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Women and Men in the Middle East

Women and Men in the Middle East A young woman in hijab walked up to me in the streets of Aleppo and began talking. I was so taken aback by this act that I nearly dropped the falafel sandwich that I was eating. It had been a long time since another woman besides Chaya opened [...]

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Women and Men in the Middle East

A young woman in hijab walked up to me in the streets of Aleppo and began talking. I was so taken aback by this act that I nearly dropped the falafel sandwich that I was eating. It had been a long time since another woman besides Chaya opened up her mouth and spoke to me. From my experience, Middle Eastern women seldom speak with men that they do not know. I could hardly believe what was happening as that little wrapped up mummy of a Syrian girl made a beeline straight for me through crowds of people and ask in perfect English if she could have her photo taken with me.
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in Petra, Jordan- April 21, 2009

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I, of course, obliged her, and her boyfriend/ husband/ brother/ male chaperon – some dude that she knew – miraculously manifested himself out of a crowd of people. He was all ready and set with a camera in picture taking position. This act had been preplanned. The girl stood next to me and we posed together for a photo while onlookers looked on with curiosity.

This was the first time that another woman had spoken to me since entering the East of Turkey. Chaya’s jealousy meter has been set on standby as we travel through these lands where women tend to not to make themselves available to conversing with strange men.

Besides this photo opt, I have no idea when the last time was that I talked with a woman that was not a foreign traveler in the Middle East. I must admit that I have not gone out of my way to talk with women here, but, to my defense, I have rarely found myself in a position to do so. There seems to be few natural opportunities for unacquainted men and women to interact publicly.

I am beginning to think that the women are invisible here. I am not sure if I can even conjure up a mental image of what the women look like that I walk passed all day long. Like a flash, the women here move by me without looking or staring at me. I am not use to people refraining from staring at me. It feels as if I am also invisible to the women of this region.

Jordan women in typical clothes.

In a potshot estimate, I would say that 70% of the women in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan do not hide their faces and 15% do not even wear hijab scarves over their heads. But I still have difficulty focusing any attention on any of the women here as I go for my walks through Middle Eastern cities. I am faced with the vertigo of a lion hunting down a pack of zebras: sometimes it is difficult to tell where one women ends and another begins, as they all are dressed very similarly to each other in long robes, revealing dresses, coats, and headscarves. There is not much distinction of dress or style to turn my head or set in a good memory. I have a feeling that this is by design.

Chaya with a group of Jordan girls in typical clothing. What girl does not fit in here?

In many countries, the women try to attract men by standing out in a crowd. This is far from the tactic that women seem to use in the Middle East. “It is all in the eyes,” the Middle Eastern traveler, Cihan Karadag, once told me. I suppose that it is a sensitive art to notice the women of the Middle East. Perhaps I am not this sensitive of a man.

It is very easy to look over the women of the Middle East.

But perhaps this is not because the women here are meager, meek, and covered, but because the men are so visible and seem to always be in your face talking, laughing, joking, or yelling.

This is not to say that the men here are rude, rather, often to the contrary, they seem to always be yelling welcoming invitations, hospitable greetings, and friendly seeming intiatives . . . or they are trying to get you into their taxi cab or to “have a look” in their shop. Either way, a walk through the streets of the Middle East is an affair of perpetually interacting with men. In the coarse of walking down a single street I often find that I talk or at least say hello to at least twenty dudes.

The women do not call out to me or try to meet me, they do not yell “hello!” or “welcome to Syria!”, they simple walk by me with their eyes focused straight ahead, silently, and without any adu, absorbed in a world that seems very different than the society of men. Meanwhile, the men in the streets are yelling to me and yelling at each other – sometimes fighting and arguing – and doing everything that could be considered essential for the running of the region’s public sphere. It is far too easy to focus your attention on that which makes the most noise, and the men of the Middle East make a lot of noise.

I have also seldom had the opportunity to interact with many women during course of my daily walks. If I buy a falafal sandwich, it is from a man, if I buy a bag of breakfast crosants, it is from a man, if I buy a train ticket, it is from a man, if I ride in a taxi, a man is driving, if I go to a hotel, a man checks me into a room. I have never been more estranged from women anywhere in the world that I have traveled.

The women are in the streets, doing their days, laughing amongst each other, shopping, and doing what women do all over the world. They often rove in big smiling groups, but they are not readily available to interact with me, a male traveler, and not even Chaya has been able to really break the ice with any of them.

It is a man’s world here.

Perhaps this all comes without writing.

Women in a market in Damascus.

When children are young they all play together, there does not seem to be hefty dividing lines between boys and girls. But when they get older there seems to be a distinct dividing of the sexes, and it is very rare to see a group that consists of both unmarried men and women together in the streets. Public social groups from the teenage years on are either all female or all male.

Man in Syria.

Women and Men in the Middle East


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Filed under: Culture and Society, Middle East, Syria, Women

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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