Friday, November 23, 2007

Islam, Wasta, and the Changing Roles of Women

What's refreshing about Kuwait is that challenges to tradition - and status quo - are openly discussed in the opinion pages of Kuwait’s two English-language dailies The Arab Times and The Kuwait Times. Muna al-Fuzai is a devout Muslim woman journalist who waves the flag for anyone she deems under-represented. In recent editorials she has openly debated against Kuwait's pro-male dominant paradigm on issues of maids and rape, absurdly spoiled children, graft within the government, nepotism and "wasta" - the assumed benign practice of using influence or bribery to bypass the system. I have never met this woman – but I’d like to. What drives her to risk possible reprimands from her family, or is there no risk? Kuwait is making progress in terms of human rights very quickly for a country under Sharia Law. Women drive, they vote, they are highly educated (often in engineering and medicine), and the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Geneva recently encouraged women to seek seats in Parliament and become more involved in Kuwait’s legislative process. Yet many remain fully covered in public, and once married, live a dull existence with maids to cook and clean for them, au pairs to raise their children, and nothing but time on their hands. Internet Blogs and Opinion pages are heated with the debate over Kuwait’s proposed reinstatement of a curfew prohibiting women from leaving the home after 8 PM, under the auspices of protecting them from increasingly male violence. A few of the western men I’ve met here are disgusted by Kuwait’s treatment of women. What these men don’t recognize is that, at least in Kuwait, these issues are debated and discussed openly – quite unlike in their Wahabbist neighbor to the south.

There is brand of western chivalry in the American men I meet here that irritates me in its ignorance, until I realize that I’ve been guilty of the same before I came to the Arab world. American men erupt when I wear long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, wondering “why the hell I’ve gone native.” Of course, they aren’t the targets of the hard, disdainful stares, the hissed curses uttered under breath sweet with sheesha, or sometimes (though rarely) spat upon. It’s easy for us to become belligerent on another’s behalf, when we don’t personally pay the price for violating tradition.

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