows communities to justify these instances of violence is that the women and girls ostensibly want to participate in these ceremonies and are happy to get whipped or circumcised. Women begging to be beaten and antagonizing men to hit them harder is a way to exonerate men from perpetrating the violence — how can they be blamed for hitting these women and girls when they literally asked for it?

The Ethiopian government has made attempts to abolish whipping ceremonies, as well as other violent traditions practiced in the Omo Valley, but with very little success. According to the guides I talked with, the tribes have resisted attempts to stop these ceremonies, which they deem critical to the preservation of their culture and way of life; they resent the government intrusion.

As an American feminist, I know how dangerous it can be for Western feminists to critically analyze the practices and behaviors of other cultures, and I was keenly aware of how my Western sensibilities could affect the way I was perceiving and interpreting the whipping ceremony. Western feminists have been criticized for regarding some cultures’ treatment of women as backward, the products of ignorance and a lack of education, a barbarism that emerges in the isolation of tribes from civilization.

Western feminists have also been accused of taking a paternalistic, patronizing approach to women in third world countries, attempting to “save them” from practices considered uncivilized or barbaric. Unsurprisingly, women in these countries have not been so keen to engage with Western feminists under these terms, which they perceive as disrespectful.

For these reasons, I attempted to suspend any judgment or critical thinking about what I saw until after the ceremony, when I had the time and space to process my feelings. What emerged were not so many judgments, but connections to ways in which other societies — including my own in the United States — encourage women’s submission to violence.

Observing the whipping ceremony in Ethiopia made me reflect on parallel practices in U.S. culture. How often do women submit to violence — either at the hands of others or from themselves, to prove that they are real, desirable women? How many women starve themselves or undergo medically unnecessary, risky, and painful plastic surgery to achieve societal standards of beauty? How many women get ripped apart by police officers, defense attorneys, and judges for wearing short skirts, getting too drunk, or walking home alone? They were asking to be raped or sexually assaulted, weren’t they? How many women tell themselves that submitting to their husband or boyfriend’s fists is a way to prove their love? That a broken jaw or a bruised face is the sacrifice they make for their marriage or relationship to survive?

Every society tells stories that justify why people do what they do, or why people are the way they are. Men in Ethiopia can cut women’s backs with sticks because the women are asking for it. Men in the U.S. can rape women who wear short skirts because that means they’re asking for it.

But if we look deeper into these stories about ourselves and our worlds, we may find a common theme — that women are complicit in violence against themselves not because the “choice” is a real one, but because the consequences of abstaining are far too high.

It is much easier, and the rewards are greater, to submit to violence than to defy it — in Ethiopia and other societies. Continuing to define womanhood in ways that demand or support violence against women will only ensure the continuation of such practices.

10 Fascinating Quotes From Women Around The Globe

I recently completed a half-year journey around the world where I visited twenty different countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In each country I visited, I interviewed women to understand their perspectives on what life is like for women in their countries. I asked women to tell me about the greatest challenges women face where they’re from as well as what being a woman has meant in their own lives. Many women were hopefully optimistic about the state of gender equality in their country while others were more cynical and pointed out that while laws may guarantee rights for women, culture and tradition often usurps legal protections.

While I attempted to diversify my sample in terms of age, race, and region (I interviewed women in cities, small towns, and villages), these interviews are in no way representative of women at-large in the countries I visited. However, they do provide an interesting snapshot of women’s lives across the globes. They also remind us that despite women’s differences, in some ways the challenges we face are universal. Issues like domestic violence, workplace discrimination, and sexism in politics are happening everywhere, though the extent to which women can stand up and safely resist these threats to equality vary by country.

I am grateful to the more than 40 women who took the time to talk with me and answer my questions. Here are 10 of the most fascinating quotes from women around the world:

1. Egypt

Egypt

“The Middle East in general is tough for women, though Egypt is getting better. It’s not so much the laws but the tradition. The Constitution gives women rights but the problem is the Constitution in people’s minds. But it’s getting better…women now have the right to be president, that’s a pretty good step. When I first became a tour guide my family became really angry with me, because it’s not proper for women to travel all the time. But now they are so proud of me. So it’s getting better…women are stepping past the lines in Egypt and they might get pushed back in, but they keep crossing them anyway.”

2. Jordan

Jordan

“Everyone can do anything in Jordan now- dress, talk, and do what they want because it’s a tourist place so it’s more open. Education is the most important thing for boys and girls, and girls are going to the University now too. Without education, there are no opportunities.”

3. Sweden

Sweden

“Men at work definitely talk more. In meetings I often want to say things but can’t get to it because the men are talking. But personally, I have always been surrounded by men who think gender equality is important. I could never date someone who didn’t want to actively be a part of the change. That is a core value for me, and it would need to be the same in any partner I have. Otherwise I would lose respect for them.”

