“How could you stand it?” friends sometimes ask my wife.
“Didn’t it make you furious?”
“Is it ever going to change?”
They’re asking about when we traveled in the Middle East. Sometimes, it’s about when she had to be covered up in Iran, other times about sexist macho jerks she encountered in places like Morocco and Egypt. Often, they are outraged by the apparently limited opportunities for women. Everyone has an opinion.
Yes, sometimes, we were indignant. Sometimes, we were outraged, but as we traveled we came to understand more about these traditions and rules, even if we didn’t approve of them. We also were exposed to the reality, discovering that things aren’t always what they seem at first glance. These traditions are not just about controlling women.
One thing we came to understand is that groups tend to cling to habits and customs that were necessary for survival generations or centuries before. In the U.S., we lived in wide open spaces with wild animals and often hostile neighbors of one type or another, so we still like to sprawl, hate fences, think nothing of driving for hours, and love our guns – whether these habits make sense now, or not. In much of the Middle East, people roamed with their animals and tribes or clans, and often were isolated and vulnerable to attack by marauders or other tribes, so they hid their prized possessions, including the women who might be abducted. All these years later, they still feel that need. Despite the centuries since these customs originated, many men of the area still tend to think of women as possessions to be both cherished and protected.
In the Middle East of the past and in early America, when much of the population was uneducated and even illiterate, certain beliefs and customs gave comfort and provided rules to live by in unpredictable and dangerous environments. At the same time, rules of hospitality emerged in both places, where being welcomed and provided with shelter and nourishment after a long journey could be a matter of life and death. These traditions also linger in both America and the Middle East.
Maneuvering through a small village souk in Lebanon, we found tiny shops selling traditional veils, scarves and coverings for women – while passing young women in tee shirts and jeans, older women in loose black clothing, and everything in between. In a hotel in Beirut, we watched a photographer taking wedding pictures of a bride wearing an American style wedding dress with bare shoulders, low neckline, and full skirt, her husband-to-be holding her naked arm. Women in Lebanon run businesses, earn college degrees, and are professionals with careers – and do all this dressed either conservatively or in western clothes, as they choose.
In my most recent book, the protagonist, Delphine, discovers as she travels through the Middle East that the women in both villages and cities are surprisingly strong, with ideas of their own, and often hold positions of responsibility and power – such as the woman mayor that she becomes friends with in a small Palestinian town. In Iran, more than 50 percent of the university graduates are women, at least half of the doctors are women, and women hold professional jobs in many fields. They do this while dressed in hijab: a long coat known a manteau and loose pants with a headscarf or even the traditional chador from head to ankle.
For decades, in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and other Middle Eastern countries, women could choose between traditional or western dress and were free to pursue the careers they wanted. Recently, reacting to growing poverty, political unrest, and increasingly extreme western attitudes toward them, a tug-of-war between traditional and western ways has emerged in these countries. It seems impossible to predict what the outcome will be, although many young people want the freedoms of the west.
Building social and economic walls around these countries solves and changes nothing. Interaction and exposure to different ideas and ways benefits everyone, even if we don’t approve of certain customs as they now stand. Ideas and customs and economies evolve, if they are given a chance. Travel between countries and societies is one of the best ways for people to learn about each other’s customs, traditions, and ideas. This often is how friendships are built.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press.
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