Sunday, October 7, 2012

This is a man's world... and other observations.

I've been in Iraq just over a month and I have to tell you, it's nothing like I thought it would be.

All of those assumptions you or I or pretty much any Westerner has made about living in the Middle East, most of them are complete crap fed by the media (sometimes the mass journalist media, but also movies, etc.)

There are only a few ideas I had about Iraq before I got here that are left standing:

1. This is a man's world. That said, Kurdistan is fairly progressive. Women can be doctors and vote and drive and take care of their bodies in the way that they see fit. Also, in the event of a marriage, apparently any and all things in the bedroom belong to the woman. Keep that in mind guys. However, women are sometimes treated like second-class citizens. There are still rather rigid gender lines, especially among the older generations. I can actually see a clear distinction of this when talking to my older and younger students. The thoughts surrounding gender are definitely changing and you can see it happening.

2. Modesty is recommended and often key to navigating the previous observation. I do my best to manage a wardrobe that doesn't have me stepping back in time 100 years while still being both respectful of cultural differences as well as comfortable. For work, since I go into the center of the city where things are a little more conservative than they are out here in the suburbs, I usually wear skirts that cover my knees or skirts with leggings. Then I'll wear a t-shirt with a cardigan and a scarf. 

In my classes, my students are quite progressive and also willing to make exceptions for the fact that I will have a different cultural background from them. If I get hot, they don't get offended if I take off my scarf and/or cardigan. Even without them though, my outfits tend to be far more modest than what the average Western woman wears to work these days. 

On weekends, I push my boundaries a little bit. This is mostly because I spend most of my free-time with expats or with locals who spend a lot of time with expats and don't care. I still prefer to wear jeans, but that's mostly because I just love wearing jeans and I can't wear them all week. Shorts are still a big no-no. However, I'll wear a sleeveless top or something with a mildly more risque neckline and simple throw on a scarf or cardigan to cover up until I reach my destination. I do find that dressing modestly helps immensely. I've seen women who fight it and insist on wearing whatever the hell they want to and the respect or lack thereof with which they are treated is immensely different from that which I experience. Remember, you have to earn respect which means dishing some out for the local culture.

3. Foreign women are held to totally different standards and in a completely different light from Middle Eastern women. People look at me and they just have different expectations. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it's a bad thing. Sometimes remembering the first two observations helps make a big difference here. 

I'm blonde and blue-eyed and therefore stick out like a sore thumb anyway. I draw a lot of attention. Even sitting in the back of a taxi, people are always staring or pointing at me. In fact, I like to wear gigantic sunglasses like a movie star just to get them wondering if I might be someone famous. It's a fun game. 

While it can be a bit obnoxious, it can be both bad and good.

Being the blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreign woman walking down the street has its down side. Referencing both of the previous observations, this is a man's world and for whatever reason men here have decided that women like me (ahem, those damned Westerners) are all sluts and we just can't wait to hook up with them. It's mostly that they think this about pretty much all foreign women. But the lighter your features, the more you stick out and the bigger target you are for sexual harassment. 

That said, sticking out and drawing a lot of attention can sort of make things safer for me as well. If everyone notices you, then everyone notices if something bad is or might happen to you. I'm less likely to have any physical harm come to me. Up until now, most people are pretty respectful. I just get a lot of stares, but that's really from both genders. Now and then I'll get cat called or a man will make some crude noises at me. 

The other night I and my two flatmates were walking down the street when someone drove by yelling, "Nice boobs." This was honestly a really confusing comment since he was passing us from behind and we were all wearing copious amounts of clothing covering ourselves and he therefore probably couldn't even make out the shape of our boobs much less tell if they're nice or not. We all just looked at each other with raise eyebrows and continued on our way.

However, I experienced similar harassment at home in Texas. So I guess things really aren't so different.

Now that I've written this post, I have this song stuck in my head. Enjoy.

*Disclaimer: These observations are true for me. I've discussed some of them with friends and they tend to agree. However, I do not venture to say I speak for all women living in Iraq.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this sound and even-handed post. I know that seems like a nothing statement, but it's nice to get a perspective that isn't wildly skewed for one reason or another. Hope you're having a good time!


Have any thoughts on this post? Let me hear it!