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Here’s What It’s Like To Be An American Lesbian In The Middle East

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women in the middle east

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Interview By Katie Foote (Epicure & Culture Contributor); Answers by Chivvis Moore

Living in Brazil as a child sparked a desire in Chivvis Moore, an American lesbian, feminist and author, to learn about other places and cultures. Inspired by a book about an Egyptian architect, she booked a flight to Cairo, though knew little about the culture and religion of this predominantly Muslim country. From there she had the opportunity to work in Egypt, Syria and Israel before teaching at Birzeit University in the West Bank. The entire trip through the Middle East lasted 15 years.

Her book, First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God, explains her experience to people who can’t comprehend why an American LGBT female would desire such an adventure.  She writes,

Why, I was asked, would I want to live in an Arab country? Don’t Arabs hate the United States? Don’t they resent our freedom? Don’t they all want to kill us? Aren’t I afraid? Surely a woman traveling alone can’t want to live in a Muslim country—considered by definition a misogynist society.

I understand why people ask these questions. I see the same news they watch each evening on television. I read the newspapers they read.  To the French women of that evening long ago, to other Europeans, and to my fellow US citizens, this book is my effort to answer these questions and others I have been asked.

For those of you who don’t have immediate access to the book, Moore agreed to share some of her experiences with Epicure & Culture through an exclusive interview.  She describes daily life, navigating her identity, interacting with men and other women in the Middle East, and gaining a better understanding of Muslim culture (hint: the answers may surprise you).

Before visiting the Arab World, Moore earned a BA from Harvard University and worked as a journalist. She has also earned her living as a carpenter and general building contractor, an editor and researcher, and a teacher of English for Academic Purposes.

women in the middle east

Chivvis and master carpenter. Photo courtesy of Chivvis Moore.

1) What first drew you to the Arabic culture and Middle East? 

I first decided to go to an Arab country in 1978. I made up my mind after reading a book by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, where he described building houses of mud brick for poor people. I was working as a carpenter, and wanted to volunteer on his projects. In those days US citizens were just as ignorant of Arab and Muslim culture, but there was not the violent anti-Arab and Islamophobic rhetoric there is now.

2) A lot of people are deterred from visiting because of myths about how women are lesser beings. Did you take any of this seriously enough to think twice about visiting?

Egypt brought to my mind pyramids, tombs and hieroglyphics. I had heard almost nothing about Arab or Muslim women, and our country was not yet using the myth of the repressed Muslim woman as an excuse for war. So no, these were not concerns of mine before I went.

Returning to the Arab world in 1992, I already expected to love wherever I went. I had known when I left Egypt that I would want to return to learn which of the strands had attracted me so: did I love Egypt primarily because of special qualities that country had? Would I love any Arab country? Any Muslim country? I went because my life had opened in a way to allow it, because I had chronic fatigue and knew that among Arabs I would find emotional sustenance, and because I wanted to understand more about the situation in both Israel and Palestine. Although I went first to Syria, my ultimate destination was to be Palestine.

women in the middle east

Woman in Egypt. Photo courtesy of Chivvis Moore.

3) In the book you talk about how foreign women avoid the gender classification that local women are expected to follow. Did you find this awkward or empowering? 

Any time I felt myself being treated differently from local women I had to look at what this meant. When I was invited to eat with men while the women ate in another part of the house, I had to look at why. Would the women of the house have preferred to be eating with the men and their guest? I doubted it. I was always aware of a lively, self-contained women’s world existing in another part of the house. When I was allowed to join this part of the household, I always found it warm, informal, animated. I suspected that the women, given a choice, would have preferred, just as I did, eating in one another’s company to eating in the formal dining room.

On the other hand, I was allowed to work in the carpenter’s shop, as the carpenter’s daughter would not have been. This was clearly unfair and – yes – awkward. And it was, of course, simultaneously empowering: as a result of my special status as “foreigner” I received the gift of learning this craft. Had my life been like that of many Egyptian woman – consisting of preparing food, caring for children and running a household, perhaps while also working in an office, bank, or school — I would have found that about as easy as I would have found such a life in my own country; that is, not easy at all.

Here’s why your view of #MiddleEast culture may not be correct #women #culture Click To Tweet

women in the middle east

Bread for sale! Photo credit: Agence France Presse.

4) In your experience, what ways are Muslim women freer than Western women? 

In my opinion Muslim women are freer than Western women in not being expected to show their bodies in scant or revealing clothing, in not feeling they are socially “out of it” if they don’t have sex before marriage, in not having to date. I felt trapped in my own culture when I was a young woman, feeling pressure to do these things.

