S#*t Women Say–UAE Style

Facing cultural differences is one of the joys and challenges of expatriate life. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy living abroad. If I weren’t fascinated by different cultural practices, I would have stayed safely in the United States. Before traveling to a new country for a weekend visit, or two year contract, I do a bit of research in order to learn about my guest culture and to be as sensitive and educated as possible. However, I’ve learned the hard way, that no matter how many “Living and Working in (insert country here)” books I read, I can’t avoid the reality that I, as a foreigner, will frequently misread a situation completely or say something I later find out is culturally inappropriate. I’ve had to embrace the fact that my time abroad will be full of moments ranging from slightly awkward to completely mortifying. After the embarrassment is over, I have to hope that the experiences will make entertaining stories for others, or will at least result in some type of character development. One thing I’ve noticed is that some of the most surprising differences are the ones that jump at you when and where you least expect them.

I was born and raised in the Southern United States. Part of my heart will always remain in Atlanta, Georgia. Southern culture, like any culture, holds much to be proud of and much that could be improved on. Southern women in particular have a highly complex set of rules that we learn about navigating the social realm, and these rules make deep roots. One of the first lessons little Southern girls learn is the etiquette regarding comments on the appearance of others. We are rarely honest about appearance to a person’s face. If a woman gets a new haircut, we rave about how good she looks whether the style is red-carpet worthy, or could easily be mistaken for a stray poodle. New makeup? “Beautiful!” Neon orange spandex jumpsuit? “How flattering, girl!” “Don’t be silly, you don’t look fat in those skinny jeans.” Any negative comments, no matter well intended, are viewed as a deliberate insult, and usually result in hurt feelings, offense, or anger. If we detect a desire for a genuine opinion on something that looks bad, we can be honest, but we choose our words with the caution of a watchmaker unless the asker is a family member or extremely thick-skinned. Is this practice insincere? Maybe. Is it fake? Yeah, I guess so. Is it expected? Absolutely. It’s just the way we do things down South. It probably has a lot to do with our reputation for out-of-date hairstyles and fashion. No one has the heart to tell anyone how bad they look. Blame it on our blood—In the South, we just don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, at least when we are present to face the consequences.

(This lady is obviously Southern, or someone would have stopped her from going out like this.)

The negative side of this rule rears its ugly face the moment a woman leaves the room. Behind a person’s back, my Southern Sisters and I have free reign to think and speak freely, and speak freely we do. We focus on minute details you’d need a microscope to examine, and make comparisons and analogies worthy of a Pulitzer prize. Southern women can be extremely two-faced, and this can be very hurtful. However, since it follows the rules we learned as children, we are far more prepared to hear critiques of our appearance second-hand, than to our face.

Even though I’ve lived in other countries and am used to slightly more honesty regarding appearance, years of training on denial and avoidance runs deep. I used to tell my students back home, “if you don’t have something nice to say about a person, don’t say it at all.” Not so much here in the UAE. I work in an all-female environment, and the authority and bluntness local women employ when discussing appearance has been a source of surprise and amusement since my first few days here.

My colleagues and I were some of the first foreign employees to work at our school. We were welcomed, yet viewed with a mix of fascination and trepidation. Different preferences in clothing, hair styles, and application of make-up has been observed and commented on by both sides. These differences have led to numerous amusing, unexpected, and thankfully innocent encounters. Like women everywhere, Emirati women are obsessed with meeting the ideal weight and body structure, and the significant weight loss I achieved during my first year here made me a constant object of attention and discussion, mostly in a language I can still barely speak.

Weight is a sensitive topic with women. In the South, if it’s handed poorly, it will quickly result in tears, or passive aggression at a minimum. Here, discussion of weight combines brutal honesty with what I really, really hope is a love for exaggeration. Frequent and sincere compliments on my weight loss were always accompanied by lively comparisons to how I looked when I first began work. These “before and after” conversations always involved wild animated facial expressions and gestures that have convinced me that I must surely have been mistaken for a whale, rather than a new teacher. I should really have taken more photos of myself on arrival, because apparently, not only did my face resemble a blowfish, but my hips and rear were so large, I must have unknowingly been knocking over chairs and tables as I circulated around my classroom. I’m grateful my thunderous footsteps did not cause damage to the windows and skylights, and I’m surprised I was able to squeeze through the classroom door openings.

(Me pre-weight loss—according to the miming)

None of these actions or pantomines were meant to hurt me in the slightest, and were used as an addition to their compliments. They always included multiple repetitions of Mashalla (as God wishes) to reinforce this fact, and the women hounded me for diet and exercise secrets. I will never cease to be amazed by the drama and attention given to a subject that is actually quite personal, and a potential emotional minefield. Thank God I have a sense of humor, and my Southern training made me retell the stories and gestures with my friends (behind the women’s backs of course) as I convulsed with laughter rather than tears. Had this happened in the South, such “insults” would have made it impossible for me to return to the workplace.

I am not alone in my experience of blunt and dramatic comments on my appearance by teachers from non-Western countries.  One friend was pulled aside while teaching to hear another teacher’s urgent concern for her taste in lipstick. Apparently, no one could tell that she was wearing it, and her favorite color was wasting her time and money. My friend’s response that she preferred natural colors was dismissed with speed and authority, and she was advised to switch to a brighter color as soon as possible.  The gain of a few grams of weight is immediately announced, usually with a lot of finger-pointing to the area of concern, and advice on how to lose it quickly follows.  Another favorite question experienced by many of my associates is, “What’s wrong with your face?” The feature causing such alarm could be freckles, a suntan, or even acne. It seems that several local teachers serve dual roles as cosmetic/fashion police, and their duties are often given priority over instructional time. Beauty discussions are very important, and are neither subtle, nor restricted to tea break conversation.

