Working Women in Arabia

Grad student asks: were you comfortable as a woman working in the Middle East?


Yes, I was. In the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan) I didn’t dress or act differently than I would have anywhere, and I’m not conservative by most measuring sticks. I’ll discuss below some slight changes I made while working in the more open Gulf countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman). If you’re going beyond those boundaries, I refer you to the advice of the Unaccompanied Lady

In the Gulf (except Saudi Arabia) normal businesswear is fine, including skirts; on the evenings and weekends I covered my shoulders and legs to my knees. But aside from that, very little separated my experience in the Middle East from any other business interaction. Occasionally more conservative men would put their hand on their heart and bow rather than shake my hand, as they didn’t wish to touch a woman not related to them. 

The women I interviewed usually wore headscarfs if not a full abaya, but I didn’t feel any pressure or judgment because I was dressed differently. 

However strange it may seem to my fellow Americans, people in the more conservative parts of the Middle East really seem to believe that many of the customs we find objectionable are ways of protecting, respecting, and/or empowering women. They don’t think women are stupid or incapable. They just consider being a woman and leader of a household as more important than career paths outside the home, for the most part. 


I did meet women at all rungs of the corporate ladder, from receptionists to government ministers. There are few, if any, professions that are limited by gender. (I didn’t meet any female taxi drivers, though I’m not sure if that’s legislated.) In fact, women are generally considered more competent and reliable employees, and are more likely to have gotten a higher education degree than their male counterparts.

But how does this shape your experience as a western woman in the ME? Fundamentally, you’re a foreigner, and they don’t measure you by the same standards they do their ‘own’ women. None of my interviewees seemed nonplussed to meet an unaccompanied, college-educated professional woman. A few times the men I met even said they hoped their daughters would grow up to be educated and independent like me (a huge surprise!). Yes, there were a few guys who wanted to ‘continue the discussion over dinner’, but all you have to say is no. And it’s not like that doesn’t happen in the Western world as well. 

I’m not going to say there was zero harassment on the street. There were occasional cat calls, whistles, or more often simply staring, but again no more than most other cities. (I also lived in China, where people would occasionally come up and stroke my hair because they’d never seen anything like it. So maybe I’m desensitized to these kinds of things). 

In a different field, or if you were planning to live and work there full-time and climb the career ladder, the differences between how men and women are treated might become clearer, but as an analyst who seldom spent more than two weeks in any one location I never felt compromised in my ability to do any work.

So if you have the opportunity: go! The Middle East is gorgeous. It’s the cradle of civilization. The food is incredible. Most of the people you meet will be as generous as they are proud of their heritage.

Most importantly, your visit, work, or time spent living in the Middle East will transform the way you look at the news. You’ll return to your home with stories of a land rich in history, hospitality, and hummus. Tell these stories. The western world needs to hear more of them. 
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Tall girls in a short country

Foreigners are still a rare, rare sighting in Hunan province. We are treated like safari animals: people point, take pictures, keep their distance or occasionally try to feed us. Bug-eyed stares are a given. The teachers have each come up with coping mechanisms: Mike take pictures of people taking pictures of us, Amanda waves and smiles for the camera, I make faces for them. We’ve developed a points system to keep things interesting:

  • 1 point for catching someone blatantly staring at us
  • 2 points for deliberate head turning or stopping to watch us pass
  • 3 points for pointing
  • 4 points for audible recognition, such as shouting ‘waigoren’ (foreigner) or loudly saying hello
  • 5 points for taking a photo (bonus if the person pretends to focus on something else, then snaps as soon as you enter the frame)
  • 6 points for being a guest star in a home video

And so on. We eventually eliminate the first three tiers as being too frequent to bear counting. Amanda, who is not only a waigoren but is black, is the runaway winner. She is the elusive lionness of our safari.

Being a giraffe of a waigoren – southern Chinese do not often see a woman approaching six feet – is helpful in some cases. People tend to give you more personal space. People snatch up their children before you step on them. (I’ve always had a problem with baby-trampling in the US, they’re just so far out of my normal sight line).

There is one place, however, where people don’t have time to notice if you are a waigoren. It is, apart from the Hong Kong border crossing, the most terrifying place in China for me: the train station.