Some, though not all, Muslim women are free also in having a home and social life mainly with other women, and in living in extended families, as opposed to the closed male-dominated nuclear family in which I grew up [where] a child no adults other than her own parent(s) from whom to draw support. I am aware, however, that extended families also have their drawbacks.

The roots of the first group of characteristics come from Islam, a religion that calls for what is termed a certain “modesty” in dress and sexual behavior from both women and men. The extended family tradition, although for many reasons this is changing in many Muslim cultures, was once fairly universal throughout the world. The nuclear family – the term was coined only in the 20th century — appeared in Western Europe and New England as late as in the 17th century, under the influence of the Christian church and theocratic governments.

5) Did you experience any sexual harassment or discrimination based on your gender while abroad? 

As a lesbian who lived 16 years in three different Arab countries with Muslim majorities, I can say I never encountered any prejudice directed at me. But the whole issue of sex is far more private than it is in the West; it’s hard to figure out who is gay. Even a heterosexual Muslim couple will not hold hands, much less kiss, in public; and certainly I was never asked about my sexuality. Also, while I would not have feared for my physical safety had I been “out,” I did worry that those who cared about me would reject me socially if they knew I was a lesbian. And it was clear that any intimate relationship I might initiate with an Arab woman would put that woman at risk of approbation in her own society.

Growing up in the United States I felt tormented as a teenager and a young adult knowing I was a lesbian. I accepted society’s judgment: I considered myself “abnormal” and mentally ill. It was not until I was in my late twenties and living, first in Mendocino County and later in the San Francisco Bay Area, that I fully accepted my sexuality and came out as a lesbian. Acceptance of gays and lesbians is a very recent phenomenon in the US. I think that kids growing up in the Middle East feel the way I did and experience the same disapproval from parents and rejection by peers that we in my generation suffered in the US when we were young and that LGBTs still suffer in many places in the US.

I think it’s interesting that in the Arab world, with the exception of territory occupied by ISIS, action against LGBTs comes primarily from governments. On the other hand, in the US today repression comes most in acts of individual violence. Trans people, in particular, are being attacked and killed across the US today.

6) In Egypt, you talk about hiding the lesbian side of your identity to respect the culture. Could you ever live openly with this in the Middle East?

In Syria I was told that a foreign teacher had been expelled from the country for being gay. In the West Bank I heard that a foreigner was fired from Birzeit University for the same reason. But although many Muslim countries have laws on their books punishing gays — and heterosexuals for sexual activity outside marriage — I never heard of those laws being implemented. A certain town in the West Bank is referred to quite openly as a town with many gay men. And in 2007 Palestinian lesbians inside Israel held their first public conference, and lesbians from the West Bank attended, with no retaliation.

I told close friends, those who had lived for a time in the U.S. and who I guessed would be accepting. It did seem to me that several of my colleagues went out of their way, through comments they made, to let me know they had no problem with my sexuality. I could have made it clear I was a lesbian, but I probably would not have been able to teach in schools or universities if I had.

The #Truth About Living In The #MiddleEast As An American Lesbian #Feminist Click To Tweet

women in the middle east

A service, one of the West Bank’s ubiquitous shared taxis. Photo credit: Agence France Presse.

7) What is the Muslim view of homosexuality and where does it come from?

There is no “Muslim view” of homosexuality, any more than there is a “Muslim view” – or a “Christian view” — of anything else. Most Arab countries still have laws on their books that restrict sexual freedom. Some of these laws, interestingly, date to colonial days, when Arab societies were seen as perverted in the eyes of their Western colonizers. Lebanon, for instance, criminalizes what it calls “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” in a law derived from the French mandate period [i]. In Saudi Arabia, the US government’s principal ally in the Middle East, a married man engaging in sodomy or any non-Muslim who commits sodomy with a Muslim can be stoned to death. All sex outside of marriage is illegal. [ii]

But laws vary across the Muslim world. As in the Christian world, the laws of each country have been and continue to be made mostly by men, who have created the laws as they saw fit. There is not one monolithic body called Islam, any more than there is one monolithic Arab point of view, which is consistent over time and across the region. Beliefs of ISIS and more conservative versions of Islam, like that in Saudi Arabia, are not representative of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. I have gay and lesbian Muslim friends and know other Muslims who want no part of it. In Islam there are many points of view and many interpretations of the religion’s two scriptural sources, the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.

