Breaking Stereotypes

I am Ermida Koduah, a young woman from New York City. This spring I studied in the American University in Dubai. Taking the Women & Gender in the Middle East course this semester has helped me view the Middle East in a more positive way. I see the similarities between here and my own culture, and envision myself as a future feminist leader.

  Before Dubai

            In the United States, there is a huge misconception that ALL women in the MENA region are abused, deprived of education, suppressed, submissive and want to be saved.  There is this stigma that if we see a woman covered from head to toe she is automatically seen as a threat to American security or suppressed.  The media does not help suppress or educate us on what really goes on in the Middle East. I will admit, there was a time when I had this feeling that ALL the women in the Middle East were suppressed and I might be the one to save them.

However, I wanted to personally meet women from the Middle East to fully be aware of this suppression I constantly heard of in the US. Therefore, before coming to Dubai, I did a little research on the social life of females in the UAE. I was well aware and assured of how liberal the country was. However, some of my peers did not even know where Dubai was. When I told them it was in the Middle East they had this conception that I would have to be covered at all times. On some occasions they would make jokes like, “Make sure you don’t get kidnapped” or “Don’t let a 40 year old man trap you into marrying him”. I would laugh but I would constantly have to explain to them that labeling this region of the world is what I was trying to stop myself from doing.

However, I had a shocking experience of ignorance when my boss at work tried to tell me how I would have to dress and behave in Dubai. She told me on two occasion, “Ermida, you know you’re going to a part of the world where women have to behave and dress a certain way”. I was shocked at the fact that this women who had a PHD could be so ignorant and not know anything about Dubai yet feel the need to give me inaccurate advice. I understood her concern but for goodness sake I was going to Dubai. All these factors can make it very hard for someone like myself to stereotype women of a particular area.

Being in Dubai

            My perception of women in the Middle East began to change in the third class. We were shown a photo that represented two extremist views on women in the MENA region. The top shows a women who is dressed like a belly dancer & the bottom is a woman covered from head to toe, only showing her eyes. The photo caught my attention because I was used to seeing these two types of extremes in the US. In my head I said “This is the course I need to help break this stereotype of MENA women. This is where I will begin to comprehend women’s rights in this region.” That class began to show me that there are different types of women in the Middle East. Yes, there were some areas where a woman is forced to be covered from head to toe, however, there are other cases as well.   Some women purposely choose to be covered due to religious reasons. Other women wear a abaya. I have come to realize that clothing does not automatically tell the story of a woman’s behavior.  In addition, I have come to realize my idea of “saving” women in the Middle East should have been thought out better. The women here have begun to speak out against the injustices and although it is not exactly the same as Western society does not mean there has not been progress.

Trips

            I was privileged enough to go on two trips this semester that have continued to help me understand the different types of women in the MENA region. The first trip the class went on was the Women’s Museum in Deira. The tour guides were so enthusiastic and well educated. I learned about Sheikha  Salma bin Butti and her huge influence in the United Arab Emirates. Although she was not the ruler of the UAE, she used her leadership skills to help her sons rule over the country.  Because of her, her sons did not use violence against one another and highly encouraged their partnership in ruling the UAE. I saw pictures of amazing Emirati women of the past and present. To end the trip, the tour guides showed us a video of women who were educated in the UAE. Watching them laughing, studying and working hard made me connect with them.  What I enjoyed the most was the post card they gave us. It stated “Don’t think because we are covered we are not empowered.” This idea that ALL women of the Middle East did not have any say in governance began to slowly fade away.  Generalizing the women of the MENA and putting them into a category was very ignorant of myself. I wanted to learn more about different types of women in the Middle East and their views on feminism. This encouraged me to interact with the young women in my university more often. I always asked the friends I made in AUD so many questions about their religion, their views on being veiled and their own personal experiences.

The second trip I went on was to Art Dubai 2015. There were so many paintings that caught my eye, in particular two artworks. The first was by an Italian man. He took photos of women who have participated in protests for women rights.  The artist took photos of these women to capture a sense of courage. These women just want peace and equality in their lives and countries. Each picture of a woman has a word underneath. For example, “Network” is written under the woman doing the peace sign. Each word describes the movement, what it wants to achieve and the women who are fighting for their rights.

The second painting I saw did not necessarily represent feminism at first glance, however it spoke to me in a peculiar way. I saw myself in the painting.  The eye stood out to me because it looked worried yet assured at the same time. The lips looked very firm yet relaxed at the same time. I saw myself in the painting because it seemed like the artist was trying to portray a woman torn between two different emotions.  The past few months, I was trying to figure out the woman I currently am and who I want to become.  I was smuggling with the idea of whether I was a feminist or not. I would ask myself “What would it mean to me if I say I am a feminist? What type of feminist will I become?  How will society perceive me with my new added characteristics? Am I well educated enough to debate my point of views to those who do not understand my stance on women rights?”

            Being in this class has also made me realize that I have come to discover that I have always been a feminist, however, I never fully acknowledged it. In the US, whenever I was asked if I was a feminist I would say “I am still figuring out”. My idea of feminism was based on the extremist views. For example, I believed most feminist hated men and were not married. However, I realized that the true meaning of feminism is equality for all and that there are various types of feminists.

