Middle Eastern Men and Women: Group-oriented Rather Than Individually Oriented. But What Does the Veil Mean?

My wife Lucia observed that a large percentage of her female students in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates — perhaps a third — had little interest in full-time jobs after they graduated, but instead hoped to marry and have children shortly after they earned their college degrees. In the UAE, the number of females in my classes aspiring primarily to a MRS degree soon after college graduation was probably closer to half.

Lucia also noted that some Turkish and UAE women who are housewives or secretaries — “oppressed” by the definitions of modern Western or American feminism — have happily accepted their roles in life and actually seem happier than some angst-ridden, ambitious Western women frustrated by their inability to rise to the top of their professions, or overwhelmed by a myriad of professional choices before them. And indeed, a book called “Undecided” by Barbara and Shannon Kelly focused on American women who are stressed-out, restless, and “stuck second-guessing themselves and looking over their shoulders” because the authors suggested, they have so many choices that their mothers didn’t have.

One of my seventh grade intermediate English classes in Turkey held a debate: “Should women work outside the home?” I couldn’t help but wonder if this debate was also going on inside the homes of many of my students. One of my male students contended, “our religion teaches us that women should take care of the house and children,” while men should take care of their families financially by working hard outside the home.

A girl replied that if women work outside the home, families will not be poor, will have more money and fewer financial worries. Women need to be free to spend some money on themselves, for nice clothing and looking attractive, she said. A boy countered that females waste the money they make on frivolous things — they spend too much on make-up and go shopping for recreational purposes rather than buying necessities or things for their families, he said. Echoing a debate held in many American households, he said families often have two bank accounts, one for “our money,” and the second for “her money.”

These conversations took place in my Turkish classrooms in the early 2010s, when Turkey’s economy was thriving. Six years later, the economy spiraled downward, and many families grew financially desperate. Except at the highest echelons of society, both women and men needed to work simply to make ends meet.

This challenged traditional gender roles in Turkey, with men dominating the workplaces and politics, while women supposed to dominate the home and pay more attention to child-rearing. Both males and females felt stressed out and frustrated.

The World Economic Economic Forum’s 2009 survey indicated a huge gender gap in compensation for women compared to men in Turkey: “it held 105th place in 2006, was 121st in 2007 and 123rd in 2008. This year, only Saudi Arabia, Benin, Pakistan, Chad and Yemen ranked lower then Turkey. The report ranked Turkey 110th in women’s educational attainment, 130th in economic participation and opportunity and 107th in political empowerment, out of 134 countries.” Only about one out of four women were employed outside the home in 2008, and that number dwindled to nearly one out of five in 2009. Unemployed women are clearly poorer women, and their children are poorer too.

By 2018, Turkey had tragically declined to 130th in gender equality out of 149 countries, according to the World Economic Forum survey. The United Arab Emirates ranked 121, down slightly from 120, and Saudi Arabia ranked 141.

And yet, people we know are more important than statistical data, which can be skewed by interpretations that don’t tell the full story. As Elle Loftis explained in an article for Today’s Zaman in 2009, “Diary of an Expat Bride: Therapy for Cross-cultural Couples,” quoting Turkish-American psychologist Eda Arduman:

“Turkish society and families focus on the group rather than the individual, unlike the Western model…Generally, the American and European model raises us in a culture of over-individuation. We aspire to be ‘solely independent.’ This is completely counter to the Turkish standard…”

My wife and I certainly met Turkish and Emirati women who seem to be both professionally and personally fulfilled, free from stereotyped roles, and happy in their family lives. A large percentage of Turkish and Emirati women may stay home to care for children and/or parents. Or, because child care and elder care services are unavailable, they feel they have no choice but to stay home and take care of family members.

A Turkish entrepreneur observed to me that high-powered businessmen the world over are the same. Once they’ve established their families,  they are often driven by an appetite for “the three m’s”: money, a mistress, and Mercedes — the full trappings of power, success, and status, dreaming of being envied by their male peers. In the West, think of US Presidents, including Donald Trump, former North Carolina senator and presidential aspirant John Edwards, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy or Aristotle Onassis (the Greek shipping magnate who was born in Kayseri, Turkey).

Polygamy has been illegal in Turkey since 1926 when Ataturk banned it as part of his modernization campaign.  Even during Ottoman times, polygamy was limited — only about two percent of Turks engaged in it, according to historians — mostly among those wealthy enough to support extra spouses.  It is still occasionally practiced in rural villages in the Southeast, among the uneducated.

