Though we come from different places, we share common experiences because we are women

By Artist Mohammed Hindash (Dubai)

My name is Charlotte Moller and I am twenty-year-old student at the University of Albany in New York, studying abroad for one semester at the American University in Dubai. I am a Public Policy major with a minor in Women’s Studies extremely passionate about feminism.

I have been a feminist my entire life, even before I knew what the word meant—and when I knew what the word meant, I just said, “Yup, that’s me!”

My decision to study in Dubai came from my craving to experience a culture different from the northeastern United States culture, and a desire to understand and be exposed to the Middle Eastern perspective. All I have ever known or been taught is Western feminism, and the issues that affect myself and women across the United States.

One thing about feminism that I strongly believe in, is that it is uniting regardless of location, class, race, or identity. We may experience different versions of issues, but in the end, we as women are united under the same cause—fighting for equal rights, treatment, and respect. With this in mind, we do experience different things because of different culture, religion, language, class, societal norms, and many other factors.

(…) One thing I have learned through the ‘Women and Gender in the Middle East’ class at AUD is that feminism is extremely complicated. There is one common universal definition, but it does not do the movement any justice. Feminism is much much more than just the social, political, and economic equality between the sexes. Feminism and sexism invades every aspect of a woman’s life, whether recognized or not. It affects women the moment they wake up through standards of beauty, influences how we choose to dress, the way we must talk to be perceived in the right light, getting catcalled on public transportation, earning less than our counterparts for doing the same work, or feeling unappreciated for domestic work that goes unpaid. These are just a few examples of what a woman might experience each day, and do not even begin to cover everything a person may feel.

(…)

Women in the United States undergo some pretty serious distortion of the way they are represented in the media, with anorexia being the standard for models. There is a war on women’s bodies and what is seen as beautiful or not. In the Middle East there is a similar issue with women, but it is more concerning with the hijab, veiling, and oppression. Often in the media, Arab women are portrayed as oppressed and submissive due to being covered, and the hijab has taken on a symbol of oppression. Arab women fight this stereotype everyday, and have to prove their right to wear a hijab as a choice and a religious freedom. My favorite quote from the Women Museum in Dubai was from the founder, “Don’t think because we are covered we are not empowered,” Dr. Rafia Ghubash.

(…)

The standard of beauty and sexuality experienced in the United States is somewhat of a global issue. It is not unique to the United States for women to be picked apart piece by piece, objectified, or sexualized. This is something I learned through our class’s workshop on beauty and sexuality. Listening to my fellow colleagues stories about the pressures, names, and objectification they have undergone made the issue very real to me. This is something women all over the world experience, and can be very damaging.

In doing my research for quotes, ideas, and artwork, I came across a statement made by the author of the Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti. She says, “Making women the sexual gatekeepers and telling men they just can’t help themselves not only drives home the point that women’s sexuality is unnatural, but also sets up a disturbing dynamic in which women are expected to be responsible for men’s sexual behavior.”

I think this quote has a lot of meaning especially in the MENA region where purity and virginity is held so sacred due to religious influences and societal standards. The part where she talks about men not being able to help themselves especially hit home, because I have been told that this is one of the main reasons for veiling. To me, this ideology is similar to ideas in the West where instead of teaching boys not to rape, we teach girls how to not get raped. Instead of teaching boys not to sexualize every aspect of a woman’s body, women in fact have to do all the work and cover up completely in order to “save men from themselves. ” Again, putting the burden on the women.

I recently visited Mohammed Hindash’s first-ever solo art gallery (FN Designs, Dubai). His exhibit incorporated standards of beauty and is cleverly titled, “Beautopsy.”  It wasn’t until after I visited his exhibit that I understood the title—his work dissected, or “autopsied” the standards of beauty for women. He is an incredibly talented artist and is definitely involved with feminist issues. I had two favorite pieces of his art. The first is titled, “Juline” and is described by the quote, “All it takes is to point out that one flaw.” It might be hard to tell in the picture I took, but the painting is of a beautiful woman with a slight imperfection on her right eye. To me, this woman is beautiful, but because of societal standards for women, she may become outcast for her one flaw. Flaws are something we immediately notice instead of what is beautiful. We have been taught to pick out what doesn’t fit, what isn’t normal or beautiful instead of focusing on the rest—which is a beautiful woman.

My second favorite painting was the main piece showcased titled, “Beautopsy.” The quote along with the painting is, “An enigmatic dissection.” Besides from being an incredible work of art, this painting spoke to me because it directly portrayed how we as society pick apart women. We dissect them piece by piece and sometimes determine their worth and respect based on this dissection. This piece of art, shown below, was of a beautiful woman whose face was painted them cut up into sections. If the pieces were pushed together the image would not make sense since there is overlap in features but it is a cool optical illusion the artist has created.

By Artist Mohammed Hindash – Beautopsy

Hindash’s art exhibition was especially dear to my heart because he is a member of our ‘Women and Gender in the Middle East’ class, and is one of the few feminist men. It is also great to hear his perspective and see his involvement with feminism in art.

International Women’s day was this year on Sunday, March 8th. Our class decided to celebrate doing a workshop with respect to the women in our family. This day was special for me because my mother is my biggest hero and inspiration for the woman I want to be. I was happy to celebrate with my friends and hear about the women in their families. I am not a very creative person when it comes to art, but it was nice to come together as women from all over the world and celebrate the women in our family. I especially liked hearing stories about other mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or sisters, and sharing stories about strength, wisdom, and womanhood. My group of friends knew that drawing was out of the question for us because none of us knew how, so we wanted to come up with something that provoked thought and memories of the women in our families, a way to express these thoughts, and a way to share them with others. We decided to take adjectives that we thought described the women in our family and make an acrostic piece out of them. So many words came to mind when I thought of my mother, sister, aunts, and grandmother. It was fun to hear the ways in which other people would describe the women in their family as I would never have thought to use some of the words they did.

But this was beautiful part of the workshop—even though we come from different parts of the world, where different ideas of motherhood are expressed, we were able to share this fun experience and learn something new about the women in other families. This goes back to the idea that even though women come from different places, at the end of the day we share a common experience because we are women. And because we are women, we can, and should stick together in the fight for feminism, because together, women are stronger.

I am still learning about the experiences of women in this region, and cannot determine exactly whether we experience similar issues or not, but it is important to always keep the idea of unity in mind.

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  1. Nice text Charlotte! Honest words, even if sometimes quite simplistic. For instance: when you use the ‘us’ in the united states, ‘them’ ie women in the middle east, and even ‘us’ women in the world. Dichotomies and generalizations.

  2. Thank you Charlotte! Hope you will come back to the Middle East for more exciting adventures and learning opportunities. And even back home, hope you will help others understand the similarities among women across nations and cultures.

  3. I agree. We share a lot in common, even if we have different ethnic, national and religious identities. The fact that we are women, not because of our biology per se, but because of our condition. Wherever we are, we always experience discrimination. Gender based discrimination. Few women live in an equality environment.

  4. Great read. It is wonderful to read about your experiences in Dubai as a western foreigner. You talk about about both the subtle differences and similarities about culture surrounding western and middle eastern women. I am glad you had a great time, and got the chance to experience different societal and cultural influence on women. I, too, am embarking on a journey similar to yours for spring break with the intent growing from my experiences as a man (the counterpart you refer to in your writing) in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

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