I’d first like to sincerely apologize for neglecting this blog for the past couple of months. Unfortunately I had to prioritize between my personal blog and research versus my research for school. My first semester as a graduate student in international affairs was challenging not only in terms of the amount of reading we had to do but also, more importantly, in terms of the new ideas being introduced. It might sound cliche or premature to say, but after one semester at The New School I’ve definitely come to view the world in a different light.
Although I had to devote time to other subjects, I was still able to pursue my Middle Eastern studies, such as writing a paper on whether or not to intervene and Syria and taking a course called Gender Studies in the Middle East. As may be obvious, this was my dream class and it cast my whole perspective on women in the Middle East in a different light. The main question that ran through my mind throughout the duration of the course was based on the approach that change must be both initiated by and couched in local tradition and culture, which led me to ask:
If a Western approach should not be used when analyzing women in the Middle East, and if we as Westerners will never be able to separate our cultural upbringing entirely from our analysis, then why learn about and discuss Middle Eastern women at all?
After a whole semester, I still don’t have the answer to my question. It’s not an easy question to address, when one considers what is deemed ‘Western’ and what is deemed ‘Arab’ culture: why do these divides even have to exist? Why must comparisons always exist? But they do-and one thing I’ve learned is that they probably always will, and it is negotiating these differences that is obviously proving difficult.
If I were to answer my own question, I would speculate that the reason it is important for a Western woman like myself to study women who belong to a land, a history and a religion different from my own is because each culture is but a distorted mirror of the next. I recall the infamous drawing that’s made its rounds on the internet:
Why do both women see the other as oppressed? Because in a sense they both are oppressed: they are both judged by the clothing that they wear, and men’s attitudes help shape their dressing habits. Obviously in some cases in the Middle East, men legally decide what women will wear, and this lack of choice is important to note. Thus to learn about Middle Eastern women is not only to be able to recognize the similarities and universalities between cultures but to also reflect on one’s own culture and things one has not noticed before. Case in point: it is not only in Muslim-dominated countries that a woman cannot walk outside dressed however she wishes for fear of harassment. The same thing occurs every day when I walk down my block in New York City, and the fact that it occurs in a country where we stress our freedoms and liberties is more embarrassing.
It’s time for the Western world to realize our own hypocrisies (we’re all guilty!) when judging other cultures and it is time for us to open our eyes to these other cultures! So as I continue to write about Arab women’s rights and politics in the Middle East I will also continue to explore Middle Eastern culture and history.
Here’s to my future research and, inshallah, adventures. Perhaps the Oriental-ism and off-the-grid aura that characterized the adventures of Lawrence of Arabia, Eugenie Le Brun and Wilfred Thesiger (who I plan to cover at a later date) adventures in the Middle East do not exist anymore, but surely their spirit lives on.