On Fear and Insecurity in Dubai

I just returned from Dubai, my second two-week trip to the United Arab Emirates in as many months, and I have never been more aware of my physical body.

In addition to existing as a global financial center, the economy of Dubai relies heavily on tourism — the enormous skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and private beaches. Though far from progressive, out of the seven emirates of the UAE, it is the most diverse and accepting. The country, however, functions as a federal absolute monarchy, where freedom of speech is nonexistent, punishments are severe, and migrant workers (who make up a vast majority of people living in the UAE) are extremely vulnerable. You can be arrested or deported for unfavorable portrayals or opinions of the Emirates. There is an intense amount of propaganda.

Pre-trip research did little to quell my anxiety about traveling to the UAE. I read about a women in November of 2016 who was arrested for extramarital sex after reporting being gang raped. The men who raped her, British nationals like herself, left the country hours after the assault, but her passport was confiscated while she awaited her trial. If found guilty she could have faced imprisonment, deportation, flogging, or stoning to death. In January of 2017, a couple was arrested when, after the woman began experiencing stomach cramps and went to the hospital, a doctor discovered she was pregnant and informed the police that the couple was unmarried. They spent over five weeks in jail before the charges were dismissed. Though not an everyday occurrence, these are far from isolated incidents.

After extensive research on my own, I was put into contact with a friend of a friend, an artist who lived in Abu Dhabi. I asked him about contemporary art spaces in the UAE. He asked if I had ever been to the Middle East. He told me that I “promote feminist ideas” that “can be dangerous for [me] here” and suggested I “separate [myself] from social media lol.” He sent me the UAE wikipedia link and told me to look specifically at the Law section (which is a hilarious thing to send someone who has already told you that they have done a considerable amount of research into the laws and customs of the UAE, and is looking for advice on which art galleries to visit).

Needless to say, I was hesitant about the trip. If not for my partner working there for several months, I probably would never have entered the UAE, a country rife with human rights violations that in return offers hyper affluent people an opportunity to demonstrate that wealth through extravagant resorts, expensive cars, and intense consumerism.

My first two weeks in Dubai were a total mind fuck. As a global city, Dubai is full of both foreigners and nationals of all races and ethnicities in all manners of dress, from traditional Arab garments to short sundresses. Out of respect for a culture that is not my own, I was mindful and modest about the clothes I wore. I made care to wear longer skirts, cover my shoulders, and keep a scarf with me at all times. Though not frequently enforced, many public spaces like malls have “courtesy” policies, and occasionally those violating the dress codes are asked to cover up or leave.

The entire cumulative month I spent in Dubai, on only a handful of occasions did a man make a verbal comment about my body — a concept so rare and unfamiliar to me that it was both a relief and a shock.

I was, however, constantly watched. Glared at. Pointed at. Photographs literally taken of me when people thought I wasn’t looking. I am fairly used to being watched, especially when I am not in a larger city in the United States. Honestly, I expect it. Though obviously dependent on where I am, it is not uncommon for people to approach me and ask where I’m from, which is often code for “where do women who look like you come from?” More often than not, people are respectful, friendly, and genuinely curious. In Singapore, when I caught someone staring at me, they would look away. In Turkey, teenagers asked to take pictures with me. In Croatia, though large tattoos are fairly common on men, most women who have tattoos opt for smaller or more delicate work, and I definitely got some looks at the beach. On the Estonian islands, after being asked multiple times if I was a “gypsy,” my host began introducing me as “from Chicago, Italian mafia,” which strangely enough seemed a reasonable explanation for most of the people who asked. Unsurprisingly, no one gives me a second glance in Berlin, or Rome, or Amsterdam.

In Dubai, it was different. It was hostile. Men did not in any way hide their visible disdain for my existence. After taking a bag from my cis male partner at the airport, a cab driver refused to take one from me. Waiters would ask him what I wanted to eat. In public spaces, large groups of men stood in doorways and walkways, and refused to let me pass until I asked politely several times. In the markets, I constantly repeated, “Please don’t touch me,” as men tried to sell me scarves. This is not to say that I didn’t have interesting conversations with the Bangladeshi ferry boat worker, who was confused that I was by myself and so worried that I wouldn’t have a good time alone that he kept me company, telling me about his life and family, and asking me questions about America. Or the bartender at the pool bar, who over the course of my first two weeks in Dubai, taught me a lot about how unstable and demanding all of the jobs were, but also explained that he makes more money there so he is able to send some back to India. This, however, was rare. Mostly, I was simultaneously very visible, yet treated with aversion. Someone who was clearly not worthy of respect.

Though I saw many more women on the street in Dubai than the other emirates I passed through, outside of the malls and tourist attractions, there are noticeably less women in public. It is still rare for women to travel alone. I was an anomaly and treated as such, receiving harsh stares, almost exclusively from men, whenever I left the hotel. Though many women watched and even pointed me out to their friends, there was little anger in their reactions. In public, only one woman spoke to me. She was traveling with her husband, both of them dressed traditionally — she wearing an abaya and niqab and him in a dishdash and keffiyeh. Her husband had stopped my six foot eight, longhaired partner in the textile souk to ask if he could take a picture with him (which is not uncommon for him when he travels abroad in places where the population is generally shorter). Both of us women standing off to the side, she asked where we were from, then said, “You are very welcome here. I hope you have a good visit.”