8) How do Islamic texts dictate actions for/against homosexuality? 

There are passages in Islamic texts that clearly favor heterosexual marriage, and there are certain passages in the Qur’an (4:15-16 and of the story of Lot), along with a collection of inconsistent ahadith [iii] that condemn sodomy. But the same thing is true of both the Christian Bible and the Jewish Talmud; and I personally know quite a number of Muslim gays and lesbians who, like LGBT Christians and Jews, regard the homophobic texts of their religion as irrelevant to their standing before God.

I know no culture where parents rejoice to learn their children are gay, and particularly not boy children. In patriarchies like those existing now in Arab countries and in the US the nuclear family is primary, with boy children expected to carry on the family name. There are Arab parents who tell their gay sons to keep it quiet, but they don’t kill them — despite the frenzied insistence to the contrary of a woman who interviewed me recently for a radio show.

Interestingly, according to a 2015 Pew poll, American Muslims are more accepting of homosexuality than evangelical Christians, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and more likely to support same-sex marriage than US evangelicals, historically Black Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses. US Muslims are just about as likely to support same-sex marriage as Christians generally. [iv]

women in the middle east

Ramallah Invasion. Photo courtesy of Reuters

9) What aspects of gender roles in the Middle East are changing most quickly? 

The Arab Spring was an expression of widespread desire for democracy and freedom from tyranny of all kinds. As Arab societies throw off the oppression of their authoritarian rulers and their foreign backers and invaders — foremost among them the USA — I believe we will see great changes in Arab and Muslim countries.

It might be that the gay and lesbian roles are changing most quickly, although I’m certainly no expert. In the West, gays and lesbians often define themselves by their sexuality. We say we are “gay and proud,” we group together, work for gay rights, feel our tribes are those whose sexuality resembles our own. Arab society does not seem patterned along these lines. Whether Arabs who are drawn to gay and lesbian sexual orientations will begin advocating for rights and define themselves in terms of a sexual identity will be interesting to see.

Women in the Middle East are working to expand women’s rights in every arena, just like women in the US, in India, and across the globe. I am sure that there will be significant advances in the Arab and in the broader Muslim world as women interpret their religions in ways that make sense to them and work toward goals reflective of their own desires. I expect there will be many differences from Western feminisms – possibly, for example, less concentration on individual rights and more emphasis on the wellbeing of the community.

Do you have any personal experiences to add to Moore’s account of culture and women in the Middle East? Please share in the comments below!

And make sure to check out Chivvis Moore’s book, First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God, and visit her website, ChivvisMoore.com

Citations: 

[i] “What Does the Koran Say About Being Gay?” Mehammed Amadeus Mack, in Newsweek, June 15, 2016. [ii] “Here are the 10 countries where homosexuality may be punished by death” The Washington Post, June 13. [iii] hadith, (plural: ahadith) a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad [iv] “Stop Exploiting LGBT Issues to Demonize Islam and Justify Anti-Muslim Policies,” by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, June 13, 2016.

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Links to interviews in print, online and on air

MSNBC Adam Howard interview June 15, 2016:

“American Lesbian Defends Muslim World”

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0ahUKEwjnkoLK4MnNAhVN32MKHaL4CiQQFggjMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nbcnews.com%2Fstoryline%2Forlando-nightclub-massacre%2Famerican-lesbian-feminist-defends-muslim-world-new-book-n593771&usg=AFQjCNFaasgZmzeYogmLnsHhcVHcVrCw5w&sig2=LX6t-x6McVJThrGSITZbDw&cad=rja

Book Review, First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God

GSCENE (National, United Kingdom—Print and Online Book Review page 67 under Page’s Pages, by Eric Page. August issue, 2016

https://issuu.com/gscene/docs/08_gscene_aug16

New book: Lesbian/feminist lived in Arab world for 16 years (Part I)

http://www.chestnuthilllocal.com/2016/08/19/new-book-lesbianfeminist-lived-in-arab-world-for-16-years/ Posted on August 19, 2016 The Chestnut Hill Local is an independent weekly newspaper serving the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, in Northwest Philadelphia.

