Sunday, May 22, 2011

written on May 18th, on the ferry from Egypt to Jordan

I am writing this (in saved document form obviously – no wifi in the middle of the red sea), whilst on the Ferry from Nuweiba Egypt, to Aqaba, Jordan. I have plenty of time to kill.

It is oddly tranquil here on the boat at this time, but that might have something to do with my comfy seat in the “VIP area” that the 10 odd tourists on this entire slow, 2nd class boat, have been segregated into. I am not a fan of such separation, and chose to wander the upper deck earlier, while we waited seemingly forever for the boat to get moving. It was quite the adventure making my way to the upper deck, men taking my photo non-stop, much chatter and smiles and hundreds of local Egyptians and (mostly) Jordanians…but not the same outright harassment as I found in Egypt. (If this is any indication of the Jordanian people, I am impressed! ) I also had the opportunity to converse (well, as much as possible given that they spoke no English) with some Jordanian women, who kept smiling and touching me and asking for my name and saying what seemed to be kind things and showing me the way to the bathroom (where 4 women were basically having a bath party in the sink, washing their feet and faces, veils off).

The unfortunate thing about “mingling” with the locals like this is that because most other travellers seem to be content with the tourist apartheid techinique and apparently don’t move from their seat, I got locked out on the deck because certain local people (those who didn’t pay for a seat I assume), are not allowed into the cabins and well…they lock the doors I guess?. After much fuss and smiles and laughs and shameless flirting (and one kind matriarchal lady who proceeded to scold the men in very abrupt Arabic for bothering me, hehe), I managed to find one man who knew how to get me back into the VIP sitting area, where I had left my backpack. Shukran! And here I am now, writing this.

I have been thinking a lot about the position of women in the middle east, and it occurred to me that today was one of the first times where I felt like I actually genuinely interacted with women, as a group. I met individual women in Cairo of course, but as a whole, most local strangers talking to me have inevitably been men. Its sort of like the giant pink elephant in the room that is obvious but ackward to talk about, the inequalities and position of women in Islamic countries. I hate making generalizations, and I have avoided really writing about it because of this ( as it always seems to come across as the privileged spoiled almost neo-colonial westerner spouting off on things they know little about), but it is fascinating and worth discussion. I will try to not sound like an ass here.

As I see it, men and men basically just have separate public lives, though im sure behind closed doors it is a different scene and women express themselves normally and yell and get angry at their foolish boyfriends as much as back home. As a traveller I am fortunate to have a window into each world(the women washing their feet in the bathroom on this boat, laughing and smiling at me, and the numerous men who have struck up conversation, initially with the intent of just hitting on me I suppose, but then actually having a real conversation, smoking sheesha and being “one of the boys” to some extent ). I feel fortunate in this, even if the perception of me as an outsider can also be a detriment (the aforementioned low grade sexual harassment).

I don’t know how to put this next paragraph delicately. Hmm. As much as I don’t want to say it, I have to tell it like I see it I guess: I don’t particularly care for how frequently I have seen women in full Burkas (not “full” I guess , ones with slits for the eyes – I have only seen 2 completely veiled women, one on the Cairo subway and another in Nuweiba, walking blindly in the wind which seemed ready to rip it off),sitting next to their husbands in T-shirts and jeans. This inequality is what bothers me, not the act of dressing modestly in the "eyes of Allah" or whatever, which to some extent I respect (though certainly wouldn’t care to do myself, its too damn hot here, lets be honest). Add to this the fact that many of these same men who preserve the chastity of their wives and sisters by hiding their physical beauty from the eyes of others, are all too pleased to see me with bare arms and legs, and its hard for me, as a feminist, not to want to screammmm. I am told at least a dozen times a day, probably more if I walk any length down the street, how “beautiful” I am, and “oh my god” etc etc…and it bothers me because it rings so insincere in a culture where local women are not allowed the same liberties. I feel like if these men were more used to seeing natural, strong, women just wearing jeans and tshirts themselves, out and about in public, and could talk with them…their hormones might be a bit more in check. Its also somewhat irritating to have this harassment and see the rings on these mens fingers.

I want to make it clear, that I am not dismissing the strength and dignity of the women here, which I can sense is very strong , I just cant quite put my finger on what im trying to say I guess. I suppose I am just tired of the hypocrisy, and undignified behavior of some of the men. (though admittedly being constantly complimented on ones eyes is a bit of a stoke to the ego – men are obsessed with my eyes here, and I thought it was just some line until no other traveling women I mentioned this to had experienced this compliment. Woohoo! haha). I dont want to generalize "all" the men as being this way, and i know there are exceptions, but the overwhelming majority really fit the negative stereotype, when it comes to hitting on the "western" ladies.

I guess one could argue that there is a similar level of unspoken harassment in the western world, where if a women chooses to show skin or wear a short skirt and she IS sexually assaulted (much more common in the west than here), we often subtely blame her for dressing provocatively, or “putting herself” in a dangerous situation. It seems like your damned if you do, damned if you don’t, but I truly believe that dialogue between men and women is the only thing that’s ever going to improve things, and change the sexisim that exists in too many cultures including my own,. So globally, not just in the middle east but anywhere, I welcome any chance I get to genuinely talk to men, and women, whoever is open to it.

Okay, my battery is running low here, so I will shut down my computer. 4 more hours I think till Aqaba? And I have already ate all my chips and bread and cheese and coca cola (such a healthy lunch/dinner). Maybe I will go wander around and get my picture taken some more? *sigh*



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