In addition to my tattoos, I got a lot of looks directed toward my armpits, because I don’t shave them (which was honestly, also completely expected). Because I was head taller than most people, on the metro I contorted and held bars at awkward angles to avoid putting my scandalous armpit directly into some poor woman’s face. Though conflicted about their very existence, I rode exclusively in the cars dedicated for women and children. I resented the fact that they existed. Unlike many other countries that have introduced women-only cars to reduce sexual harassment (which does reduce assaults, but also perpetuates the burden of harassment on the woman who is harassed, not the person actively harassing), these cars are in place for religious reasons — to separate men and women. They perpetuate a harmful and regressive gender binary. Yet, they also provided the only respite in public spaces from outwardly hostile looks from men.

I relayed my experiences to other foreign women and found that they too had noticed fewer women on the streets, but had not perceived any aggression, even while traveling alone. They questioned whether I was exaggerating, almost refusing to believe me until my partner told them that he had seen it first hand (which in reality, what he had witnessed was mild compared to how blatant and antagonistic men were when I was alone).

With another woman, I attended an information session at the Grand Jumeirah Mosque sponsored by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. After discussing the basics of Islam, our guide spoke at length about the traditional clothing of the Emirates and her personal decision to dress modestly for the sake of her religion, emphasizing that she did not judge women, Muslim or otherwise, who made different choices in relation to their clothing. I found myself thinking about how nice it would be to walk down the street and not be watched. Men in the markets did not touch women wearing abayas. A few days later, at the hotel pool I started reading Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. Nearly seventy pages in, I read:

“She had disappeared from view, and whatever all the other arguments may be about veils and burkas, they make people literally disappear. Veils go a long way back. They existed in Assyria more than three thousand years ago, when there were two kinds of women, respectable wives and widows who had to wear veils, and prostitutes and slave girls who were forbidden to do so. The veil was a kind of wall of privacy, the marker of a women for one man, a portable architecture of confinement. Less portable kinds of architecture keep women confined to houses, to the domestic sphere of housework and childrearing, and so out of public life and incapable of free circulation. In so many societies, women have been confined to the house to control their erotic energies, necessary in a patrilineal world so that fathers could know who their sons were and construct their own lineage of begats. In matrilineal societies, that sort of control is not so essential.”

I realized that, after spending nearly two weeks being simultaneously glared at and treated with open hostility any time I was in public, I saw the appeal of invisibility. I actually longed for it.

After returning to the US, I had trouble accurately describing my trip. I was unable to reconcile the positive attributes of my experience with the overwhelming focus on wealth (and the disparity it creates) and the completely exhausting feeling of overt unwelcomeness in public spaces. After several conversations and a few weeks of reflection, I realized the experience bothered me because it bothered me. I had regressed back to letting the opinions of others about my body deeply affect my own self worth. Dubai is extremely safe. I was respectful and never in physical danger. I just wasn’t strong enough to face the openly hostility directed toward me, and it filled me with shame and guilt.

I resolved that my second trip to Dubai would be different. I would not give in to my anxiety and self consciousness. In temperatures that reached 105 degrees fahrenheit, I would maintain culturally appropriate modesty, but not shy away from comfortable clothing. I returned with reserved hope, wearing a sleeveless maxi dress. Perhaps aptly, one of the first things my partner said to me, after not seeing me for a few weeks, was a comment about my voluminous armpit hairs.

So, I began another two weeks of exploring Dubai, mostly alone but occasionally with others, watching men stare at me with animosity. Rather than looking straight ahead, pretending to not notice, or averting my eyes in shame (as I had done during my first trip), I looked them in the eyes. I did not return hostility, but did make it very clear to them that I saw what they were trying to do, and I would not fall for it again. I would not make myself invisible. I also spent a lot of time watching men watch other women, and was surprised to notice that many women wearing much less than me were barely met with a passing glance by the same men who aggressively and shamelessly stared at me. Though potentially objectionable, they did not see short skirts or tank tops as a threat. For nearly fifty years, immigrants and foreigners have come to Dubai, greatly expanding what is acceptable clothing, yet the vast majority of UAE nationals choose to wear traditional garments.

In reality, I should have immediately recognized what was happening. It was so familiar, yet so banal that it took me weeks to realize. Whether you’re in the Middle East or the Bible Belt, misogynistic conservative attitudes, especially those based in religion, remain the same. Since returning from my second visit, people have asked me a series of questions: Where exactly is the UAE? Oh don’t they treat women horribly there? Weren’t you scared? I’ve told them the truth: it was a lot like visiting Alabama (if Alabama has more private islands). I experienced the same hostile looks, the same blatant disregard for me as a person. The same desire of people living there to impress on me that I am not worthy of respect because the choices I’ve made are different from their own. It just affected me more because it was happening in a place that I had never visited. A country that I have been repeatedly told is vastly different than my own. A place I have been repeatedly told that I should fear.

The news coming out of the USA is just as terrifying as the news I read before visiting the UAE. The tiny sliver of democracy that still exists in America, slowly being chipped away by conservative, evangelical Christians, is all that separates our government from a federal absolute monarchy. Both are led by a wealthy religious minority. Muslim or Christian, both control from an ideological and moral standpoint that isn’t indicative of the larger, more diverse population.

In Dubai, it was my own insecurities and fear (compounded by the long-standing racist narrative imposed on Muslim countries) that hid an all too familiar feeling — men were hostile towards me because I am a threat to the patriarchal system of the feminine ideal. I am a woman who has actively, though sometimes unintentionally, blurred the line between what is acceptable for a woman (a love of jewelry and makeup and long hair), with what is not (body hair and bold traditional tattoos and vocal opinions). Unlike my height and weight, which I have been self conscious of for most of my life, it’s the choices that I’ve made about my body that draw hatred from conservatives, Muslim and Christian alike, both abroad and at home. I have choice. And agency. I am unwilling to remain confined. And, like millions of other women, femmes, and gender non binary humans, I refuse to be invisible.