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.