Culture Shock: Segregated Lives for Men and Women

Perhaps the biggest culture shock for me as an American living in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates was the largely segregated lives of men and women, even in the classroom. In elementary schools, classes were integrated by gender, but by high school, boys and girls mostly attended segregated classes. On the college level, I mostly taught classes of women, or twice a week, walked across a securely locked campus to teach classes of men. My wife, at different universities with more serious students experienced co-ed classes for her entire eight years teaching abroad.

The roles of men and women are changing rapidly in the Middle East. I cannot be sure that what I observed 2009 through 2017 remains true today. Economically, it is essential in every nation to welcome women into the workplace, and to promote competent women over incompetent men. I generally found the females to be far more serious students than the males. They saw education as a way out of the cloistered, limited, boring life, under the thumb of their fathers or older brothers.

Dinner parties were like I imagine dinner parties in America in the 1950s: the men in one part of the house discussing manly things — international events, global or national politics, the outdoors, sports — and the women in the kitchen or the parlor discussing female things — children, family, relationships, household management.

I felt conflicted. On the one hand, we in the West are far more egalitarian and publicly accepting of male-female relationships and fluid gender roles. On the other hand, we have perhaps lost something because we no longer have as many intense relationships with people of our own gender.

Men Hug, Kiss, Dance Together in Turkey and Call Each Other ‘Handsome’

Gay Relationships As Common As In the West

Shockingly, despite the cultural stigma and dire legal consequences for homosexual relationships, they appeared as common in Turkey and the Middle East as in America. Natural urges cannot be repressed, I guess.

At the rigidly segregated university I taught at in Abu Dhabi, a female student burst into my office, closed the door, sat down and said, “Sir, I have a secret to tell you.”

What is it, I asked?

“Half the girls here are gay!” she said.

I smiled. “How do you know?” I asked.

“I just found two girls making out in an empty classroom!” she revealed.

“I can’t say that I am terribly surprised,” I said.

“I’m not either,” she said. This young woman, who had traveled to Europe and to America, felt the rigid gender segregation of her own country was oppressive.

“Since the girls here can’t date boys, they experiment with what’s available, other girls,” she explained. “Some of them decide they prefer girls to boys.”

“Yes, I imagine so,” I said.

Views of the Opposite Sex

The females — generally 18 to 22 — insisted on referring to themselves as girls, not women. And the males — also generally 18 to 22 — generally referred to themselves as boys, not men. Both viewed each other like junior high school students in the states, either idealizing and putting the opposite sex on a pedestal, or because of a dominant parental figure in their lives, expressing fear and anxiety of losing their individual autonomy from a relationship with the opposite sex.

A teaching colleague — strikingly beautiful, well-dressed in colorful, tight-fitting skirt and blouse — walked into a male classroom and after the first few sessions noticed that the boys were red-faced, mouths agape, frequently almost drooling. She asked what was wrong. One confessed, stuttering: “We — we aren’t used to a teacher who is so beautiful,” he said innocently.

Another piped up. “I’m not distracted. It doesn’t bother me. I’m gay.”

The teacher laughed.

The other boys glared at him. “You aren’t gay. You can’t be gay (in this society)! It’s not allowed.”

“I’m gay until I get married,” he confessed.

In two communications research classes — one male and one female — several students picked the topic of gender-integrated classes. One of my best male students wanted to partner with a female student on a survey. A female student agreed to exchange research with him, but only by email. She wouldn’t meet him. Most of the male students wanted co-ed classes. Most of the female students did not, fearing that males in the class would be a distraction or lower the standards of discourse.

Rapid Changes in Relationships

But traditional barriers of gender segregation were changing due to technology. Young people could first get to know each other through social media. This was a revolution in the making.

A colleague reported after attending a wedding for a student that the parties were segregated. This led to an intense discussion on Facebook among Westerners and Middle Easterners.

The subject is complicated. Each person brings his or her own cultural baggage and expectations into the discussion. I reflected on this on my history and social studies blog:

What If Western Women Dressed ‘Modestly’?

I will have more to say on this topic.

More culture shocks:

  1. Disobeying Traffic Rules, Flouting the Law
  2. Offensive Questions from Both Sides of the Global Divide
  3. Humorous Turkish Memories, By Lucia
  4. Men Hug, Kiss, Dance Together in Turkey and Call Each Other ‘Handsome’
  5. Life in Conservative Muslim City Reminded Me of America in the 1950s, 1960s


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