Gender Benders in the Middle East
A new social phenomenon is growing in the Gulf countries. It is the social practice of women imitating men in speech, body language, dress, and overall aesthetic. It is done in the cause of gaining equal opportunity and clashes against gender and societal norms. This issue has gained international attention with the publication of new book on the issue, titled: Mustarjeat by Ali Qahis.
Qahis, a prominen journalist, launched his book in the emirate of Sharjah. Sharjah belongs to the United Arab Emirates which is the only country in the GCC that has publicly acknowledged and given response to this pressing issue of social concern. Through this publication, Qahis hopes to make other people throughout the Middle East understand that this practice is growing widely across many countries and not just the U.A.E.
The practice of this cross dressing is unique in that it is not tied to any sexual preference or feelings of being given the wrong gender identity. Instead, it is purely driven by the desire of women to have equal opportunities in society as men. Depending on how conservative or liberal the society, women can face multiple barriers when participating in normal society. These include not being able to be left alone outside the home, participating in many basic financial transactions such as opening a back account in their name, or driving a car. These restrictions are heaviest in Saudi Arabia. So with little chance of these restrictions being lifted, women have begun to change their gender identification to circumvent these hurdles. Completely changing the way they dress, sound, and cut their hair, these actions can give them entirely new abilities to be independent.
The content of the book is focused primarily around interviews with the (wo)men themselves who normally practice this type of gender bending and their parents. For many women who do this, they find it is the only way to be able to equally function in their communities. They are tired of the oppression assigned to them for their gender. And until new attitudes allow women to be more independent, they will turn to cross dressing to achieve what they need. As for the parents, the activity can be very jarring. They dislike that their children are choosing to rebel this way and hope that it will stop soon.
Part of the reason this practice has taken hold recently is the advent of social networking sites. Online chat rooms and Facebook are two of the main venues where women can gather to discuss, give advice, and share concerns about cross dressing. Allowing them to evade the scrutiny of gathering in physical locations, it becomes very difficult for any outside group to defy this new network.
On the whole, this new activity pushes against many of the typical norms and gender definitions in the Gulf States. National leaders in the U.A.E. have publicly voiced their growing concern on this issue claiming that it needs to be put to an end. But until a new, viable opportunity comes along that allows women to be equal to men, it will difficult to force these women to stop.