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The First Lady's Ladies First

Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

We’re low on quality television here in the desert. Near as I can tell, about ninety percent of programming falls into one of two categories: hyper-dramatic Arab music videos or what appear to be Koran-based game shows. Accordingly, the small sliver of time I’m able to waste watching television is usually devoted to the lone all-English network, BBC World News.
I caught the tail end of an interview with former first lady Laura Bush the other day. She was discussing the importance of safeguarding women’s rights in Afghanistan as negotiations with the Taliban get underway. One can’t really to disagree with that position. Never mind that yesterday on Al Jazeera I watched an interview with a Taliban official who did just that. Needless to say, that guy didn’t convince me. But I found myself put off by some of what Laura was saying as well. Namely, she referred to the necessarily slow speed at which women’s rights in the Muslim world progress, and attributed this developmental lethargy to a “deep seated misogyny” within Muslim culture. This irked me. Something about applying the word “misogyny” to an entire culture just seemed wrong.
Admittedly, Mrs. Bush was speaking about Afghan – not Arab –culture. As such, I can’t speak with much authority about the merits of her statement (hell, I can’t speak with much authority about anything). Still, it reminded me of the conception of gender relations which I held before showing up in Amman. Since living here, however, my view has grown a little more nuanced.
True, women in Jordan and Arab countries in general, are largely without the opportunities enjoyed by their stateside counterparts. True, I’ve heard endless complaints by the American women in this program about the unwritten nation-wide dress code: if we can see your knees, shoulders, or the whites of your eyes, you may as well be a prostitute. True, there are to this day occasional reports of “honor killings” in Jordan, wherein men murder their sisters or daughters whom they suspect of sexual indiscretion. Ok, I admit, this is starting to sound a lot like misogyny. And at the very least, in the case of the latter it clearly is.
But we in the states have terrible people who commit heinous acts of violence against women also, and whereas we can agree that cultural factors are often involved, we don’t go so far as to call American or Western or Secular culture inherently misogynistic. To a degree unheard of in the states, Arab culture views men and women as inherently different. But the word misogyny is wrapped up the idea of disdain for women. And that is not at all something I have personally noticed here. In fact, many of the norms most associated with Arab cultural “misogyny” are, I would argue, actually practiced out of a deep respect for women and their roles within society. I am aware that the very idea of differentiating between the sexes in any way is uncomfortable to most Americans, myself included. And I would not argue that this social divide is something I would advocate for the U.S. But that doesn’t mean we have to label it as inherently wrong either.
As a man, the most difficult thing about studying here is learning how to talk to women. It’s sort of like being in the 7th grade all over again. That is, if I were to approach a random woman on the street, if only to ask for directions, I would be implying that I hold so little respect for her that I don’t care whether the locals see us having a conversation in public. Such would be an act that implies a degree of familiarity, and therefore – if she’s married, for example – will raise questions among the community. That said, it isn’t the case that as a man I’m never permitted to speak to women. But navigating the complexities of proper time and situation has proven stressful on more than one occasion. I recall leaning over to a girl in the computer lab at school to ask the meaning of a word from my Arabic homework. She wore an all black hijab and trench coat in spite of the 90 degree heat and was visibly nervous at my request. She, answered in a hushed voice, and I communicated my gratitude. She smiled a little and nodded, but quickly added that she could not help me with any more words. The American girls I know here find this forced distance to be very degrading. But many of the Jordanian women with whom I’ve spoken consider these rules to signify reverence for their sex – not derision of it.
In fact, message I get from women here is an oddly familiar one. That is, just as we in the States think of women in the Middle East as oppressed, those over here think of women in the States as exploited. For my part, I see truth in both views. We see women in burkas and say: “Look at what men force them to do!”; They see women in rap videos and say the same.
My point, if I have one, is that both cultures have pretty dismal records of treating women fairly. But it’s not fair to pat ourselves on the back for having more gender equality than the Muslim world without confronting realities of both cultures. I think most women in the States would rather take the (relatively) equal opportunity of the U.S. along with the objectification of sexuality that comes with it. Likewise, most of the women I’ve spoken to here are quite happy to accept many –though admittedly not all –of their current limitations in exchange for the respect (and make no mistake, in most cases it is a form of respect) that they here receive. I for one am an optimist, and I see no reason that the best of both worlds can’t find its way into both worlds.

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