Women in the Persian Gulf have perfected a double life; the one we aspire to lead, and the one society allows. Advancements in gender equality have gifted women with some rewards, but has created a divide between those who reap the limited advantages, and those who choose to advocate for more freedoms. Often, it is the former who are critical of the latter for their choice.
While enjoying a coffee at a cafe in Muscat, I overheard a group of women, all wearing headscarves, talking about a friend who had just left a job in the public sector. “She was frustrated, she was hoping to be promoted, instead they promoted a guy beneath her,” said one. “Well, if she put a headscarf on, maybe she wouldn’t have had that problem,” said another – prompting a unanimous murmur of agreement.
In a culture where being an individual rather than part of the collective is frowned upon, the comment was probably true. The instinct of women too often is to lay blame to other women. At no point was the question raised as to why a woman had to cover up, and how covering up would suddenly render her eligible for a promotion, notwithstanding merit and ability.
It would be easy to denounce this as a cultural issue, but it is not that simple. Walk down the streets of Muscat, you will find half the women freely uncovered, but go into an office, public sector or private, and the overwhelming majority will be wearing a headscarf, with almost as many cloaked in an abaya. Why? Because compliance is rewarded by ‘getting ahead’, and if this is perceived to be the accepted path, then there is an element of coercion: not explicit, not laid down in law, but an underlying rule. Standing out means being set aside – in other words, missing out on the very opportunities that feminism has granted so far.
No doubt, we have made progress in recent years. Women can be ministers, CEOs, pilots, entrepreneurs – unimaginable ambitions over a generation ago. Following each of these achievements? A hyper-inflated headline. But what is not made apparent in these newsbites are the women who struggle for basic treatment of equality, respect and right in the workplace because they choose to believe in merit, rather than conformity.
The problem becomes more apparent the higher you climb. At a certain level of seniority, executives and officials are expected to put in the long hours, attending evening events for work, and generally being available at all times to meet the needs of their organisation. Most people establish themselves at this level when they have young families. But it’s at precisely this age that women are still expected to prioritise their husband and children over their own careers. The sad fact is that it will often be other women who gossip the loudest when this isn’t the case.
We know that the odds for change are often stacked against us, especially in a region where anyone calling for more equality can be slandered as unpatriotic, sacrilegious, or tainted by Western ideology, as recently noted by Johanna Shchalkwyk in the Canadian International Development Agency’s report entitled: Questions About Culture, Gender Equality and Development Cooperation.
Why, then, do we continue to judge and shame other women for choosing to pursue individual freedom, or a career alongside family life? All the freedoms we have won will be for nothing if we can’t celebrate and elevate those whose ambitions will pave the way for future generations, like the strong women before us.
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