I mute commercial breaks in case another breakfast cereal company clumsily markets its product with just another kitchen scene featuring a woman cheerily waving her children and husband off to school and work. I’ve foregone second dates because of unsplit checks. I define myself first as a feminist, before Asian American, female, or a college student. For me, the movement has always only been about improvement of the female condition through establishing true equality between the sexes. Being a feminist is visceral for me—the only alternative I see to being a social doormat and masochist.
I couldn’t have been more taken aback when someone I knew, upon hearing of my summer plans to study Arabic in the Sultanate of Oman, remarked, “You better return a feminist.”
I was affronted. I’d been to the Arab World before—once to Morocco and once to Abu Dhabi—and while both were transformative experiences, neither catalyzed an erosion of my feminist identity. I remained of- fended at the acquaintance’s comment because I had no reason to expect my impending trip to Oman on another Arabic study abroad program to be any more effacing to my feminism. I left the Middle East at the end of the summer with my values wholly and healthily intact.
I keep returning to that offhand comment now that I’m back in the United States, because it expresses an alarming misconception. It presumes that a willingness to learn about the Arab World diametrically opposes feminism. In fact, the desert heat did not burn away my agitation that women in America earn 70 cents on the dollar to men and that my usually great state of Texas is busy waging a war to shut down the vast majority of abortion clinics.
The assumption underlying “You better come back a feminist” is not an isolated phenomenon. People of- ten express variations of the same sentiment when they learn I’ve been studying Arabic and the Arab World since high school. While the more innocuous “Why do you study the Middle East?” seems born from only curiosity on a surface level, it’s often laced with the connotation that my interest in that region must unilaterally offend my feminist and American values. It’s not my study of the Arab World that’s startling, it’s that I approach the region and its peoples with enthusiasm rather than some level of suspicion, if not outright animosity.
What would I have learned about Oman had I approached the country bearing preconceived wariness before I’d even begun my summer? Such attitudes about my specialization are unhelpful for facilitating cultural exchange both here and abroad. The idea that all practicing Muslims deserve mistrust discounts my ability to wholly condemn ISIS and other terrorist cells, but still recognize that peaceful people constitute the majority of the Arab World. Likewise, I can distinguish the oppressive and sexist aspects of Arab society from the parts of its culture I find beautiful—its music, marketplaces, celebrations, and of course, its language. It would be patently unprofitable for someone who wants to work in international relations and law to approach her region of specialization without some degree of empathy and understanding.
I am not unaware of the social progress needed in the Arab World. It disturbs me that in some countries a woman who reports rape is often arrested herself, that women suffer from a lack of education and career opportunities, that females are often shortchanged when it comes to divorce and property rights, along with myriad everyday suppressions of their autonomy. I know the frustration of asking an Omani male a question and having the answer addressed to my male American companion instead. On a beach, another female friend and I, clothed in t-shirt and shorts in line with the usual beach attire of Omani women, experienced a conspicuous group of local males gathering around us, some snapping cellphone pictures. My protests were met with loud, bold laughs. In short, I was not inoculated from true perpetuations of inequality between the sexes, which find roots in systemic deprivation of female agency.
But in America, too, I have been heckled by groups of lounging men as I traipse home, and I’ve been told to speak less bluntly and assertively. Here, too, people will “mansplain” at me. Here, too, we see victim blaming in rape cases. Both the Arab World and the United States are rife with improvements for which feminists must strive, but the difference is that, more so in this country than in many other parts of the world, I have the right to seek an education. I have platforms to speak out against injustices and right egregious social unbalances. Inequality, no matter from which side of the ocean it springs, is worthy of our attention.
I have always approached the Arab World with a sense of cultural relativism. I was not used to the cultural principles that compelled the men and women in my group of American exchange students to live in separate buildings, nor would I, free from cultural observations, have worn long sleeves in the face of desert heat. Still, it would have been gratuitously obnoxious for me, as a foreigner, to discard Omani customs because they conflict with my natural practices. Such unconcealed disrespectful behavior on my part would have been an embarrassment to the United States, because it would have displayed a stunning level of insensitivity.
Cultural exchange is mutual growth, but my job in Oman was to immerse myself as a student rather than blunder through as an ignorant tourist. It was to absorb differences in beliefs and respectfully communicate the dissimilar habits I kept at home, not to launch into diatribes about gender inequalities and disdain all local traditions. Had I done so, I would have been far less successful at engaging receptive Omanis in open discussion about disparate cultural conducts. Approach- ing this experience with suspicious squints would have shut my eyes to the weight of all I have left to take in from the world.
Illustration by Julia Kittle-Kamp