Blog: A Western woman’s musings on travelling in the Middle East

He only smokes Camels

I’ve recently returned from a trip to the Middle East. I was in Israel and Jordan; in places where there are many Westerners as tourists – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Petra – but also in places where a woman would probably not go out alone without a male chaperone – Downtown Amman.

Arriving in Downtown Amman, late at night, fresh off the plane (not fresh-feeling, ‘Easyjet’ is synonymous with ‘greedy bleedin’ bastards’ for me) and mildly stunned by our taxi driver’s ability to run over a cat without it making a sound, I immediately became the focus of unwelcome stares from men. I had dressed modestly in a mid-calf length skirt, long sleeves and tights as I knew I was going to a Muslim country, but I was not prepared for how I felt despite my unusually demure dress; ashamed of my body and suddenly very aware of my womanliness.

I don’t know whether the stares were because I was a tourist and this wasn’t a touristy area or simply because I was out late (albeit with my ‘chaperone’ and with a fake ring on my wedding finger). But stares is what I got, there’s no denying it.

All I could think about was “I’m a woman.” “Should I not be here?” I didn’t want my boyfriend to let me out of his sight. I didn’t feel frightened; I’m rarely scared of any place, but I couldn’t help feeling uneasy in the company of so many big groups of men and the only woman visible anywhere. It is a potent feeling, being that visible. And not in a nice way. Suddenly I was all breasts, all waist, all legs.

Since my trip, I can’t stop thinking about the burkah/niqab and how my feelings towards it have become complicated. I’ll be honest, as a right-on liberal feminist-type (eurgh, pass me the Guardian), I have struggled to find my place with it. I hate to admit it, but I’ve often thought “What am I supposed to think about it?” I just didn’t know what fitted with my belief in a world where everyone should be free to dress as they please and worship freely, but where women should never be subjugated or defined as sexual objects.

If you asked me before my trip how I felt about it, I’d probably say it is their choice to wear it and it is not my concern. And I can only speak hypothetically. If I lived in a country where I was told to cover not only my hair, but every part of my body apart from my hands and face, you’d better believe I’d put up a fight. Rolling my sleeves up in the overheated airport, I couldn’t help looking at every woman’s wrists, covered by a thin cotton-mix, usually white,top worn under their clothes that doesn’t reach all the way down the arm. Why can’t they roll their sleeves up? Is it because it is shameful to show a feminine wrist? Can’t a wrist be functional as well as sexy?

A jarring experience towards the end of the trip was a return to Downtown Amman, this time during the day. Having spent a week travelling around two countries, slobbing in a rental car and slumming in tacky hostels, my clothes were sandy and damp. A mid-calf length skirt that is sheer, bar a short under-skirt, was my only clean clothing. I hadn’t even considered it risqué and since I was in a large upmarket hotel with travellers from all over world at that point, I’d simply forgotten to change to go outside. A group of women gasped, pointed and laughed and I wanted the ground to swallow me up. Far worse than a man judging me by my clothing, was my own sex condemning me to feel totally naked in public.

On the flight home I spotted five women wearing the full niqab, which is the full veil pulled over the face. These had no eye slits. They were in black, with their hands in black gloves. I imagine they could see through mesh, but you could not see in and they were being led by their husbands. I was shocked. There was no sign they were female, male, black, white. Not a single part of their body was visible. These women were being led by men, who had to do everything for them. And they appeared to be struggling to walk through the busy concourse. I felt that the extremity of the covering shamed everybody; it shamed the women for being women and for apparently inviting males to look at them as sexual objects and it shamed the men for having to cover their wives from the stares of other men.

I don’t really know how to conclude this blog. I’ve spent about a week going back to it and thinking of deleting it because I felt like I was channeling the spirit of Liz Jones. But why can’t I speak for women? And I can talk about how I felt. I love the Middle East by the way, in case you were wondering…

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