Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Middle East - my first impressions as a westerner

Before I came here, I had only ever travelled to Europe and the East Coast of the US. My first few weeks in the Middle East have been fantastic and I have many stories to tell of what it is like to live and work in the Middle East as a single Western woman. Hopefully, I will be able to find the time somewhere between the desert, the shopping malls and corporate law to share my stories on this blog as the weeks pass and as I begin to understand my role here.
The heat was shock enough - 35 degrees and it's only March. Checking into my hotel, the receptionist was looking confused and asked me if I was "Mr..." and I confirmed, with a grin, that I was not. He then asked me whether my husband was accompanying me and, having already been warned by the Resident's Guide never to admit to not actually having a husband, I confirmed that he was not. I wake up the next day at 5am and am completely disorientated and the call to prayer only confuses things further. Luckily, that was the only morning (so far) where the call to prayer has woken me up.
I soon venture outside wearing fairly modest clothes: skirt over the knee and a top covering my shoulders. The staring begins. Apart from being a weird to have men staring at you and your legs, it's emotionally draining. I walk to and from work and have to keep my eyes focused on a spot in the distance so as not to make eye contact with anyone, just in case it provokes them to start talking to me. Last week I was walking home from the gym with a male friend and every man that walked past me would watch me as they approached and then turn their heads towards me as they walked past. This makes it rather difficult to have any kind of normal conversation! As you can imagine, this has been the main theme of my first few weeks here and I fully expect it to continue for the next 5 months. It has start to make me wonder: is this how we stare at Muslim women in Britain?
It is illegal to cohabit here, it is illegal to have children before marriage (I know of one women who had to marry her long-term partner and father of her children just so she could move here) and it is apparently even illegal to hold hands with your partner in public if you are not married. I applied for my resident's visa yesterday which is a long process involving an eye exam, blood test and X-ray - I was asked whether I was married 4 times by 3 different people. The visa application form includes a box for details of your wife but there is no box for the details of your husband because if you are a woman you would be on your husband's form - you certainly wouldn't be travelling alone.
The working week is Sunday -Thursday which is rubbish when I turn up to work on a Sunday morning envious of those lazy afternoons on Hampstead Heath, but absolutely magic when I'm lying on the beach on a Friday afternoon sending photos of my toes in the sand to folks back home. I have joined a hotel beach club which is mainly full of expats and is almost a "safe haven" where women can wear bikinis and you can drink cocktails by the pool. You need an alcohol license to buy alcohol in shops, but women are only allocated half the amount that men are allowed!

On the subject of women being entitled to half of what a man is, you may have been pleased to read the recent change to Iranian law which allows women to recover the same amount as men from insurance companies (in cases of death or injury). This means that up until the law was changed, Iranian insurance law literally valued a woman's life as being half of a man's!
I'll finish this post off with my favourite story so far. I was in a taxi and got chatting to the driver who was telling me how many times he had visited London and what he thought of it. He began to praise the public transport system and how amazing it was that you could "buy one ticket and use it for unlimited travel" and then suddenly he exclaimed "WOMEN even drive the double-decker buses!!" Indeed they do...they also run the country!

1 comment:

  1. wow thank you you helped me so much with my report of my impressions of women in the middle east. It really surprised me that that actually happens there. It was really eye-opening