Feminist/lesbian tells us about living in Muslim world (Part II)

Posted on September 23, 2016 by Len Lear by Len Lear Chivvis Moore, 71, is a lesbian and feminist who lived for 16 years in the Arab world, including 11 years in the Palestinian West Bank, controlled by Israel. Most of us would assume that an avowed lesbian and feminist could not possibly survive intact while living for so many years in the […]

Chivvis Moore: Why we need to understand Muslim women better, by Lee Suckling in Stuff – Life & Style, New Zealand, August 5, 2016

http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/life/82858331/chivvis-moore-why-we-need-to-understand-muslim-women-better

“Here’s What It’s Like To Be An American Lesbian In The Middle East”

Epicure & Culture

http://epicureandculture.com/women-in-the-middle-east/

Women Shouldn’t Run Away from the Middle East – OMTimes Magazine

omtimes.com/2016/09/women-middle-east/

Sep 16, 2016 – by Chivvis Moore. The Welcome of the Middle East. When I arrived in Cairo in 1978, I was welcomed into the home of an Egyptian woman, the …

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiGhZOOwtPPAhUI_4MKHQ2tA3cQFgghMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fomtimes.com%2F2016%2F09%2Fwomen-middle-east%2F&usg=AFQjCNFS3C2WecyKxfgj2Y7TkMkEePIxBA&sig2=B3sV6U7z3qwrpSzdLOm6bA

 

 

David Leonard <news@kynt1450.com> 6.27

KYNT RADIO INTERVIEW-Moore

I have scheduled your interview to air the afternoon of 06-28-16, the program begins at 505 PM Central Time and the interview will be on at about 520 PM.

Here is a link to our website: http://www.kynt1450.com/programs/aliveat5

https://archive.org/details/Moore5PM

KPFA – Women’s Magazine with Kate Rafael

Monday, July 4 2016 at 1:00 pm on KPFA kpfawomensmag.blogspot.com or check the archives kpfa.org/program/womens-magazine

Chivvis Moore discusses her new memoir, First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust In God: An American Feminist in the Arab World.  Moore lived in the Middle East for 17 years, including three in Egypt, two in Syria, and 11 in Palestine.  She talks about what attracted her and what she learned about Muslim and Arab culture, volunteering as a medic in Jenin Refugee Camp immediately after the brutal siege of 2002, the impact of Western funding on the Palestinian women’s movement, and how community helps people make it through intolerable situations. On 94.1 FM in Berkeley and Northern California, online anywhere at www.kpfa.org. After broadcast the segments will be available on our website kpfawomensmag.blogspot.com or check the archives kpfa.org/program/womens-magazine

 

“An Unlikely Ex-Pat: Chivvis Moore recounts her time in the Middle East,” by Jacqueline Rupp, Philadelphia Weekly, July 26, 2016

http://philadelphiaweekly.com/2016/jul/26/unlikely-ex-pat-chivvis-moore-recounts-her-time-middle-east/#.V5j667grLIU

 

“First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God” Reviewed in UK Gay Magazine Gscene

“First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God” Reviewed in UK Gay Magazine Gscene

67_Books_0816_The first review of First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust In God has appeared! It can be found in the August 2016 issue of Gscene Magazine, based in Brighton and Hove, England, and written by Eric Page, on “Page’s Page — Books by Eric Page.” This is a link to the online PDF of the whole magazine –https://issuu.com/gscene/docs/08_gscene_aug16​. Review is on page 67.

The review reads:

“FIRST TIE YOUR CAMEL, THEN TRUST IN GOD by Chivvis Moore (North Loop Books). This is the first hand account and instructive, compelling personal experience of an American lesbian feminist and her travels around the Arabic world. It’s actually two books in one, the first half looks at her reason for leaving America for a year in the late 1970s; the sudden arrival in an Arabic culture and the slow and sure adaption to a way of life not as alien, oppressive and savage as we’re taught, but one where liberty, life and community have different meanings and different expectations and demands from the people that live with each other. Moore’s insights can be academic but there are moments which are transcendental; her understanding of how creative people craft and create a healthy culture and how being able to make, meld and elaborate our physical world gives us meaning as people, parents and citizens – a challenge to the manufactured mutterings of consumption that the western world offers. Her arguments are compelling. Her being a carpenter is a running theme and she works words as she does wood, anticipating knots and grain and knowing how the beauty of something will be revealed when hands have worn a groove. Her prose is comfortable to read even when the subject matter is anything but. Her voice is quiet but persistent. There are plenty of personal moments that convince about the dignity and acceptance of a western feminist lesbian living in an apparently repressive society, but Moore is no idealist and keeps her keen eye on real politics. The second half of the book takes us into a decade of Moore working in Palestine and confronts us with searing observational honestly. Here Moore bears witness to living in Palestine under an increasingly repressive Israeli occupation and whatever your political views you can’t help but be shocked and moved by these eyewitness accounts of the day-to-day horrors of Palestinian life and simple joys grabbed from adversity. Not an easy read, but not an easy subject, Moore gives us her own unfazed clarity of view and guides us into the heart of the community and the way it embraces and occasionally judges her. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a narrative with such force that has made me think so hard about received wisdoms.”

