Fighting sexism by exploiting class-based oppression

An apparent defense of women from sexual harassment in the UAE is encouraging – until you notice that it is directed at the lower class immigrants who make up the bulk of the Emirates population. Richer Arabs harass women too, and should be called out on it.
Hamida Ghafour’s article “Lewd Stares Distressing for Women,” published in the U.A.E.’s The National newspaper, appears to promote resistance to sexism and sexual harassment, but 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 laborers 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 are admirable. The Abu Dhabi beach was quickly divided into two sections last year after women expressed their discomfort at gangs of laborers roaming about and leering. Emirati men are courteous. They never stare.

At first glance, I felt excited to read that it was men, and not women, bearing the blame for sexual harassment. Moreover, it is unusual to order men to keep away from a certain space so that women can feel safe, rather than demanding that the women avoid the area. Finally, it is refreshing to find that a government realizes that women’s discomfort in public spaces is even an issue worth addressing.

But I didn’t have time to linger in my satisfaction. As I continued reading, I realized that it was “laborers,” and not “men,” being blamed for sexual harassment. And in particular, it was 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 difficult to prove on this issue alone, as affability towards women surely depends on more than government efforts to provide public spaces where women feel comfortable and protected from lascivious glances. More importantly, we might ask which women experience this unthreatening, relaxed environment; for example, do foreign domestic workers, the female counterparts of these laborers, find the U.A.E. to be such a friendly country? Do low-income women benefit from this kind of legislation regarding malls and beaches?

And is it possible, perhaps, that the government’s consideration of women who tend to access malls and beaches may be motivated more because of their class and potential economic value to the government, rather than because of a “friendly” attitude to women as a whole? I certainly do not intend to single out the Emirati government as being exceptionally racist or classist, because I believe these ugly characteristics can be found in any government or society, my own Canadian one included, but this article does leave the impression that, at least from the author’s point of view, the government’s positive policies towards females favor women of high economic status.

The article does become more nuanced as it goes on, and the writer acknowledges cultural differences with regards to lewd stares that may explain some of the leers that women receive from the laborers. She even admits that racism and snobbery, in part, motivated Al Bawadi Mall when the decision was made to ban laborers, who are predominantly poor South Asians and Arabs, on weekday evenings and weekends. Yet the conclusion of the article returns to the original classist tone:

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.

It seems clear that the author mocks the laborer’s shoes because they are tattered and worn out while hers are of a superior quality and condition. To be fair, if a woman is in a situation where she feels threatened and this sort of a derisive remark seems like her only means out, it might be somewhat excusable. However, to advocate routinely responding to sexism by denigrating someone based on class is not acceptable. Yet this seems to be the reoccurring tenor of the article: to retaliate against one form of unjust, indecent behavior with another.

(Photo: Stephan Geyer)
Krista Riley is a graduate student in sociology and equity studies, currently living in Toronto. An unedited version of this article was previously published at Muslimah Media Watch.

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