Hello from Dubai! I can already guess the reactions I will get for what I am about to say, but then again, how often do I hold my tongue for fear of reaction? Rarely, so here goes. Dubai, the business hub of the United Emirates is the most tranquil, peaceful, kind place I have ever visited. I thought Mexico was the mother of hospitality, and this place makes our southern neighbor seem like France by comparison. Everywhere you go here people are smiling, laughing, enjoying life (it does help that there is massive money flowing like honey, nothing puts you in a worse mood than poverty), and it got me to thinking, why is it surprising that people are happy here and that life is peaceful? After much thought, I realized it is most likely due to 2 things. The first is that as an American, I have grown up fearing the Middle East as the region is often painted as the monster of the modern world. The second is that I don’t have a good grasp of what the religion and culture of the region actually are all about. This lack of knowledge tends to increase the fear factor and so I decided that enough is enough and took the advice of many locals and went to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding “Open Doors. Open Minds.” program. Founded by two Muslim men living in Dubai, who after being asked one too many times by their American business partners what life was like in an Arab household, decided to create a neutral place for anyone who wanted to learn about being Muslim, the traditions and the culture of the Emirati. During the three hour session, the centre prepares a typical Arabic lunch (hommos is actually Labenese) and creates a venue for discussion on the many topics that often seem too taboo to ask. While there were many poignant questions asked, and some less than intelligent ones, the topic I was most interested in was gender roles and discrimination which seems so prevalent yet accepted.
For example, why do Emirati women have to wear an abaya (floor length black cloak) and veil over their hair? Is it obligatory? Is it done to hide their bodies and sexuality from everyone except their spouse? In fact, women only have to wear the abaya while they are outside of their home. While inside, they wear what everyone else wears… skinny jeans and tank tops! The reason for the abaya is that Emirati women believe that they must dress very conservatively while out in public as to not draw unwanted attention, thereby keeping the most private part of themselves only onto their family. Practicality also has something to do with it. Rather than having to change into baggy clothes when they run out for milk or to drop the kids off at school, women just throw on an abaya and go. Emirati women are as busy as women anywhere else- time is money, so they try to save it as much as possible.
The head scarf is actually a more cultural dress in the Emirati and is only actually required when entering a mosque as it is a holy place. This is no different than women of other religions (Jewish and Catholic for example), who when in God’s holy place, cover their hair out of respect. The Emirati women simply continue with the tradition established long ago and find it to be comfortable. While I cannot imagine how comfortable having to retuck the end of the scarf all day long can be, who am I to question it.
One issue I did have is that Amy, the female guide at our lunch, said that similar to sunglasses, the black abaya actually shadows the body from the warmth of the sun and is quite comfortable. Ah, Amy…I beg to differ. It was only 85 degrees on Monday and I was shvitzing like crazy in my abaya. Don’t believe me? Here is the proof:
It was toasty underneath (somehow opening the slit and sticking my bare legs out didn’t seem an appropriate thing to do0. Honestly, I cannot even imagine what it must feel like in August when it gets upwards of 145 degrees, although it does explain the frequent washing. Actually the reason they do wash five times a day is that it is required prior to entering the mosque for the daily prayers. Why might you ask? According to Mohammed, all men and women are created equal before God and therefore, whether the individual be a prince or a construction worker, once clean of all outside life before entering the mosque, they stand side by side and pray together in equality. Also, its a basic question of hygiene. If you had to lower your forehead and mouth to the carpet, you would want to make sure everyone’s feat walking on the carpet are clean, right?
Finally, as a woman I have always had a visceral negative reaction to the apparent gender inequality in Arab countries. When this topic was brought up during the discussion, I was very surprised to learn that there are five basic guaranteed rights to all women in the Emirates. They are: 1. The right to a dowry, 2. The right to an education 3. The right to divorce 4. Access to an education and 5. The right to marry.
Last time I checked, I didn’t have the right to a dowry, it might be a nice tool to convince the man you love to actually get down on bended knee (ladies, some of you know what I am talking about. Shoot, Beyonce sang about it). Unlike what is often rumored, Emirati women can study any course of their choice (the government pays for all university studies and related expenses), choose their own spouse, work if they so choose, divorce their husband on the spot (no having to wait around to duke it out in court if they find their spouse cheating on them) and are free to interact with men whom are not their husbands, brothers or fathers. Like most cultures and religions, there are the extremists whom misinterpret the Koran’s teachings and oppress women, but the overall majority of Emirati men treat their wives like queens and lavish gifts upon them as according to their religious teachings, just treatment and protection of women opens a door to heaven.
Although there were many other topics discussed during the session, these two were the most interesting for me because as a strong and independent woman, I always viewed the Emirates as oppressive to women. What I found was that most woman I have spoken to absolutely love their life in the UAE and not unlike other cultures around the world, follow customs they were brought up with because quite simply, it is what they know.
The most important thing I learned (again) is that knowledge is power and debunking myths or common misunderstandings is the best way to close the breach between distinct beliefs and cultures.
So, if you are planning on visiting Dubai, I encourage you to visit the Center for Cultural Exchange and if possible, get into Nizam’s group, he is funny, warm and will answer pretty much any question you have. Here we are below: my new friend Nizam, one of my oldest and best friends Mar, and myself.
I must say goodnight for now, but tomorrow I shall be back with a special report on the Dubai Mall, the largest in the world (at least for one more year until Dubai beats its own record and builds one twice the current size)!