I am so honored, and send my sincere thanks to Eric Page.

Women in the Arab Word, Om Times Magazine September 16, 2016

Women Shouldn’t Run Away from the Middle East

by OMTimes Magazine September 16, 2016

by Chivvis Moore

The Welcome of the Middle East

When I arrived in Cairo in 1978, I was welcomed into the home of an Egyptian woman, the sister of someone I’d met only briefly in the United States. The questions she asked, within minutes of meeting me, surprised me: What does it cost to get a university education in the U.S.? What do American women earn in comparison to men in the same jobs?

She asked the same questions raised at the time by feminists in my own country. In striking contrast to the Western image of the helpless, unthinking, beaten-down Arab woman, Nahid was a natural homegrown feminist. She was the first of the many females I met during my years in the Arab world. Ladies whom I respected and admired for the strength, inner fortitude, and self-esteem that I came to see as characteristic of Arab women.

Hardships of Life for Women in the Late-’70’s

In Egypt in 1978, most women had harder lives than those in the USA. In the poorer Arab countries today, women still have less opportunity for education. They do more physical work, without the aid of washing machines and dryers, freezers, and dishwashers. Fewer families have cars than families in the U.S.; shopping is more difficult, traffic and stores more congested, many buildings have no lifts.

The Arab women I met in Egypt in 1978-79, and in Egypt, Syria and Palestine later, in 1991-2008, confronted the whole array of challenges. Challenges that all of us, except the wealthy, have to face-working outside the home and yet, doing the work inside the home as well.

But from Nahid and the other women I met, I got the distinct impression they valued and respected themselves as much as or more than I or many more in my own society. Freedoms for Arab women were more limited than those in the USA, it seemed to me. Nevertheless, they carried their heads more proudly, seemed surer of themselves, and appeared more comfortable in their own bodies.

Comparing Culture for Women in the Middle East and the U.S.

In the United States, we consider showing more skin as modern, and therefore preferable. Many American women wear low-cut dresses and short skirt, and both genders wear tank tops and shorts. We view the long dresses and veils worn by many Muslim women as backward and repressive. How quickly we accept what is around us: by the time I had lived in Cairo a year, the flesh displayed by tourists of both sexes struck me as unattractive, as well as culturally appropriate.

Back in the U.S., I wear shorts again. Certainly, some Arab Muslim countries require women to veil. But when I lived in Arab countries, I knew Muslim females who covered their heads to indicate their difference from Western ways. Others veiled because they believed that God required of both men and women a certain modesty in dress, as set forth in the Qur’an.

Most who make judgments about Arab women’s status blame it on Islam. They equate Islam with the violent and repressive rhetoric and practices of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, many of its tenets were progressive in their treatment of all human beings. Most Muslims want as little to do with the values of ISIS or the Taliban as you or I.

How Treatment of Women in the Middle East Differs

Countries in the Arab world differ in their treatment of women. Saudi Arabia bans women from driving, although in the countries in which I lived and visited, they can. These laws come not from Islam, but from men. Men, who have always had the power in those societies, as they have traditionally in ours.

Just as the founders of the U.S. kept women as slaves and decreed white women unfit to vote, the men who have ruled Arab countries have kept rights for themselves. They justify their actions by their own interpretation of religious texts formulated centuries ago. But the Qur’an is open to as many interpretations as the Torah and the Christian Bible.

In every country on the planet, women activists and writers work to change the practices that hurt them. For the U.S., it is domestic violence, trafficking of women and children, and gang rapes on college campuses. While in the Middle East, it is early marriage and clitoridectomy in parts of the Muslim world. Across the Muslim world and beyond, women interpret the Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet in ways that make sense to them. Female Arabs and Muslims are working to change their societies just as American feminists are working to change ours.

 

About the Author

Chivvis Moore is the author of First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God. She lived in the Middle East for 17 years, working in Egypt, Syria, and Israel, before teaching at Birzeit University. Before her journey to the Arab world, Moore earned a B.A. from Harvard University. She also worked as a journalist with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Daily Review in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Women Shouldn’t Run Away from the Middle Easthttp://omtimes.com/2016/09/women-middle-east/