Finding Respect in the Arab Peninsula

Sarah Swick, Minaret of Freedom Institute

Recent representations of the status women in the Middle East, and the Arab Peninsula in particular, have focused on how women are disempowered and marginalized. Critics point to the clothes of the region, the black dress (abaya), headscarf (hijab), and in some cases the face veil (niqab) that women wear as evidence of the poor status of Arab or Muslim women. Therefore, on my first trip to the Arab Peninsula I was prepared to be treated as second class person and discriminated against. Moreover, from my experiences in Morocco, I was prepared that when I was not being ignored or ‘overlooked as a mere woman’, I would be subject to constant sexual harassment. Al hamdu lillah, I am pleased to say that this image or fear I had in my head is far from what I have actually observed and experienced.

I first arrived to the United Arab Emirates, before traveling to Salalah, in the south of Oman where the khariif or monsoon rains turn the desert into a lush landscape each summer. After a few amazing days in Salalah, I traveled to Muscat and then back to the United Arab Emirates for a few more days. I then traveled on to Saudi Arabia where I am currently spending a month in Jeddah. Having taken a summer sabbatical from my work at the Minaret of Freedom Institute, I had not intended to write any blogs this summer, but what I have experienced on this trip has inspired me to share my observations and experiences.

Like the perception given in the West, in Salalah, Oman, most local women wore the black robe, headscarf, and face cover, some even covered their eyes. However, what the media rarely reports is that these same women, covered head to toe, were economically active outside the household. When visiting the Gold Suq, I was surprised by the number of women working alongside men and owning their own businesses. I soon observed that this was not uncommon in the region, even at the grocery store, the women working the checkout were completely covered, yet they were clearly part of public and economic life.

What also impressed me about my time in the UAE and Oman was the amount of respect given to women on the streets. Despite my love for Morocco, where I lived for ten months, the daily gauntlet of sexual harassment made life there sometimes unbearable. However, in the UAE and Oman, I never experienced any sexual harassment nor saw any other women being harassed.* In fact, it was quite the opposite of what I anticipated. In both the UAE and Oman , I observed that men stepped aside and gave priority to passing women. This respect for women even translated into official government posts.

At the land crossing into the UAE from Oman, there was simply a trailer in which men had to wait outside in the heat to get their passports stamped or visas issued. When I arrived to this outpost, a man in line signaled to me that I should not have to wait in this long line of men. Instead, I was pointed to another window with not a single person in line and which was “manned” by a woman (who wore hijab but also the official government uniform). Unfortunately, there were problems with my passport which caused over an hour delay. However, unlike the men who had to endure the heat, I was invited inside the air-conditioned trailer to wait and was given a seat and a cold glass of water. When a man tried to also enter the trailer, they informed him that he would have to wait outside. Instead of being treating as a second-class person, my gender granted me an advantage. I did feel a little guilty for the clear discrimination against men, but it was too hot outside for me to protest and give up my privilege.

In my next blog entry I will share my experiences and observations so far in Saudi Arabia.


*However, in the UAE I did experience some uncomfortable moments when walking on the street as some of the South Asian migrants would stare quite hard, however an Arab male friend said that even he has experienced such glares, and therefore would not solely chalk it up to my gender.

One Response to “Finding Respect in the Arab Peninsula”

  1. Dain says:

    Your observations are extremely valuable. Thank you for changing your mind and reporting on your experiences.

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