Like the Month of March

Photo taken by Lloyd Ville

Sometime in the month of March, perhaps one of the most unbalanced and unbalancing months in Geneva, I sat in an outdoor cafe with a few Middle Eastern friends. Although the six of us were Middle Easterners, we were very different, as each of us came from a different country. The sky started to drizzle sparse and reluctant drops of water. Sheltered under a huge red umbrella, our eyes followed the Western and Eastern European pedestrians rushing their way under the rain, taking refuge under their small umbrellas or clinging onto their lovers. A smart-looking woman in a suit elegantly strode to her destination with her briefcase in one hand and a heap of papers in another, her mind too busy to consider the high probability of a rainy day and take precaution. “I wish I was like her. Why can’t women in my country be more like this?” The question emerged from beside me after a long silence. Startled and intrigued, I decided to sit back quietly and observe Middle Easterners instead. Most of those participating in the conversation articulated the importance of government initiatives as a method to empower women.

Surprisingly, I was sitting with the same girls who uttered the famous Middle Eastern proverb, “A man is not disadvantaged by anything” in an attempt to convince one of their friends to marry an indecent, however wealthy, man. If it were a group of men knowing that their friend would marry an indecent woman, this saying would not be reciprocated. Irritated by this proverb, I googled it and came upon several blogs in Arabic discussing the extent to which people agree with it. I came across thousands of comments from Middle Eastern women expressing their utter distaste towards it. It was interesting to see how thousands of women on several blogs oppose the saying, yet at the same time the values carried and implied by the proverb are still common in our region. However, the most aggravating comment of all came from a woman who opposed the values implied by the proverb, yet ended her argument with, “as long as I live in a society and community that imposes such values, it will not make a difference whether I agree with the saying or not”. This is where I come to disagree.

In this situation, change should come from the bottom of the pyramid and from the common people, rather from high government officials. Middle Eastern women are not as oppressed as the western media portray them to be. On the contrary, women in many countries in the region are granted equal payment, job opportunities and rights as men. The lack of women empowerment should not be solely blamed on the government for not taking initiative and creating opportunities that lifts the status of women. It should be blamed on the society itself and the values it harbors and passes on. Unlike what western media portrays, men are not the only major oppressors of women. Women are oppressing women, by teaching their children to abide by societal values that promote men as being wholesome (blaming their misdeeds on their hormones) and women as flawed. If that wasn’t enough, women shamelessly judge and scrutinize whoever decides to deviate and disagree. This collective behavior permits men to participate in the disparage of females. One woman can make a difference. A woman is a mother that will not pass on this value to her children. A woman is a sister, neighbor and friend that will not engage in the judgmental scrutiny of those who disagree. A woman is a daughter that will lead parents to value their daughters and the daughters of others as much as their sons. One person affects individuals and makes a difference.

After a long observation, my only contribution was this: Instead of asking the government to give you your rights, start by elevating yourself in your society. Give yourself value in a way that will allow both men and women to see your value. Why should women blame others for a mentality that is nursed and passed on by them? Why do women collectively belittle themselves and expect men to value them? It is not implied that government entities and men are not to blame, rather than women’s passivity and conformity are also a major factor. However, this should not be generalized to every society in the region. On the contrary, there are many sub-societies that have seen drastic improvement with this regard. It is important to highlight that the core cause of this mentality is not religious, but cultural. The need for the social elevation of women is not restricted to the Middle East. It is an issue that needs to be addressed in all regions of the world starting with Europe to Africa to the Americas to the Middle East and all the way to Asia.

The drizzle soon came to a halt. Pedestrians lowered their umbrellas and shimmied them dry. The clouds made way for the sun and it was hot again. The conversation shifted to a more trivial topic. We lightheartedly finished our cold coffees with smiles on our faces. Like the month of March, and like many women, the friends I was surrounded with were unbalanced and unbalancing.