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Challenge Your Assumptions! A Dialogue in Abu Dhabi

1 May 2012 No Comment

Michelle Pomeroy

Michelle Pomeroy
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

“As women, there are many shared experiences that make lifestyle differences seem less dividing to our shared humanness. Our gathering created such a moment.”

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“I am very tired of the idea that any woman who is covered is somehow oppressed and forced to do so. There is always a choice, even if the amount and source of pressure is different,” Khulood, a local Emirati, said. “You may have noticed tourists from Saudi Arabia often wear secular, Western clothing when they’re on vacation in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. I asked a friend from Saudi why this was the case, and she said her family doesn’t expect it. It’s just the law in Saudi, so they do. There are many reasons for covering.”

Khulood, the well-spoken recipient of one of the UAE’s most prestigious scholarships, is a trendy, educated working professional on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus. She wears the traditional Emirati attire: a full-length, flowing black abaya and lightweight sheila to cover her hair. Khulood is one of the six members, three Muslims (Turkish, American, and Emirati) and three Americans of Christian heritage, who gathered for a cross-cultural gender dialogue as an activity for the International Women’s Forum I recently helped organize on campus. One of the diverse group’s main goals is to explore the cultural similarities and differences that affect women’s place and role in our respective societies.

Emiratis comprise roughly twenty percent of the UAE population and the remaining residents are often working only temporarily in the country, often maintaining their own cultures for the duration of their stay. The resulting diversity is more pronounced than what I observed during my years in New York, and the crossover amongst different cultures is much less. Our group provided an ideal environment to have rare, open discussions across typical social interaction lines.

With a plate of chocolate chip cookies and four conversation-provoking questions, we reflected on our own cultures’ expectations for females, challenges facing women, benefits of being a woman in each culture, and the stereotypes about different groups of women and how their society treats them. (Each person could choose to define her culture as regional, ethnic, religious, or national.) It led to some passionate moments.

“Don’t you think that is just wrong! I think that is just awful and unnatural.” Damla, a Turkish university student, reacted, clearly upset by what Khulood was explaining about the Emirati’s expectations for social separation of men and women.

Khulood, keenly aware and informed about the spectrum of conservatism throughout the UAE, discussed the segregation of sexes in the country and the taboo of relationships between (unmarried) men and women. Her own family is quite open to her being friends with both boys and girls. Over the last four years, she says she has noticed more families becoming the same way, though she and her family used to be strongly criticized for such behavior.

“Nothing in the Qur’an says men and women cannot interact,” Khulood corrects. “But the Qur’an says it is it is okay as long a door is cracked completely open. The strict separation of sexes comes from weird cultural expectations.”

Khulood has always been willing to challenge Muslims who confront her by pointing out what is and what is not actually based on the religion of Islam. She says that shame, ayib, and social pressure become the most powerful forces in the society; they keep people from challenging tradition.

Damla’s reaction to Emirati culture led to a discussion about how people in any culture, not just Emiratis, actually do or do not evaluate social norms that seem reasonable from within that society. We continued on to discuss Western media’s pressure for women to maintain a flawless physique that radiates sexuality, the acceptability (or lack thereof) of women who stay at home and rely on the husband to be the financial provider, and expectations for women as caregivers, among other topics. In questioning social norms related to women, it’s not just a matter of looking at Muslim societies and asking if the women are oppressed or if matters of conservatism are taken too far. Let’s look at the bigger picture. Do women who wear revealing clothing in America or elsewhere question the motivations and forces that drive them to do so? Is there a strong evaluation of whether having females in high-level careers or raising children holds more importance, despite what certain social norms claim?

While we were learning a great deal about the nuances that shaped one another’s backgrounds, it was the laughter that bonded our group, as we shared awkward public experiences in Abu Dhabi or verbally acknowledged customarily unspoken stereotypes about one another’s cultures. Damla inspired the loudest round of giggles when she suggested Ladies’ Nights as one of the primary benefits of being a woman. Hotly debated, but humorous nonetheless.

Despite similarities and differences, each person has the responsibility to reexamine their culture’s norms before assuming their culture’s inherent legitimacy or another’s shortcomings. As women there are many shared experiences that can bridge the divides created by lifestyle differences. Our gathering created such a moment.

I urge others to try to create a similar experience to mine.  You can create a formal group or just make the effort to invite colleagues of different backgrounds for honest conversation over coffee. If you live in a place that doesn’t have much cultural diversity, use the personal stories from places like Connection Point to reflect on your own culture or challenge the assumptions you might have about those you do not truly understand.

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Follow the Connection Point initiative on Twitter: @Connection_Pt

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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