The Emirates Fights Sexism by Exploiting Class-Based Oppression

Fatemeh already pointed out the obviousness of the title in last week’s Friday Links, but Hamida Ghafour’s article “Lewd stares distressing for women,” published in the U.A.E.’s The National newspaper, is worth a closer look.  Although it seems to promote resistance to sexism and sexual harassment, it does so in a way that perpetuates – even strengthens – discrimination based on class and race.

For example, take these two paragraphs, towards the beginning of the article:

Western women are targets, but so are our Arab, Indian, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani sisters. We are stared at, called names and sometimes assaulted by men. Which is why part of me cheered when Al Bawadi Mall in Al Ain announced earlier this week that labourers had been banned on weekday evenings and weekends following a litany of complaints about harassment.

The Emirates is the most female-friendly country in the Middle East. The Government’s efforts to encourage women to use public spaces is admirable. The Abu Dhabi beach was quickly divided into two sections last year after women expressed their discomfort at gangs of labourers roaming about and leering. Emirati men are courteous. They never stare.

At first, part of me was excited to see that it was men, and not women, being blamed for sexual harassment.  After all, how often does that happen?  Moreover, how often does it happen (anywhere) that men would be kept out of a certain space so that women can feel safe, rather than just telling women to avoid it?  Or that a government realizes that women’s discomfort in public spaces is even an issue worth addressing?

But I didn’t even have time to finish thinking those thoughts before I realized that it was “labourers,” and not “men,” being blamed for sexual harassment.  And in particular, it is foreign laborers, given Ghafour’s assertion that “Emirati men are courteous” and “never stare.”

Her claim that “The Emirates is the most female-friendly country in the Middle East” seems hard to prove on this issue alone, as friendliness to women surely depends on more than government efforts with regards to public spaces, and freedom from staring.  More importantly, we might ask which women experience this friendliness; do, for example, foreign domestic workers, the female counterparts of these laborers, find the U.A.E. to be such a friendly country for them?  Are low-income women able to benefit from this kind of legislation regarding malls and beaches?  And is it possible, perhaps, that the government’s “friendliness” to the women who do tend to access malls and beaches may be motivated more because of their class and their potential economic value to the government, rather than because of a “friendly” attitude to women as a whole?

To be honest, I know little about the U.A.E., and it would be great if someone called me out on my cynicism and told me that things are better than I imagine them to be.  And I certainly don’t want to be singling out the Emirati government (or local governments within the country) as exceptionally racist or classist, since I think those are pretty common factors in any government or society, my own Canadian one included.  However, this article does leave the impression that, at least from the author’s point of view, positive policies towards women can be measured by a set of standards that are clearly more applicable to women of higher economic classes.

The article does become more nuanced as it goes on, and the writer acknowledges cultural differences with regards to staring that may explain some of the stares that women receive from the laborers.  She even admits that “There is certainly an element of racism and snobbery in Al Bawadi Mall’s decision. The laborers are poor South Asians and Arabs.”  Ghafour also talks about “Hollywood films featuring bimbos and the proliferation of pornography on the internet” as reasons for some of the existing stereotypes about women, although not much is said about the need to address these as an additional way of fighting sexual harassment.  She further discusses the importance of educating women and of fostering the participation of all women in public spheres.

Yet the conclusion of the article returns to a particularly classist response:

I recently moved house and hired a moving company, staffed by Indian and Bangladeshi workers. The foreman in charge was more interested in watching my movements than doing his own job. I finally snapped.

“Why don’t you get on with your work? What if someone stared at your sister like that?”

When it becomes too much I create a mental buffer zone to tune out the calls and stares. If that doesn’t work I try the shoe trick. When the offender shouts an insult, I stop, point at his shoes and laugh.

It subtly shifts the balance of power. And I won’t get arrested.

