As the reality of being a woman in the Middle East sets in, I am becoming increasingly aware of my limitations in social opportunities. I talked to a friend who is doing research in Europe. She has gone through the same thing. We have very few people to hang out with. Everyone else has their own things going on and not a lot of time. On top of that there is the whole language barrier thing.
But Kuwait is different from Northern Europe. It is not like I can go out to cafe and meet new friends. Nor can I just go for a stroll, catch a bus downtown and explore Kuwait city by myself. Buses in Kuwait are filled with male laborers. I was told you better be a tough woman to handle that experience. Honestly, travelling alone as a woman in the Middle East is the pits. During my stay in Morocco, I had to gather up the will to explore Fez. Sometimes it was just plain tiresome. First, you have to develop hard look in order to reduce the unwanted male harrassment (i.e. the walk by “zwaina” or the cat calls, I mean for reals they used the same sounds you called cats with). Then you have to be prepared to avoid all eye contact with any males, such as looking up at the sky and risk falling into some hole in the ground (and in Morocco there are many ditches, potholes, and uneven pavement). The most effective method is looking at the ground and watching where you are going. This too has downsides because you can miss some very nice sites and historical landmarks. Plus I had to map out my route, I wanted to avoid the 100 to 200 glaring eyes that follow any woman who passes the packed cafes. I wasn’t in Egypt long enough to make any lengthy commentaries, but from my experience Cairo seemed pretty much the same.
But Native Kuwaitis are pretty good about not harrassing, I’ve only gotten a few staredowns in stores and businesses. But, there are tons of single men immigrating from the Middle East and South Asia. I’ve heard that depending on the neighborhood, you can get annoying harrassment. But my friend said it’s not that bad as places like Sanaa, Yemen. There if you walk down the street and don’t wear the face veil you’re a slut, if you wear a veil you’re a slut, if you have your whole family in tow you’re a slut, because honorable women apparently either stay at home or they only have cars. But in Kuwait even the men who are pretty hard up for women (the country has a population of 60% adult males) don’t get too bad because no one wants to get deported.
So, with that in mind I don’t feel like I’m going to be bombarded by men whose pasttime consists of making lewd comments to passing women. But, I am following as much of the decorum and etiquette as I can. So, I’ve only had very limited interactions with men, that is even on a professional level. I am sure this while change when I enroll in my course at the University. But I wonder how much will that change. I really doubt I’ll make any substantive male friends or be able to chop it up in a mixed setting (unless it is at one of the East meets West centers). The most common interaction I’ve had with men is being told that a male is coming so go some place not to be seen, usually to my room or close the kitchen door. We have a Yemeni couple as neighbors. So, apparently in their culture women can be heard (but not talking to you if you are a male), but not seen. I know this because all day my friend’s husband gets hear our neighbor’s voice call our maid for various tasks “Adaam, Adaam!!” Very opposite of the old school thing about children, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” In the Middle East, by the way, children run the whole show. The children running freely in American masajid are just a taste of the wild antics in the Middle East.
But I digress. So I scratch the whole thing about being able to chop it up with Muslims of all shapes and varieties in Kuwait. In reality, there’s not much to do for a woman by herself. There are family things, stuff women do in groups. I don’t have any kids. If you ever want to feel like a fifth wheel, try being the only single girl on a multiple family outing. Basically, if the kids aren’t spitting up on you some one may want to spit on you if they think you are looking at their husband sideways. So, besides looking at the ground and occassionally trying to match the dozen children to mothers and fathers, I just looked at the ground feeling awkward like the poor miskeena over thirty and divorced without kids that I am.
I read a thing that said that Kuwait was family oriented. Unlike more open societies, those that follow gender segregation such as Kuwait have nice accomodations for women. There are Arabic and Islamic studies classes, social clubs, swimming pools, and gyms for women. But sometimes they can have their downsides, especially if you don’t understand Kuwaiti Arabic. One time I had to try to find information about some religious studies programs for women. But the building was closed to men, so I had to go at it on my own. Nothing beats down your confidence in your Arabic skills like trying to get information.
I guess I’m realizing that I haven’t explored much. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been to several hyper markets, been to several car dealerships, the ministry of communications, two universities, to an indoor park, to a souk, prayed in a mosque, visited a Kuwaiti home, stuff like that. I realize I haven’t left the house since Saturday when I went food shopping. It’s just not as easy as a woman to meet new people or do new things. There are lots of Muslim women who live like this, never going out, cooking, cleaning, arranging, hanging out with kids, eating to fill the void, obsessively checking email and reading blogs. I have skyped a few times. IMed my sister the other day. On days like this, I miss television. There’s not a tv in this house. And I think I need one bad to pass the time. I’d prefer to have all the stations in Arabic. My eyes hurt from the Arab channel’s tiny pixelated boxes and chopping programs.
It takes awhile to settle in. I’m beginning to realize how far I am from home. I think about all the women who are at home, as their struggle to not be lost in their relationships, as the reach out to maintain their connections. Are they missing some of the same things I’m missing?