A single white female in the Middle East

Last week, I was in Amman, Jordan. It was the middle of the day, and I was walking down a fairly trafficked street toward the city centre. A little boy came up to me at a crosswalk. He was probably around eight or ten. Kids—and people in general—in Jordan are quite friendly, but when he offered me his hand to shake, I was still a little wary. But I didn’t want to be rude. What’s the worst that could happen? I figured he’d just try to steal my purse, but I had my eye on that.

He didn’t grab my purse. He grabbed my breast.

I was pretty thrown. I may have moved to hit him with the purse that he apparently had zero interest in stealing, after all, before I collected myself and realized that retaliation of any sort was probably a bad idea. So I just kept walking, with my arms crossed over my chest, trying to look as invisible as possible. (Note: when you’re a very white redhead in an Arabic country, this is harder than you’d think.)

I’ve told this story a few times since. Everyone has thought it was a funny story. To me, it wasn’t really funny at all. I felt violated. It doesn’t matter that it was just a little kid, and it doesn’t matter that it was a “relatively harmless” act. My personal space was been invaded. I don’t want anyone—boy, girl, old, young, pretty, ugly—coming up to me in the street and grabbing any part of me. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

A lot of people have reservations about travelling alone while possessing lady-style genitalia. Wikitravel has a whole page of tips for women, although it’s actually surprisingly short. I know women who don’t feel comfortable walking around foreign cities at night or without a tour group. I’ve had people give me all kinds of advice on what I should or should not do in certain places, and generally I’ve ignored it. Most of the time, I chalk this well-meaning advice up to the kind of naive xenophobia often experienced by people who haven’t travelled a great deal. The world is a surprisingly safe place if you pay attention and know what you’re doing.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve never had bad experiences. I landed in a Thai jail after being robbed of most of my most useful belongings (and probably assaulted). My drink was spiked with something in a nightclub in Budapest, and I didn’t make it out until the next day. I had too much to drink with a fellow in Colombia and ended up having to physically fight my way out of his apartment.

Some of these stories wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been drinking. As a result, I’ve learned to be more careful about when and where I drink. But my bad experiences aren’t only travelling stories. I’ve experienced various forms of sexual assault in my own country, and from men I trusted. My stories aren’t uncommon. Travelling alone may make me more vulnerable, but lousy humans exist in all corners of the world. Once you’ve been alive for long enough, you’re almost guaranteed to encounter someone who thinks they have more rights to your body than you do.

Travelling in Islamic countries makes me think about this a lot. I hate to further perpetrate the cultural, political, and ideological rifts between the Arab world and the Western world in saying this, but this part of the world is different, and in some ways, I’m not quite comfortable with it.

This isn’t true of all Muslim countries. I had no problems in Malaysia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. I absolutely loved Turkey. And I’ve met a great many individual Muslims—and Arabs—who have been interesting, respectful, considerate, and absolutely lovely people. Certain aspects of the culture, particularly the strong sense of hospitality, are really wonderful to experience.

But denying there’s a difference is essentially sticking your head in the sand. Generally speaking, most Muslim countries, especially those in the Arab world, have huge gender gaps, in both a cultural and legal sense. Jordan is touted as “one of the most modern and liberal nations in the region,” and as a result, I expected to feel more comfortable there than I did in, say, Morocco. But while Jordan has a lot going for it—the people are friendly, there’s lots of great food and cool restaurants & cafes—it’s nowhere near “progressive” by Western terms.

Did I mention it’s gorgeous? It is so gorgeous. I have far too many horrible photos of mountain ranges that don’t even begin to express how gorgeous they are.

For starters, you just don’t see that many women around. Simply by virtue of being a woman walking down the streets, I was attracting attention. I once made the mistake of going out in a skirt that only came to my knees, and every single person on the street openly stared at me. The few women I did see glared at me. No matter how hot it was, I always had to wear jeans and full-length sleeves, making sure all skin that wasn’t on my face was covered. Even then, I was constantly greeted by comments, in various languages that I did or didn’t understand, about my appearance.

It made me feel like public property. There’s something discomfiting about feeling that people think they have rights to you, because you’re dressed a certain way or because you’re a western woman travelling without a male companion.

I went down south, to Aqaba, within walking distance of the border with Saudi Arabia. I thought I’d spend a couple of days swimming in the Red Sea before I headed back to Israel. I was a little uncertain about appearing in public in a bathing suit—for once, not because I was self-conscious, but because I didn’t want to be disrespectful. But then I figured, what the hell. It’s hot as balls, and I’m not going swimming in my jeans.

For the most part, it was fine—the beach seemed mostly populated by westerners on holiday. A woman did come by to tell me something in Arabic that I didn’t understand, but given that she kept pointing at me and then miming a beard, I think she was chastising me for lying on the beach in a swimsuit without a man to chaperone me. At first I felt guilty for being the thoughtless, scandalous foreigner who can’t respect the local traditions. But then, as I thought more about it, I realized there’s a double standard there. I don’t care if a Jordanian woman comes to my country and wears hijab, and I don’t care if a European woman comes and sunbathes topless on my beaches. (You know, if she can find any that aren’t covered in snow.) Tolerance goes both ways, and I don’t feel like I need to buy a ‘burquini’ just so I can uncomfortably wade/drown/splash about in the water, basically fully-dressed.

I am a big fan of tolerance. And though I’m quite staunchly secular myself, I have often argued with anti-religious types that people should be free to believe whatever the fuck they want to, provided they don’t impose those beliefs on other people. But the idea that women should dress modestly so that they won’t lead men to sin is fundamentally sexist, and it’s 90% of what I dislike about religion (and our delightfully slut-shamey society) wrapped up in a neat little package. The more I read about Jordan-this so-called “progressive” country—the more perturbed I was by it. A man still has the right to decide whether his wife works or not. (And most don’t, which is a big part of why women are often excluded from the public sphere.) Honour killings, while not legal per se, are still common, and are still punished less severely than other murders. The Jordanian legal system is still primarily based on the incredibly misogynistic Shari’a law, which states that a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s (because we’re weak-minded and prone to forgetting things), that divorce is almost entirely in a man’s control, and that women have substantially less rights than men, pretty much across the board.

The result of this is that I found myself in a country where I constantly needed to police myself. I was overwhelmingly struck with the idea that people looked at me and saw, not an independent, strong, and valuable human being, but a piece of as-yet-unclaimed property. And because I’m obviously not a Muslim, my value as a human being is even less.

I’m used to comments. I get them a lot anywhere south of the United States—Mexico, Argentina, Colombia. But while the catcalls and stares annoy and frustrate me, I don’t feel like I need to police my behaviour in order to travel there. I don’t feel as vulnerable walking down the street there, and I think it’s because—while people still think the catcalls are okay—it’s more about machismo than it is a general disrespect for my personal autonomy.

I’m happy to be back in Israel, where I could walk the streets in a tank top and not feel like I was being violated by everyone I walked past. And though Israel is trending towards increased gender segregation, it’s still a very modern, Westernized country, where you see women out and about in public, wearing what they want and not being attacked for it.

But I think it’s going to be a while before I return here. It’s been an interesting experience, and I’m glad I did it, but I’m in no hurry to repeat it. (I said much the same about Morocco when I was there.) There are huge tracts of the world that I still haven’t explored, where I can feel safe as a lone woman.

This just isn’t one of them.

Little Petra
I spent three nights camped out in the desert with a super-friendly group of Bedouins who very nearly restored my faith in the men of this part of the world. These mountains, scattered throughout the desert, helped too.