Is there a special shoe meaning code that I’m missing?  Because the only reason I can think of that someone might laugh at someone’s shoes in this context might be if they are old, falling apart, or somehow inappropriate for the situation (and that the person laughing, in contrast, has the luxury of wearing perfectly “appropriate” shoes.)  To be fair, if someone is in a situation where she feels unsafe and that seems, in the moment, like the only way out, it might be somewhat excusable; however, it shouldn’t ever be okay to advocate responding to sexism by denigrating someone based on class.

  • Safiyyah

    krista – I lived in the UAE for two years… and much of what you write hits the nail on the head.
    Firstly, the issue of laborers, in itself a derogatory term, is so abnormal. I have personally visited “labour camps” which are 100% male inhabited. Take the typical construction worker – he is around 30-40 years old. He is married, and probably has a few kids. He was lured to the UAE with promises of a better future and lots of money, only to be shoved into a degrading and humiliating “camp”. He will not see his wife and family for at least 6 months to 1 year, on top of which he will be cooped up with men most of the time in very cramped and dirty conditions. Imagine the sexual tension. When these men see women, they literally stare like hungry animals (i have experienced this myself), because they are being forced to live in such unnatural situations. So, we need to go back to the social cause of this problem – which is the exploitation of these men. For someone to write an article like this is extremely patronizing and as you said, classicist.
    To answer you question, no, women from across the economic spectrum do not benefit from the public spaces etc., but I do give the UAE government credit for their policies on womans educations and contribution in the work force, compared to the neighboring petrol monarchies.

  • Safiyyah

    oh and the bit about emirati men never stare is making me giggle. It has little to do with a man’s nationality…just for the record, they do stare , but perhaps their kingly attire and expensive perfume makes it all the more bearable?

  • JP

    A man can bring his family to the UAE if he earns UAE Dhs 10K/month or more. That is a lot of money and these men don’t see their families regularly. We had a man come to clean our house and he went home once every six years. The Indian watchman used to go every three years.

    Recently a university put up posters on sexual harassment and all men shown on the posters were South Asian which created a huge uproar from South Asian teaching and non-teaching staff. Emarati men stare, they even stop their cars to whistle, they follow you in their huge SUVs, they call you ‘baby’ and God save a woman when these men are tipsy! It is unfair to blame only lower-class non-Emarati men even though they do stare.

  • sarah

    Its possibles she’s refering to the age old myth that shoe size indicates size of the male anatomy hehehe! I’m guessing, but its pretty common knowledge; i dont know! If it is than shes obviously using a not so subtle technique to question his masculinity.

  • rabia

    ah mashaAllah krista, so proud of you on this one!

    i saw a documentary on migrant workers in the UAE and saw on film how nasty the living conditions are for them (and i noticed that they are mostly poorer south asian men).
    it is outrageous for this woman to claim that ‘emerati men never stare’ point finale and to therefore suggest that ‘labourers’ are the cause for so much discomfort for women without any deeper analysis. good on you for pointing it all out.
    i think i’ve heard from almost everyone that i know who has traveled to the UAE that sexual harrassment is a generally explicit problem, and for men also..but that’s another article all together… so to not acknowlege that it is widespread is dishonest.

  • rabia

    just wanted to post an interesting comment on the article from the newspaper’s site:

    I really can’t say I understand the fuss. I am a western woman and I dress in a conservative manner whether I am here or anywhere else. I know scanty clothes will attract attention that I don’t want so simply I don’t do it. I haven’t experienced name calling or harrassment by any part of the population during my time here. I’ve had a few groups of men stare on occasion but to be honest, I just go about my business and it doesn’t even register. The taxi drivers have always been courteous and respectful. I don’t believe that any part of the population should be excluded from anywhere based on race/ethnicity purely. I do like the women only access to a beach/park/wild wadi as it makes life easier, particularly since my days of parading around in a swimsuit in public are over. I’ve discussed the issues with female friends here and they don’t report any type of harassment either. I just want people to know that this is not the experience of all woman living in the UAE.

