Female and Foreign in the Middle East

Today I had been planning to write a funny, lighthearted, slightly mushy late-Valentine’s Day post about my most useful accoutrement these days: my husband. I’ve been noticing lately that the difference between walking around as a single young woman in the Middle East and walking around on the arm of your husband is pretty significant. I have to say that I vastly prefer the latter. But my playful mood evaporated when Bridget’s blog alerted me to something truly stomach-churning that happened last week.

If you are female and foreign in the Middle East, regular harassment by the opposite gender is a fact of life. I know the Middle East is not the only place where it happens (it was pretty frequent in some areas on my mission in South America, and I’ve been harassed in the U.S. too), but here it is so predictable that it’s tempting to take it almost as a resigned joke. Except that really it’s not funny at all.

Having neither blonde hair nor blue eyes, I was one of the lucky ones in my study abroad group to Damascus. Nothing dramatic happened to me. Only the constant catcalling and that familiar “sssssss” as I walked down each and every street. Luckily, I didn’t know enough Arabic (especially of that sort) to recognize what those men were saying to me. I was only groped once in four whole months (but once was enough!). And my 20-year-old single self thought it was a fairly amusing pastime to tally up the numerous casual marriage proposals. But even when I try to laugh it off or ignore it, I can’t deny the real ways in which those experiences have affected my life. Such as my taxi phobia. Or that time I tried to learn Italian online.

This time in Tunisia, though, has been much better. In fact, I haven’t heard so much as an offensive mutter from a man. This is doubly remarkable because of the fact that Tunisia is full of European-style street cafes. Just like in Italy, the wide sidewalks are crowded with outside tables, leaving space in between for people to walk. But do a double take, and you’ll realize that, unlike in Italy, every person at every table is a man. (Supposedly, women-only cafes also exist, but they are so well hidden you have to ask a local where they are.) I only did that double-take once, because that’s also when I realized that every single one of those dozens of men was staring straight at me. But I’ve experienced no unwanted comments or advances, there or anywhere else.

At first I (wishfully) thought that perhaps those sorts of problems just don’t exist in Tunisia. However, Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide are unanimous in their warnings about harassment, although they each have their own clever techniques for dealing with it. So I had to conclude that it must be my own habits. And then it hit me. I haven’t been out alone here. Not once.

The closest I’ve come to being alone was Sunday afternoon, when we were walking home from the Louage Station a few blocks from our house. Tony kept lagging behind me more and more, even when I slowed down to wait for him. I was mildly annoyed because it was just as we were walking by a row of street cafes, all of which were absolutely full of men. I was somewhat more annoyed when he told me that he had slowed down on purpose because he had noticed some of them staring at me, and he wanted to gauge the full extent of the staring. Sure enough, he observed that as soon as we weren’t walking together, the staring got much more obvious and universal. Of course it did. And no doubt if he were to drop back further still or conceal himself behind a blind for completely disguised viewing, he could sooner or later witness it escalating into more invasive forms of harassment. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s an experiment I can do without.

Excuse the sarcasm, Tony and everyone else. This is an uncomfortable topic, and I feel angry and powerless and terrified all at once reading about what happened to Lara Logan. I know my husband truly didn’t mean to make me uncomfortable. It was just his first experience with this particular Middle Eastern phenomenon, and he was genuinely surprised. And ever since we got here, he has graciously gone grocery shopping at the various corner markets in our neighborhood, so I don’t have to walk the gauntlet of salacious stares. I’ve always enjoyed doing things together, but now I have extra reason to really like his company whenever I go out. Hopefully it won’t take me too long to psych myself up to venture out alone. In the meantime, although I’m already enamored with my husband in a thoroughly enlightened, modern, egalitarian way, he now appeals to me in a sort of courtly medieval protector role as well. It feels a little obscene in a way, like marrying for money or a green card. Or maybe I feel uncomfortably like I’ve walked into a Victorian novel. In any case, it’s a viable solution to a definite problem. But I won’t be taking up fainting or embroidery anytime soon.

2 thoughts on “Female and Foreign in the Middle East

  • March 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    It’s a shame men made you feel uncomfortable. But there’s something you need to know in order to understand the phenomenon. Many single women come regularly for sex or even for prostitution. They built this reputation of the Western Slut (sorry for the term) sleeping with anyone willing to. A decent and married woman even very beautiful won’t go through any of this. At least I hope so 🙂

  • February 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Sometimes I make Jeremy walk slightly behind me so he blocks the view of others toward me. It helps. Sad we even have to think about this.


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