The women’s majlis: do we need to raise our voices for a change?
Last week, I found myself out in the rain without an umbrella, something I didn’t particularly mind. After 15 minutes of allowing the raindrops to envelop me, I took shelter in one of the cafes at my university in Australia.
Because it was early in the morning, the cafe was empty, and I didn’t hesitate to occupy the whole large table. While I was busy working, I suddenly became distracted when three male students sat down next to my table. My concentration level dropped and I started feeling unusual. At this moment, my mind transported me to Abu Dhabi. Back home, I never felt comfortable sitting too close to my male compatriots, especially in restaurants.
There are several reasons for such an attitude. First, in many cases, we may attract each other’s attentions and make one another uncomfortable. Second, a lot of my conversations with my girlfriends involve women, their issues and their independence. I remember on many occasions, sitting with my friends in a restaurant, talking about everything concerning our society. One time, we reached a stage where we lost control and began to laugh a lot. One girl in the gathering reprimanded us and asked to lower our voices, saying: “There are Arab men around you, so beware of your speech and actions.” This was sufficient for us to go back to pretending to be elegant and ideal Emirati women. It took a while to regain our composure. We lowered our voices, completed our meal, talked and laughed slowly. We were not ourselves.
While I accept it when people tell me to lower my voice in a public place as a means of showing manners, I still find it uncomfortable when society silences us because of the notion that Arab men are around us, and our voices are drawing their attention. We left the restaurant and resumed where we left off. We could have been wrong in assuming that those men were listening to our talk or observing our behaviour. However, when I asked my other friends, they told me that they feel they are being watched when they sit next to men, so they distance themselves.
This was not the first instance where I’ve had to alter my actions out of fear of how I am perceived.
I grew up in an environment where I’m programmed to think that the moment a girl steps out of her house, she should be mindful of the way she looks, talks and walks. At the end of the day, we’re a tight-knit village where almost everyone knows someone in your household. So no matter where a girl goes, she is leaving a part of herself. In other words, I should be aware of the panopticon gaze of my society. It’s as though a lot of us can’t live in obscurity from the peering eyes of people.
Interestingly, I have a different attitude now. I believe living and studying in a foreign country has given me an opportunity to reflect on everything I used to believe. When I realised that I wasn’t in Abu Dhabi, but rather sitting in a cafe in Canberra and the men sitting across from me were not even bothered by my existence, at that moment, I thought to myself: “Who made us think this way towards our men? And why do we feel comfortable talking to foreigners but uncomfortable talking to Arab men?” Perhaps many of the misconceptions we have about our compatriots are a creation of our own negative whispers. Perhaps most men in the Emirates are not concerned with girls sitting next to them. Though I have never had such a conversation with a man, from what I have heard from my brothers and married friends, some Emirati men are extra-cautious with Emirati women because there is always that fear of misunderstanding from both sides. When I am back home next time, I might not change my seat in a restaurant, but I will definitely change my thoughts on whether I need to alter my actions.
Asmaa Al Hameli is a former features writer for The National who’s now studying in Australia.
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Published: November 3, 2016 04:00 AM