    T Mac, Dubai

  • laila

    “Let’s just blame the foreigners” because “Emirati men are courteous” and “never stare” speaks volumes about Hamida Ghafour’s racist and classiest thinking. Is she for real?

    I don’t believe referring to his shoes is questioning his masculinity but laughing at his POVERTY. That is disgusting, shameful and another form of OPPRESSION taking place. You don’t fight sexual harassment by oppressing other vulnerable people. Women “friendly” attitude means friendly attitude towards the poor, powerless and oppressed.

  • Fatemeh

    @ Rabia: Good to hear another perspective, but her testimony doesn’t discount the fact that sexual harassment and staring is an every day experience for lots of women in the Emirates.

  • Candice

    Wow, the article you’re posting about is a bit ridiculous! Thanks for the post.

  • anon

    “I don’t believe referring to his shoes is questioning his masculinity but laughing at his POVERTY. That is disgusting, shameful and another form of OPPRESSION taking place.”

    Completely agree. I’m honestly quite shocked that someone would openly admit to this much less post it in a news article. I can understand little children doing something like this, but a grown and supposedly educated woman? Overall, I found the tone of the article to be quite disgusting. It’s a shame that people who purport to care about the rights of others really care only about the rights of others when the others are exactly like them

  • Sobia

    Thanks for critiquing this Krista. I read the article last week and seriously couldn’t believe what I was reading. The racism and classism in her article was appalling. Sexism obviously must be challenged and fought but not with racism and classism. Thanks for writing this critique!

  • andrew cooke

    thanks for writing this. it’s often tempting to focus on only one “ism” and forget to look at the abuse of power in *all* its forms.

    but, at the same time, i have some sympathy for the original author. i think it is human nature to sometimes compensate for being weak in one aspect of our lives by exploiting power in another. i live in a different culture from my “own” and often feel isolated and mis-understood; i must admit that i do sometimes take solace in thinking that i am better educated, richer, whatever (yes, i do also feel guilty for thinking so, and i hope i do not show such thoughts publicly).

    so perhaps the author’s biggest crime is that she is not sufficiently socially or politically aware to understand what she is doing, and to keep it private?

    or perhaps she and i are just exceptionally bad :o(

  • Kalimaat

    Hamida Ghafour is correct, Emirati men do not stare, they just follow you around the shopping mall patiently until they get the opportunity to ask you if you want “to have a good time” with them.

  • Tasmiya

    Yes, I agree with Sobia. Good for you for calling this out.

  • Sahar

    Brilliant critique. I always get into massive fights with friends of mine who study here but are from the Emirates. They’re in denial of this classism and racism because it’s normalised. They’re also desperate to show a type of Emirates that actually is nothing more than a facade. Interesting thing is, many of them are not Emirati originally but Iraqi and Palestinian Arabs who are from well-off families and so although they may not be considered on the same social level as the locals, they believe they too can look down on others who are socially and economically below them. Of course this is exacerbated further by the western consumer culture the Emirates is desperately trying to emulate in every way and also the existing prejudice in the Arab community toward South Asians.

  • Krista

    Thanks everyone for the comments.

    @ Safiyyah: Thanks for pointing that out about the living conditions of these people, and about some of the other underlying reasons behind the staring. That makes the journalist’s comments even more problematic.

    @ sarah: Yes, haha, I hadn’t thought of that… I guess it is possible that that’s what she means. But then, even if that is the case, the way that she talks about this as her solution every time her other tactics don’t work implies that this is an insult applicable to all the labourers, which would imply that they all have, uh, small shoes. And that, as well as already being apparently inferior on the levels of race and class, they are also (as a group) seen as not sufficiently masculine, as you pointed out. So either way, that act of pointing at the shoes and laughing (as well as the fact that she printed that anecdote in a newspaper, drawing mass public attention to whatever it is that is “wrong” with these guys’ shoes), is pretty sketchy. Anyway, thanks for pointing that out, I’m curious now whether that’s what she meant (although I agree with some of the other commenters that it still sounds more likely to me to be poverty-related – but the masculinity thing is totally possible too.)