            I did not understand the true meaning of feminism and gender stereotypes have been in my life. For instance, when I was in my mother’s womb, I was a very energetic fetus that constantly jumped around. My parents assumed I was a boy due to my hyper active behavior. They went for sonograms that revealed I was a girl and they could not understand how my fetus behavior did not match up to my gender.  “How does a hyper active fetus automatically conclude that I am a boy?”  Another instance occasionally occurred when I was younger. Around the ages of 6-12, I used to love fixing things in the house. Whenever my parents bought a new device, I would be the one to fix it and explain to them how to properly use it. My mom would often say to me “Oh Ermida, you should have been a boy”. I knew she was joking but at that young age I hated when she would say those words. I did not understand why I needed to be a boy in order for it to be acceptable to fix devices. Once I reached 12 years old, I was annoyed by her comment and I just stopped fixing things around the house. I would make excuses that I did not understand what the manual was telling me to do or that I had too much homework. Now that I look back, I wish I could have stood up for myself and told my mother that girls can also do things that boys could do. Today, I often wonder, if I stood up for myself and continued fixing things in my house would I have become a successful engineer or something along that field of study.

            Defining myself as a feminist has been something I struggled with for almost 2 years. I believed that feminism was a good thing, however, I always heard of stereotypes that would drift me away from considering myself to be a feminist.  For instance, I had this idea that feminists had no concept of morals. Taking Women & Gender in the Middle East made me aware of how diverse feminism is. I feared that my religious faith would clash with my feminist idea, however, I learned that there are religious feminists.

Similarities between Social Issues in the Middle East and My Own Culture

            Although I was raised in the US, my parents always raised me like traditional Ghanaian parents. I have come to notice certain issues discussed in class that I would say are present in our own culture as well. For example, sex is not spoken about freely amongst parents and their daughters.  My parents never spoke to me about sex, how it is performed and the right way to have sex. The few instances that sex was mentioned to me, it was always mentioned in a negative way.  I always wondered why it was seen as such a taboo to discuss sex in my house compared to some of my other Americans peers.  As a result, I have watched cousins and family friends engaged in unsafe sex.

            Another similarity I noticed was the theory of how men were able to have greater power in the political field than women. According to an article by Leila Ahmed, inequalities between men and women reached its peak when colonial powers had control of the MENA region. There was a new system of hierarchy: Colonialists ruled men, men ruled over women and children.  The idea that colonial power introduced sexism is also a theory that I learned in my Africana Studies class back in New York.  I learned that in pre-colonial times, men and women in Ghana were seen as equals due to the fact that men and women both worked on the land they lived on. Men were the hunter-gatherers and women were the farmers. Once the British colonized present day Ghana, men became in charge of the land that women were farming on. British governors gave men education and status in society, therefore the men ruled over the women who worked on the farms.

            Lastly, gay rights is another social issue that has similar attributes. In class, we watched a documentary on a young lesbian female who lives in Abu Dhabi. We were given a chance to see the double life she lives on a daily basis. Her parents were conservative Muslims who were not accepting of her past relationship with a female.  She had to lie to her parents every weekend about going out because she knew they would not approve. This story is very common among the Ghanaians I know in New York. Being gay is not accepted in our community and is often seen as demonic. It hurts me when I hear and see this because I have very close friends who are a part of the LGBQT community and I wish my Ghanaian community could understand how hard it is to be secretly gay.

            I believe feminism in the Middle East is truly coming to a rise in many diverse ways. Coming from the US, I understand why certain women feel the need to “save” women in the Middle East.  There is this idea that the women of the MENA are incapable of fighting for their rights so we should come and rescue them. The Western concept of liberation sometimes involves forcing women to not be covered.  However, from my observations, I believe we cannot “save” an entire region with extremist ways for two reasons. One reason is the fact that the Middle East is a diverse region. Every country has different rules and laws that affect women. My second reason is extremism might just further delay the process of advancing women’s rights in the MENA region. I know women’s rights will gradually come, however, it will not happen overnight. In the US, women began fighting for their rights around the end of the civil war. Women were not allowed to vote until the 1920s.It took almost a century for American women to have the right to vote. Instead of trying to “save” the women of the MENA region, we should instead partner, support and listen to what they want instead of labeling a stereotype that they want to be saved.

 
 

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  1. Inspiring testimony Ermida! Keep on discovering the rich differences in this region with its history of thousands of years and multiple religions, cultures, ideas and practices.

  2. Dear Ermida, it’s such a delight to read you and to relate to your story with mindset transformation. Stereotypes about the Middle East and certainly about women are too many and hard to destroy. What you did and still doing is courageous. Do you perceive yourself though as part of a minority in the US? Coz honestly, I don’t the majority of Americans are free from misconceptions about Islam and the Middle East.

    1. Thank you ! & Yes I would say I am a minority in the US. Black Americans are about 33% of the American population

  3. Hello my name is Adam Odomore. I am a student at Texas State University. This is a great piece. I am very interested in going into the foreign service and I saw you are a Rangel fellow. I will like to apply please, I will like to contact you on ways to be competitive and get it like you. I hope you see this. Thank you.

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