Women Shouldn’t Run Away from the Middle East
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.