I wrote this as a writing sample for an internship (one I did not get); however, it is still a good piece of writing and I wanted to share it.
Strolling through the Villagio in Doha (Qatar), my host, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar, tells me that she sometimes covers her entire face with her veil when in a crowd of men because being bare-faced “was like being raped with their eyes.”
By tying being safe to being covered, she implies that when men make her feel unsafe, her only recourse is to hide. This stuck with me on my flight back to Pittsburgh.
As a woman, a United States citizen, and a black-belt in Shito-Ryu Karate Do, I feel safe in most public places. I know I can cause enough damage to escape from nearly-all women and most men if I am attacked. I also know most people on any given street would try to help me, and that the law is on my side.
The idea that men can hurt women and all that women can do is hide or be protected is not unique to Doha. I have heard it argued by female students at Carnegie Mellon-Pittsburgh. I have heard it in advice from police, who tell women not to fight back if they are mugged or raped, because their attacker will only hurt them more.
As captain of my high school wrestling team, I know how much damage a woman can do to a man. However, in my experience, women are sometimes taught they cannot fight back effectively not because it is true, but because this idea confirms something we “know” about men and women in a society.
I want to make clear that my host’s need to cover herself with her veil in public does not make her veil part of the problem. Her veil was not oppressive—it was a voluntary expression of modesty. Nor do I think her feeling of vulnerability comes from being a Muslim woman. I am absolutely no expert, but in the seminar on Islamic Feminism which I attended at CMU-Qatar (taught by a CMU-Qatar student) I came to think that many of the gender assumptions I saw in Qatar come from Gulf culture rather than Islam. To my knowledge, there is nothing in Islam which says a woman cannot successfully defend herself from an attacker.
As upsetting as it was to hear my strong, smart host tell me how unsafe she felt in public, I was more bothered by my family and friends’ reactions to this story when I came home to the US. They blamed Islam and Arab culture which in my brief stay (except for issues surrounding women’s safety) I had found to be family-oriented and pleasantly hospitable. I felt myself divided between cultures—wanting to find ways to help women like my host feel safer in public, and defend Arab culture against ill-informed attacks. It was difficult to do both.
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