    By the way, I do want to be clear that we should stay away from any arguments suggesting that either sexual harassment or abuse of migrant workers are at all unique to the UAE, or even uniquely bad there. They’re big problems in a lot of places, and we all need to be careful of saying things like “wow, those Emiratis are so awful, look at how they treat their migrant workers,” because the problem really lies in global capitalist systems of exploitation, not in individual countries. (I’m not saying that anyone *is* saying those things, but just want to make sure we’re thinking of this in context – this article is about the situation in the UAE, and it’s totally cool to talk about that, but only if we remain aware that the problem is much bigger than that.)

  • Person

    I do not think it makes anyone bad neccessarily. However, I think it’s problematic b/c it becomes a cycle of sorts. Often times, people who feel powerless will be even more oppressive towards other minorities in an effort to assert their dominant position in some way. So men who feel powerless may use sexism as a way to reassert manhood, people in middle-classes may look down on poor, upper class women may berate the men in lower classes,etc. I think it redirects attention from fighting against all forms of oppression and injustice and is somewhat of a divide and conquer strategy.
    With that said I totally undrstand the feeling. When I feel powerless I often want to hurt the person who makes me feel that way in any way possible. Incudng a strong desire to call people the b or c word, or insult their level of education. Even though I know those ae nothing but shut down tactics and shame people for lacking a certain education or are extremely derogatory and “puy in your placish” to women (I am female), it’s still hard not to result to such tactics when feeling powerless in other aspects.
    And Krista, really great article. I too did not want to comment on perceived classism b/c I do not/have neer been to the Emirates, however it seems that sexual harrassment is ofen attributed to men in lower socio-eco classes/oppressed races. When it’s lower class/minority men it seems their behavior is normalized as a facet of their race/class, whereas when priviledged men harass the behavior is more likely to be blamed on the dress/behavior of the women.

  • luckyfatima

    AHAHAHA! I have had Emirati men try to solicit me as a prostitute because I was out walking for excercise in my old neighborhood which is frequented by prostitutes (even though it was obvious I was exercising!!!)

    I have had Emirati men throw phone numbers at me and friends when we walked through the mall.

    I have had Emirati men say “Mashallah” to my face when I walked through the mall.

    I have been harassed by South Asian men in India and in Pakistan and even had my breast grabbed before, but by manual laborers in the UAE who are the same type of guys who would be harassing in India and Pakistan, those men are afraid to look in your eyes even because they would be beaten to death if a woman who looked like me (presumed to be Arab) complained. Actually I was harassed maybe once or twice but said nothing even though I saw police nearby because I knew what would happen if I complained.

    But I have been harassed by loads of Arab men and even a couple of times Eastern Europeans, Filipinos, upper class desis…but very rarely manual workers.

    However, our Nepalese housekeeper told me a lot of tales of her being harassed by those worker guys when she is out on her day off. There is no class barrier with her because they know she is a maid or at least that she is poor so she is fair game for harassment as she is more sexually accessible than someone who is presumed to be an Arab woman. She is also harassed by the Arabs and all the rest because there is no barrier or fear of repercussion so to be sure 100% she is far more vulnerable than me.

    Keeping workers out of the mall is such nonsense. It has nothing to do with harassment. It is just trying to keep the malls sparkly and shiny.

  • Zahra

    This is an awesome piece. Thank you so much for writing it, Krista. The author of the article is as you say terrible racist and classist–but people do such things all the time, and it is so refreshing to see someone called on it!

    Your piece exemplifies what I think feminism is–a movement seeking to free all people–as opposed to what other people often try to tell me it is (something, alas, close to the article you discuss). Thank you for that.