The importance of beauty during and outside of work came as a small surprise to me. The national dress for Emirati women is the abaya, a graceful black gown that can be completely plain, or covered in elaborate designs. It is worn outside the home, over a woman’s other clothing. All Emirati, and most other Muslim women here wear a hijab or shayla that covers most or all of their hair. A smaller percentage of women choose to wear gloves and the niqab, a veil that covers their face except for their eyes. Part of the reasoning behind veiling is to bring the focus away from women’s physical attributes and more towards their personality and abilities.

(Some particularly blinging abayas and shaylas)

(A woman wearing the niqab)

I’d previously read several articles and websites on veiling to educate myself not only on the religious and cultural traditions behind veiling, but on the opinions of the women themselves. I kept reading about the liberation felt by women who veil by choice. I could truly appreciate how wearing the hijab or even the niqab could be freeing rather than restricting, and several quotes really spoke to me:

The idea behind that was that the sexuality of one didn’t influence the other, so that men and women would treat each other like equal human beings,” *

“It keeps me protected from the fashion industry. The hijab liberates you from the media, brainwashing you into, Buy this, buy that, you’re supposed to look like this,” she says. “It allows me to be who I am. I don’t have to worry about being popular through buying things that are ‘cool’.” *

The definition of beauty is ever-changing; waifish is good, waifish is bad, athletic is good – sorry, athletic is bad. Women are not going to achieve equality by putting their bodies on display, as some people would like to have you believe. That would only make us party to our own objectification. True equality will be had only when women don’t need to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.”*

(Bikini vs Burqa)

Women dressed in such a way would be protected not only from men’s lusty stares, but from men’s judgment of our worth based on beauty alone. Sadly, what living here has reinforced for me is that as women, we can escape men, but we can not escape ourselves.

Emirati women, just like their Western counterparts, are bombarded by advertisements and reminders of what their bodies and features are lacking.  My current job offers me daily opportunities to see what lies beyond the veils.  Beneath their shaylas and abayas, many women of this country enhance their faces with elaborate makeup, decorate their hands and feet with intricate henna designs, and beautify themselves from head to toe using every product and procedure possible. Like Western women, my Arabic sisters eagerly track down products and guidance in constant pursuit of the ideal of beauty.

In my particular school, all of the women are married and at least half of them don the niqab when they are outside. That means that the only males who see their faces are their sons, husbands, many of whom are living or frequently travel abroad, and certain male family members. So who do we dress up at work for? Why do so many of us, myself included, spend time carefully applying makeup and hair products to spend our day working with small children and other women?  Because we constantly scrutinize our own appearance and the appearance of other women.  It is impossible to escape assessment by our own gender.

Did you get a little fat?”  “This dress is very nice on you.” “Why you no straighten hair today?”  We are constantly critiqued as well as complimented. I’m just as guilty as the next woman. “Threading is so cheap here, why can’t she just get rid of that unibrow?”  “Wow, look how much she bleaches her skin. I’ve never seen a person that color.”  “Look at her in that tight abaya. Who does she think she is?”  We are so quick to note and comment on other women, and sadly it is negative far more often than positive.  Are we so insecure, that we must be harsh on others in order to protect ourselves?

Standards and definitions of beauty differ throughout countries, cultures and classes, but the desire to be beautiful is worldwide. It’s not just about men—-hardly. Perhaps those with a stronger background in feminist theory would argue that this all stems from patriarchal culture, but I’m looking at the practicalities of daily life rather than complex theories of origin. I feel that subconsciously, I often work harder to impress the women in my life than I do the men. Let’s be honest with ourselves.  We look to other women for reassurance and validation on our own appearance.  We judge ourselves by a far higher standard and focus in on tiny details that most men would never dream of.  We examine, question and critique each other with a ferocity that never ceases to amaze me.

I began this post by comparing the frankness my host culture uses when discussing beauty with the Southern way of “softening the truth.”  We may use different words and methods, but I believe no matter how much we choose to cover or uncover, women the world over judge each other according to their appearance.  We can cloak ourselves from head to toe and hide every millimeter of skin from men, but we will never escape the eyes of other women.

I admit I have not yet braved this subject with local women, and I wonder if they would agree with my opinion. Perhaps the honesty and openness they employ when discussing appearance shows a comfort with their flaws that I as a non-hijabi Westerner do not have.  Maybe the equality and liberation they feel beneath the shaylas and niqabs extends to their relations with other women, and the harshness I describe is purely a reflection of my own insecurity.  Living in a different culture affords me the opportunity to answer these questions, and my next step should be to find the courage to ask them.

Question: Do you agree that women are each other’s harshest critics when it comes to appearance?

*References:

Quote 1: http://old.post-gazette.com/headlines/20011028muslimwomennat3p3.asp

Quote 2: http://www.islamfortoday.com/hijabcanada4.htm

Quote 3: http://www.iisna.com/articles/pamphlets/the-hijab-reflections-by-muslim-women/