4. Rwanda

Rwanda

“We had good leadership after the genocide. Before 1994, there was a lot of gender inequality, but since then the government has promoted women in all spheres of life and has empowered us in education and jobs. Women are now taught to be producers rather than just consumers. When I was a child, we thought official jobs out in the world were for men only, but now we can do them too. Women in Rwanda are happy leadership recognizes that women matter a lot in every sphere of life.”

5. Myanmar

Myanmar

“Because of religion, people get married right away, like 18 or 19 years old. All of my younger sisters got married at 18. I’m 28 and still single. I have ambitions and I need to make money. Life is getting expensive here, and having children will cost a lot. My grandma still lives with us, so I need to be able to take care of her too, with money and with love. I want a boyfriend but a boy isn’t going to be happy about me going around the country as a tour guide. He will want to know my schedule and I can’t give him one. I want to be free.”

6. Norway

Norway

“Norway is very equal on paper, but even though we have the 40% quota there are still more men that are mayors than women. Leaders of big companies and leaders of boards are still men too. I became the Mayor of this town by gaining respect of the people. I was already known around here because I worked in the bank for 20 years. I also didn’t have any children and my husband has passed, so it was easier for me in that way. But if women or girls are willing to take the challenge, there are more possibilities. You have to really want it. And in order to make it as a female you have to be flawless; if you know you aren’t, you hesitate. When I took the step to become Mayor it was very fun. And it has been an honor.”

7. Indonesia

Indonesia

“I own my own business, a lot of women in Bali do too. Patriarchy might be strong in the countryside, but in the city it’s pretty modern. I opened this place 2 weeks ago, I’m excited!”

8. Mozambique

Mozambique

“One of the biggest problems for women in Mozambique is the ‘lobolo’ tradition- when a man marries a woman, he has to pay her family money. But if they get divorced, she has to find a way to pay him back the money. So that creates bad situations where women are forced to stay in marriages when they can’t pay back their lobolo.”

9. Namibia

Namibia

“In Namibia, women basically have equal rights in employment…there are no gaps. All jobs from security to jobs in the kitchen are pretty equal. The biggest challenge women face is in the home- abuse. The rate of ‘passion killings’ is high in Namibia. And this is a challenge that men must face too.” (Note: ‘Passion killings’ is a term used for murders of women by intimate partners)

10. United States

United States

“When I was young, I worked off the books in a restaurant. I was just grateful to be working, because my family needed the money. But because my wages were never put down, I wasn’t paying into Social Security. I worked for years and years but it’s like all that work never happened, because my employers didn’t put it on the books. So now I’m a widow but my Social Security check is very little. I wish I had known better, but they didn’t teach girls to look out for themselves in jobs back then- we were lucky just to get hired at all.”

Visit the Women of the World Blog to see more interviews and photos of women around the globe.

Travel Notes: The Pain of Beauty

In many societies around the world, being beautiful involves engaging in practices that cause physical pain and in some cases severe health consequences. That is, the endurance of pain is intimately connected with cultural standards of beauty.

In some Ethiopian communities, women are whipped with sticks until their backs bleed in a testament to their commitment to the men of their village; the scars they develop from getting their backs slashed open are considered beautiful and desirable.

In Myanmar and Thailand, female members of the Padaung tribe (so-called “giraffe women”) wear brass rings around their necks to make them appear longer. The rings are so tight that over time the clavicle becomes deformed which is what causes the appearance of a lengthened neck. At one point the tribal members claimed that the rings offered women protection from tiger attacks, but now that tigers are no longer a threat the practice still continues in the name of cultural beauty.

I can’t help but also notice the silencing symbolism in placing the coils around the throat, thereby restricting vocal cords.

The governments in these countries have attempted to outlaw and curtail these cultural practices, but with limited success. Tribal members have resisted these efforts, claiming that perpetuating these practices is a way to preserve their culture.

In defense of these practices, tribal members will invoke the concept of freedom: if women want to participate in these beauty rituals (and ostensibly, they do), then why is the government interfering with our right to carry out our own traditions? Importantly, women’s consent is critical to the perpetuation of such practices. Ethiopian women participating in the whipping ceremonies literally beg the men to whip them more, as the deeper the scars the more beautiful they become. Similarly, women in Myanmar and Thailand are proud of their coils and enjoy wearing them.

Of course, the extent to which this “consent” is the result of a free and informed decision is highly suspect. When a culture defines beauty—and therefore, womanhood– by the endurance of painful rituals like whipping and the neck coils, women must comply to be accepted in their societies. The consequences of abstaining, of deviating from deeply ingrained cultural norms, are often far too high.

In Myanmar at least, I’ve heard reports of younger generations of girls refusing to wear the neck coils, which may indicate progress on the horizon. But we cannot place the burden of stopping these harmful behaviors on women alone—men also need to push back against the idea that a woman must suffer pain in order to be considered beautiful.

