Sunday, 16 October 2016

Lessons from an Outsider

Being an outsider is challenging but rewarding at the same time. It’s true what Eckhart Tolle has said; it makes life difficult, but it also places you at an advantage as far as enlightenment is concerned. It teaches you a lot about what’s important in life and how you can navigate through the obstacles put in your way. It first puts you down, to the rock bottom, and then you develop certain coping mechanisms and ultimately grow as a person. So, basically it’s a blessing in disguise.

It’s not the first time I’m being an outsider but it surely is the most  conspicuous of all the times I’ve been an alien. Being a single, non-Arabic speaking, non-hijab-wearing Muslim, expat woman in the Gulf is awfully different than being the new kid in a private school or the young management trainee in a company where everyone has at least 7-10 years of tenure. It has nuisances in so many different levels but having a vagina complicates your life far more than vocabulary, faith and culture combined. 

Being a woman in the work place is tough, regardless of the geography. Being an ‘outsider’ is the one thing all working women have in common. Regardless of race, religion or social class it’s enough to be a woman in order to be judged and found ‘inadequate’ by men. Even Queen Victoria  had to prove her worth every single day as a young female monarch in the 19th century UK. She is now the symbol of great expansion of British Empire but she has gone through the same struggles modern women are going through. So, we can confidently say mankind has failed to accomplish adequate progress towards gender equality in the past century. 

Gender equality is almost non-existent in the Gulf. Not only we are paid less but also perceived as ‘lost causes’ since we are meant to get married, have kids – maybe follow our husbands to different countries –  and ultimately be mediocre employees. Being a highly educated woman with aspirations is perceived a passing fancy since your priorities will change soon after your marital status changes. In the eyes of the male-dominant senior management, having a career and having a family are two mutually exclusive things that a woman has to choose from. 

The annoying thing is people have the audacity to tell their sexist views right to your face. I’m sure men all over the world think like that to a certain extend but in the Gulf, they proudly share their views with you. On any given Sunday, you can receive advice from your manager, something along the lines of “Once you have kids, your productivity at the office will significantly decrease so you should work extra hard to climb up the leader as quickly as possible before you get pregnant” or your co-worker can make a comment like “Sometimes I wish gets married and becomes a housewife so we can have some peace of mind.” You just need to learn to let certain things go and choose your battles wisely.

Other than being perceived as an incubator, we are also a distraction, a temptation for our male co-workers. Using bikini models to sell sports cars is a widely accepted industry practice and we all have to accept the fact that straight men have trouble seeing anything (soul, mind etc.) beyond the female body. That’s why all the Abrahamic religions have rules on women’s attire and behavior in public.  There are people here who get aroused because you wear high heels or laugh or wear your hair a certain way (ie. pony tail). - Bear in mind, in Qatar, expat women has to wear clothes that cover from the shoulders to below the knee. 

Anything and everything you do can be deemed as flirtation and anything and everything you wear can arouse a co-worker. So, modesty has a completely different meaning in this region. Some people are basically stuck in the 19th century and they’re not so eager to catch up with the rest of the world. Meanwhile in Cannes, advertising campaigns to raise awareness on gender equality being awarded Glass Lions, the women of this region find pride in their seclusion. They think the best thing a woman can achieve is to lead a wholesome life which requires wearing an abaya while they judge anyone who does not comply with the same level of  purdah  a symbol of sin and a treat to their families. When you're surrounded with men who get aroused by the sound of your heels, you understand why the women think that way. - not that you agree with them but you come to see their reasons.

So,  every day is a battle in Qatar which is fought in many fronts. But as they say, what doesn't kill you gives you a number of coping mechanisms. You learn to hear the bullshit but not listen to it. You learn to accept the facts - it's a fact that gender equality is a global problem but it's a bigger one in this region- and then tailor your expectations accordingly. You cannot change the world views of people. You can be the best version of yourself just for your benefit - not to prove yourself to anyone - and some people will recognize the fault in their ways and some people will still never perceive your true value. Acceptance of the facts will make you a more tranquil person.  

Most ambitious women stay here for a couple of years to save some money and move to more open-minded parts of the world in order to be perceived as worthy as their male counterparts. Maybe, I'll call it quits like the rest of them or I'll persevere. Time will tell. Until then, the only way to survive is to make peace with your reality, choose your battles wisely and put a brave face on.