It is more common in the UAE where some men can afford to support two families. But when one of my students surveyed peers on whether they would openly engage in a polygamous relationship, less than 10 percent of the young women said they would tolerate it. Significantly more young men — one out of five — said they would like to do so, but when their peers explained how pressurized or stressed out their lives would be — treating all spouses exactly equally in terms of finances and attention — polygamy did not seem to appeal much to the men either.

Scarf and Veil: What Do They Mean?

About half of Turkish women, in my observation, wore scarves or veils in public 2009-2011. About 80 percent of my female Emirati students were veiled in public, but not in the classroom. I did not have any students who covered their faces in class.

It’s difficult for a Westerner such as myself to know the meaning of head coverings. Is such headgear a statement of submission to Allah? A statement of submission to men? To their mother’s expectations? Or simply a fashion statement?

“The veil has become a clichéd symbol for what the West perceives as Muslim oppression, tyranny, and zealotry – all of which have little to do with the real reasons why Muslim women veil,” Jennifer Heath, editor of the 2008 book “The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics,” told The Christian Science Monitor. Westerners are particularly fearful of the niqab, which covers not only a woman’s hair but her face as well, because to Westerners a mask communicates deceit or that the wearer has something to hide. Women in Islamic societies have different opinions on whether the niqab is appropriate in modern life. It is considered by many to be very different from a scarf.

The Monitor quoted a Muslim man who said he respects women who cover themselves because “we see that as a sign that she appreciates herself, that she has some dignity, that she’s not into that materialistic thing and trying to be a sex symbol.” But to him, whether a woman wears a headscarf is not a big issue. “At the end of the day, it’s one small thing that represents the entire entity…of this human being.”

On the surface, it may appear to Westerners that Muslim men dominate and boss their wives. But Turkish men have joked with me that their homes are their castles, but their wives rule the roost. One of my adult male students quipped, “I have the remote control (of the television), but my wife has remote control of me.”

Another man I know joked, “Out in the jungles of life, I am a lion, the king of the forest. But at home, a tiger awaits me.” His friend needles him: “Are you sure a tiger awaits you at home? Maybe what awaits you at home is a chicken, because you are hen-pecked. Notice that when my wife calls me, I tell her that I am busy now, I will be home in a few hours. But when your wife calls you, you say, ‘Yes dear. Yes dear. Yes, dear. I’m sorry I’m late. I will be home in less than one hour.’ ”

A Muslim woman we know, who wears a scarf in public, complains that too many Turkish men have not sufficiently individuated from their mothers, which causes tension with their wives. “There are a lot of 40-year-old mama’s boys,” she observed.

And yet Turkish men and women seem to do a better job of taking care of their families, particularly older parents than some Americans who send parents off to nursing homes when they get old.

Are Women Soon To Be Leaders in Gulf States? They Are Far More Eager for Education

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to Middle Eastern countries like the UAE where young women are educating themselves in far larger numbers than men, and prepared for leadership roles. Will they be allowed to lead the nations’ institutions, or be forced to remain “the power behind the thrones” of men who are simply ill-suited, and perhaps even disinterested, in the responsibilities of leadership? If not, will this lead to greater repression and frustration?

In 2016, the (UK) Financial Times reported that Emirati women are breaking with tradition and “make up around three quarters of student bodies in state universities.” The success story of women’s education in the UAE, reported  from Abu Dhabi, “is one of the few bright spots in the Middle East.”

Back in the 1970s, only about a third of Emirati women over the age of 15 could read and write.  Today, according to FT, that figure is 92 percent. My colleagues and I might express skepticism over the high number, because the UAE does not have a reading culture compared to the West, and only a tiny minority of our students voluntarily read books for pleasure or enlightenment in English.

Even so, the university experience was clearly changing the lives of young Emirati women. Far more of them each year wanted to work after graduation and gain financial independence from their families. A few spoke of living independently, on their own — a radical step in their culture.

From the FT article:

“Our best bet, at this period of time where we have wealth, is to invest all our resources in education; there will be a time, 50 years from now, when we load the last barrel of oil aboard the ship,” said the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, in a speech…

“The social consequences of two generations of educated women are now beginning to emerge. Emirati women, like their counterparts in the west, are starting to get married later in life. The average age of marriage is now 23.9, according to the Abu Dhabi Statistical Yearbook. While that is still much younger than in the US, where the average age is 28, in the pre-oil era, Emirati women could be married as young as 13.”

The Monitor has some insightful articles:

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