See more of what I’m learning on my 6-month trip around the world on my blog, Women of the World.

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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4 Ways Life Overseas is Different (and maybe better) than in America

For the past five weeks, I have been privileged to take some time off and travel the world with my husband. Our journey will last about six months in total, and will take us across every continent except for Antarctica. In the process, I have been interviewing women and their families in different countries to better understand the issues women face abroad and how they are both similar and different from those experienced in the U.S. I’m documenting these interviews on my blog, Women of the World.

So far, I’ve traveled through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Italy. Some of these countries are the most progressive in the world when it comes to gender equality, and I’ve learned valuable lessons not only about gender, but about ways of life for Europeans that in some ways seem to be healthier, happier ways of being compared to how we live in the U.S.

The 4 things I’ve learned about life overseas are specific to my experience—they are not meant to perfectly represent life for everyone in these countries, but rather provide a snapshot from the people I’ve talked to and my observations so far.

1. Work is NOT the center of life
In many of the countries I’ve visited, work is not as intimately bound up with one’s identity as it often is in the U.S. Many European professionals go to work at about 9am in the morning and return by 4 or 5pm. And when they come home, they’re done with work—there’s no incessant need to check e-mail after-hours or even talk much about work at all. Instead, things like time with family and outside hobbies are more important. But work isn’t unimportant to Europeans—in fact, every person I talked to takes a lot of pride in their work, it just doesn’t take center stage in their lives. And in addition to working fewer hours, Europeans get more vacation time too—in fact, it’s a law that every country in the European Union provide 4 weeks of paid vacation to employees. To me, this seems like a way more balanced way of living.

2. Parental leave is amazing
Parental leave is not just a lofty policy ideal like it is in the U.S., but a real benefit that both women AND men are entitled to in many countries. For example, parents in Sweden get 480 days of leave at 80% pay that parents can split up however they choose, and that’s after 18 weeks reserved just for new moms. Additionally, dads get 90 days of leave reserved specifically for them. In Estonia, parents get more than a year—435 days—to share after maternity leave ends, and are paid the average of both their wages.

Caregiving is valued in many countries, and government makes it a lot easier for families to combine work and family– in addition to generous parental leave, childcare is also way more affordable. In Finland, government-funded childcare is free to all parents with children age 7 and under. And if parents choose not to use childcare and stay at home to care for their children, they get paid for it.

"Work/life balance is still probably my biggest challenge. But I think it's a big challenge for men too, not just women. We all work outside of the home and inside too and it's hard, it's a lot for anyone." -Finland
“Work/life balance is still probably my biggest challenge. But I think it’s a big challenge for men too, not just women. We all work outside of the home and inside too and it’s hard, it’s a lot for anyone.” -Finland

3. The idea of a level playing field actually exists
In the U.S., we believe that all men and women are created equal, and that there is opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard. But in reality, not all opportunities are created equal. For example, where you can afford to live greatly impacts the quality of public schools available to your children, and there are stark differences between wealthy and poor neighborhoods around the country in terms of educational attainment and success. And with skyrocketing costs of college, many Americans either can’t afford to go or, if they do, are then saddled with crushing debt that affects their economic security for the rest of their lives.

In places like Finland, public schools are more or less equal in quality and even state universities are free. Students in Norway typically pay a fee of 50 euros per semester at public universities. In these countries, making education more or less equal regardless of family income or background is the solution to leveling the playing field and giving every citizen a truly equal chance.

4. Men have more freedom to define their own masculinity
In the U.S., we’ve made a lot of progress toward breaking down gender roles and prescriptions about how men and women ought to behave. But compared to some European countries, we have a long way to go. In my travels, I have been struck by how some of the men I’ve met seem much more willing to express emotions and talk about things we almost never hear men talk about in the U.S., like mental illness and eating disorders. I met one young man who had taken sick leave from his job because he was struggling with depression. He talked about his challenges so openly and honestly, without an ounce of embarrassment or shame. And the fact that he actually could take months of leave from work to deal with his mental illness is amazing itself—as he put it: “We might pay a lot in taxes here, but when you get sick—physically or mentally—our country will take care of you.”

It’s true that the way of life for Europeans is due in large part to their bigger governments, and therefore, higher taxes. Yet, working families often don’t feel strained because of it—in fact, Norwegians enjoy a higher disposable income than the average working family in the U.S. For many Europeans, providing these benefits is a part of their culture—they truly value caregiving, family, and equality and couldn’t imagine life any other way.

While I absolutely love my country and am proud to be an American, I think it’s a good idea to look beyond our borders and take some lessons from other successful countries back to the U.S. Bringing more balance and fulfillment into American lives can only make us stronger.

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