Monday, December 22, 2008

NYTimes Article Suggests Arab Women Sprout Wings

There is an interesting, although somewhat fanciful, article in the New York Times today about young Arab women who become flight attendants because the career offers an unusual amount of personal freedom.

On the surface I have nothing against this piece, but the past year has seen a host of articles in the American media about young Arab women and the various ways they attempt to date, work, worship equally, etc. In other words, to adopt more Western customs. The article seems to fall into a predictable mold: on the one side, the intelligent young women who become flight attendants, and on the other, traditional Arab culture.

The article says:

"Many of the young Arab women working in the Persian Gulf take delight in their status as pioneers, role models for their friends and younger female relatives. Young women brought up in a culture that highly values community, they have learned to see themselves as individuals."

They have learned to see themselves as individuals? This generalization seems out of place and also moralistic.

"For many families, allowing a daughter to work, much less to travel overseas unaccompanied, may call her virtue into question and threaten her marriage prospects. Yet this culture is changing, said Musa Shteiwi, a sociologist at Jordan University in Amman."

There are two recognizable camps in this debate. The first is the "West," which in this case means America. The other is "Arab culture," which in the context of this article seems to mean, "everything that American culture is not."

However, on American Bedu, (a website by a former American diplomat now married to a Saudi), the list of what Saudi women can and cannot do does not follow that predictable pattern.

For example, as has been said many times, it is against the law for Saudi women to drive. But Saudi women can work, have their own bank accounts and have their own businesses.

A close family friend of mine was once in school to become a Koranic scholar (he is Iranian). Although he left seminary, I remember having this same debate with him and he recited to me (in classical Arabic, no less) the portions of the Koran that say that married women retain property after their marriage. Women living in feudal England had none of these rights, but women in modern England do. So the "whatever the West is not" definition doesn't hold.

The right to financial independence, for women, seems to be a very integral part of traditional Arab doctrine.

And while it may seem that prejudice and practicality have made that independence impossible for Arab women, can we be sure of that fact? The journalists and scholars who shape our awareness of Arabs have worked off a shorthand definition of Muslim culture—"whatever American culture is not"—for so long that none of our assumptions make sense.

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