Saturday, October 31, 2009
Living in a Man's World
I've been living in Kuwait exactly 10 months (yesterday was my 10 month anniversary). It's hard to believe it's been that long...although there are certainly days when time seems to race by. In many ways, Kuwait is a man's world. Like anywhere in the world, the male/female ratio is pretty even; however, in Kuwait you see men everywhere. There are certainly women out in the city, but they tend to blend into the background. In Kuwait, most women wear the black abaya and black hijab. As such, their presence in malls and stores is almost like a backdrop...sometimes they stare at me and sometimes I stare back. But we pass each other like silent ghosts drifting through the halls of a man's world. The men, on the other hand, wear a long white robe and white headscarf. The contrast between the black covering of the women and the white gowns of the men is stark. On my university campus, the contrast is less...many of the girls on campus wear western clothes or spice up their coverings with jewels and embroidery and oh so much make-up. Within the walls of our campus, people breath. There is a loosening of the rigid gender parameters, banter and even friendship between boys and girls. But when the school day ends and the Mercedes and BMWs pull out of their haphazard parking spots to re-enter the traditional society, culture's influence shifts the paradigm back to the norm of this place. For me, as a Western woman, there are times when the gender contrasts leap to the forefront of my daily life. Yesterday was such a day. I made what I like to call a poor life choice. After church, I decided to stop somewhere and pick up lunch. I ran into a little thai restaurant and looked over the food...but the flies and questionable cleanliness forced me to do an about-face and bolt for the exit. As I got closer to home, I remembered a little arab restaurant that is always crowded (always eat where the locals eat!). I decided to try it out. After maneuvering through the crazy traffic, I managed to secure a parking spot right in front of the restaurant...and promptly got parked in by another car. As I looked around and got my bearings, I saw a sea of white...men men men. All men in white dishdashas. Not a woman to be seen. Holding my head high (and pulling at my clothes to try to ensure that the least bit of skin was showing), I got out of my car and walked into the restaurant. Only men. I scanned around for some kind of menu in English, and nothing. There was a group of men clustered around the check-out counter, so I wedged my way in (careful not to touch anyone), and asked for a menu. The man looked at me, said "no english menu" and turned away. Keep in mind that this is not typical treatment here...most restaurant workers are incredibly gracious. Apparently I was suddenly the focus of all attention, as all the men turned around and with various degrees of success, asked me what I wanted. By this point, I was incredibly flustered, uncomfortable, and my antenna was up. I don't like being in a man's world in this context. Although I don't think anything bad would happen, it just didn't feel safe. I turned around to just leave, but a kind man with great english stopped me and asked if he could help me order. We were able to place an order, and with a knowing look he told me I could go wait in my car and they would bring it out to me. I contemplated just getting in my car and leaving (without the food), but I was still parked in...and the owner of the offending car was just standing there staring at me. So I sat in my car and fiddled with my ipod and played on my phone and did everything possible to avoid the stares of all the men in the joint. Apparently, the fact that I was a woman and that I was american was almost too much for them. I was a novelty, and in a place where the western "no staring" rule doesn't apply, I was fair game. So I sat there for twenty minutes, a piece of meat on display. Culture is culture. There are differences, and that's ok. But there are times when even my broad worldview can't take it. There are times when the discomfort and the tension make me want to either run away, or stand up and fight. But in this context, in this place, my defiance would do no good. I can stare back. I can grimace or wave them away. But I won't win this fight. It's much deeper than any action on my part can influence. So I learn to look away, to not make eye contact...to still hold myself with pride...but to pick and choose my battles. Sometimes it's easier (and safer!) to blend into the background. To acknowledge that for this moment in time in this culture, I'm living in a man's world. That's a hard thing for this independent woman to say. But every day that I survive and even thrive here is a day where I win the battle. So I survived my restaurant experience. I got my food and it was good. And when I started to back out with my car and couldn't get any cars to stop long enough for me to reverse onto the street, one of the restaurant workers ran out into the street to stop traffic so I could leave. I guess it's not always bad being the center of attention. It's uncomfortable, and I don't really like it, but I'm a woman living in a man's world and learning to be independent and strong even in a culture that is as different from mine as night from day. But like all things, it's an experience...a small window into a world that is filled with women who have done this much longer than me. So I guess that my final thought for today is this...there are so many women who are braver and stronger than me...who have lived and survived in a man's world for their entire lives. They are the courageous ones. I might have a few uncomfortable restaurant experiences, but they get my standing ovation.