At this very moment, I am an Arab Muslim man writing about women in the Arab world. This makes me think of the Women’s Affairs Minister I recently read about who happens to be male. It also makes me think of all the male legislators crafting laws on women’s rights in Western parliaments. As a man, I suppose it should come naturally to me to pontificate on, and then define the limits of possibility for women. In fact, I know many men who do this all the time. We decide what women should wear, if they can study, or work; we control their movements by law or by controlling their access to financial resources. We make sure that they know they are precious treasures exalted by our culture. We tell them this when they ask to leave the home, to travel, to study and to work. Why should they bother themselves with the harsh world outside the home? Let us do that for them. It’s no worry. We are strong and capable and will do it out of respect for our women. What would an emotional and frivolous creature be able to achieve in a tough man’s world? Remember, women are treasures to behold, and to hide from the lecherous eyes of other males.
Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash
I spent the summer months of 2016 climbing in the French Alps. I had just completed the final draft of my book Letters to a Young Muslim, and I felt a rush of energy that I knew would only be satisfied by climbing mountains. I contacted a company in France that provides mountain guides. The guide assigned to me was a Swedish woman in her early 30s. She was about 160cm tall and looked to be half my weight. Not what I had been expecting. I joked about being much heavier than her and wondered out loud whether she would be able to hold me if I fell during a climb. She brushed off these remarks with a smile and a confident look in her eyes.
We spoke as we made our way to the foot of the climb. She told me she had been a serious gymnast and then took up climbing while getting a Masters degree in bio-engineering from Stanford. Smart cookie. And tough. She roped me up swiftly, went through a checklist of safety precautions and then launched herself up the rock face with nimble steps. Once she had secured herself at a suitable resting place, I began to climb, following the rope connecting me to my guide. I struggled inelegantly, cutting my fingers, bruising my knees and scraping my shins. Finally, I reached the safety spot. As I shivered with tension from the verticality of our position, she coolly tied me in and told me to relax. This process continued day after day, and week after week. Her cool demeanour and constant focus impressed me. Certainly not how I would describe myself. She was a female James Bond. In control, laser-like in concentration and impervious to the changing weather conditions. And she was actually the founder and owner of the guiding company.
Then came my first fall. I was struggling to pull myself onto a ledge that would have provided me with some rest. We were a high up a mountain. My legs were shaking with tension and fear, and my arms were burning with exhaustion. My fingertips were slipping from their holds. Nothing beneath me. And then I fell. You don’t think you will ever let go but your hands and strength betray you. I fell and wondered what would happen. Three metres and then the rope pulled taut and I swung back up before smashing against the rock face. She had held me. As I hung there and gathered my thoughts, I smiled at the realisation that this tiny woman was holding my life in her hands – and that I was so relieved. Her cool approach, technical expertise and her judgement were what guided me in the mountains and what saved me on more than one occasion.
I recount this experience because it focused my mind on how we bind each other in our region through inherited cultural practices, outdated mental models and desire to control others. It brought to my mind the reality that we choose to bind each other in these ways, and then we tell each other that men and women possess certain definite unchangeable traits. Climbing with my Swedish guide is just one demonstration that individual males and females can swap culturally assigned roles of strong and weak, steady and emotional, tough and fearful.
Our region has different experiences of how women are permitted to behave. The UAE has developed in a manner whereby women are now leading members of the government and the private sector. As an experiment for the region, the Arab and Muslim worlds, the UAE serves as one possible path where men and women work alongside each other, commuting to and from the office, understanding and helping to define the world around them. And all of this with no breakdown of law and order, or of community and moral values. What some might fear, proves to be the effect of an overexcited imagination. Perhaps we can give each other greater credit, as we build a more inclusive Arab and Muslim world.
This article appears in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia - out now.