My first experience at Beijing’s colossal domestic hub Peking West nearly scared me out of the country permanently. Fifty yards from the entrance, I was sucked into a slow-moving flood of people pressing towards the narrow gates of the entrance. As we neared the door, gentle shoves degenerated into kicking and clawing as people struggled to get their luggage onto the metal detector first. When I made it through – all in one piece, to my amazement – the mob abruptly dissipated, leaving me wondering if I had exaggerated its savagery. My friend Jenny, who emerged a minute later, was not so forgiving.

‘I don’t understand how eight millennia of a culture based on respect and self-sacrifice has produced this,’ she spat. ‘I’ve been holding onto my Chinese passport [she moved to the states in 1997] out of some sort of misplaced nostalgia. Forget that. I’m applying for US citizenship as soon as I get back to the states.’

Thankfully the Changsha station was not as ‘renounce-my-citizenship’ violent as Peking West. It probably helped that I was traveling with two other waigoren. Gretchen, descended from the blonde midwestern Amazon gene pool, was good for clearing paths through the horde, and Jeanne, nearly a foot shorter than both of us, burrowed skillfully. We made it onto the train with minimal emotional scarring.

The twenty-one hour train ride passed quickly thanks to a quartet of classical-guitar playing adolescents. Like a Sinic version of the Carter family, they turned the carriage into their tour bus, jamming and practicing well into the evening, pausing long enough to teach me the A and E chords. I’m saving C, D, and G for my upcoming train journeys: one and a half days from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia; twenty four hours to Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’; and three and a half days to Moscow.
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I climbed the Stairway to Heaven

My inspiration for going to China came from a classmate at Harvard. She taught English in southern China for the month of July and invited me to explore the north with her ‘because it would be easier to travel with a Westerner’ (she was born in Manchuria and moved to California when she was ten). I assumed this meant she – a petite, pretty Asian would feel unsafe traveling alone. But I was a bit confused: I may be tall, but was I really the best choice for a bodyguard?
As it turns out, my martial arts skills were never called for. In fact, I felt more comfortable walking down the street in China than I do in continental Europe, where any woman with two legs, no feathers, and possessed of a soul* can count on unwanted attention. Foreigners, especially, are treated with immense respect. Whenever I was on a crowded train or bus, people would insist I take their seat. If an official saw me waiting in line at a train station, I would be immediately taken to the counter. This special attention was the reason Jenny wanted to travel with me: as a Chinese girl, she would have to wait in lines and fight for space like the rest of her countrymen. By toting along a tall white girl, all that nonsense could be avoided.

(I should mention: this indulgence to foreigners, predictably, does not extend to the marketplace. Strangers with their favorable exchange rates are the natural prey of knockoff-Burberry-clad merchants. I only narrowly managed to escape buying a ‘Rolex’ worthy of a French President.)
We joined the obligatory herd of tourists at the terracotta army outside of Xian before catching a fifteen-hour train ride toTai’an, a town in Shandong province south of Beijing. The train was basic: six boards intended to function as beds to a compartment, a hole at the end of the car for a toilet, and a fan which probably last functioned under Mao for ventilation. Sharing our compartment were a middle-aged man who snored, a Blackberry-toting businessman, and two shirtless boys who stared at me for hours at a time. And I thought the businessman in Common Class would have been a more unusual sight.
Two days in Taishan were spent climbing on foot and descending by cable car Tai Shan, the ‘first of the five sacred mountains in China’. Taking to heart the posted warning ˜Obey the rules and have a good trip’, we mostly stuck to the path, which has been a pilgrim route since before Confucius’s time (571-489 BC) and is dotted with ancient temples and dramatic carvings on seemingly inaccessible cliffs. The last .2 kilometers our 10.7km climb up the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ had 1600 stairs, a fact I would have been happier to learn in retrospect. Suffice to say it was a good workout.
The view from most of the way up the Stairway to Heaven
We moved on to Qingdao, an old German colony with one of the most unappealing beaches I have ever seen: brown, rocky and weed-strewn, tidepools that smell more like cesspools, and a horizon dominated by ill-conceived modern architecture. We stayed for two days, and I headed back to Beijing on my own. On my way out of the city, I marveled at its size: it seems like there are enough skyscrapers to house all the jobs in the world. And yet there are cranes everywhere – dormant while the city struts its stuff for the Olympics, but ready to roar back into action. Celtic tigers and lionsnotwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a future not dominated by the Chinese dragon.
The beach at Qingdao
* Reading: Candide
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