The culture-related characteristics of The Middle East have always set it apart from the European and American cultures (Arjmand, 2016). The specifics of gender relationships that are typical for The Middle East are especially alien to the rest of the cultures. Despite the active promotion of feminist ideas and concepts, the difference in treating women and men can still be observed in the target environment which is especially evident when considering the rules for appearing in public places.
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The Middle East has seen a slight development of gender-related issues over the past few decades, according to recent research (de Koning, 2009). For instance, there is no longer the propensity to juxtapose the behaviors related to the two genders in the Egyptian society, particularly, in Cairo: “The urban trajectories of Cairo’s upper-middle-class women defy clear dichotomies of elite versus dominated, and dominant strategies versus momentary spatial tactics” (de Koning, 2009, p. 535). Nevertheless, public spaces are largely represented by men in The Middle East suburban areas as opposed to urban ones due to the phenomenon of social polarization. As a result, while cities continue promoting progressive solutions to gender issues, the people populating the areas that can be defined as suburban or rural tend to consider public space as the domain of men.
The accessibility of public spaces for women hinges on their respectability. The process of defining public areas as appropriate for being frequented by women has, in fact, been altered after the introduction of certain liberal practices into the environment of Morocco (Newcomb, 2006). For instance, nowadays, women can determine whether a particular public area is appropriate for them as the place where they may appear: “In Fes, women give meaning to social spaces by using their own cultural categories” (Newcomb, 2006, p. 291). Furthermore, the accessibility of a particular public space for women is determined based on its respectability. For instance, the choices made by the representatives of middle and upper classes in Ville Nouvelle (Newcomb, 2006) defined medina as the place that could not be deemed as respectable and, therefore, not suitable for Arab women.
Coffee shops and similar places, however, are considered as appropriate. One must note, though, that the image of a perfect upper- and middle-class woman has been debated over for a significant amount of time (de Koning, 2009). Consequently, the boundaries of appropriate public areas in which women may remain may differ in various areas of The Middle East. Nevertheless, there are standards that apply to women in all areas of The Middle East. These standards have been shaped by the upper- and middle-class representatives to an extensive degree: “upscale coffee-shops have created a protected niche for non-familiar mixed-gender sociabilities in contentious public geographies of leisure” (de Koning, 2009, p. 541). Hence, it can be assumed that middle and upper classes in The Middle East, in general, and its urban areas, in particular, have a powerful impact on the choice of social places that women can attend. Similarly, although men are not restricted in the areas that they can visit, it is also advisable for them not to frequent the venues that have been known to have a poor reputation (de Koning, 2009).
When it comes to defining the type of women that can be seen in the streets of The Middle East, especially its urban areas, one must admit that most of these women belong to the upper class (de Koning, 2009). Therefore, society perceives them as progressive and independent. Not only did their presence soon become normalized but also contributed to forming the staple of an upper-middle-class lifestyle (de Koning, 2009). Furthermore, the presence of the identified types of women adds to the creation of the “modernity” impression (de Koning, 2009). However, in some cities and states, such as Morocco, being in the street is considered less appropriate than being in a café or a similar public place: “Women’s presence in streets is fraught with more tension than inside cafes” (Newcomb, 2006, p. 298-299). Men, on the other hand, are allowed in most public places, except for the ones the function of which concerns providing services to only women (e.g., fitness clubs for women, etc.) (Newcomb, 2006).
The principles of respectability are followed quite rigidly in the environment of The Middle East. As a result, both men and especially women strive to make their presence in public places dignified. For instance, appearing in public places is considered acceptable only once a woman is accompanied by a man. Furthermore, in a range of states, it is imperative that the man should be a relative or a member of the family; otherwise, the scenario will be defined as inappropriate (Newcomb, 2006). The identified rule does not apply to men, though; they are typically allowed to be in the street without any escort (Newcomb, 2006). The identified phenomenon is often taken to its extreme. For instance, curtains must be viewed as a necessity for public places for women such as fitness centers despite the heat associated with weather, as well as similar issues that may hinder the process of receiving the necessary services.
Similarly, dresses are used to cover certain elements of a woman’s body, such as arms, face, etc., to make a woman look respectable in the eyes of the citizens. Moreover, different styles of dresses may represent different characteristics of the woman in question. For instance, the female citizens wearing a hijab are traditionally viewed as law-abiding and, thus, are accepted socially (de Koning, 2009). Likewise, it is viewed as inappropriate for women to go out in the streets in the evening. The said restrictions have a tangible impact on women in The Middle East, making it rather difficult for them to be visible in the context of the identified society.
It should be noted, though, that changes are slowly occurring in Middle Eastern society. For example, cybercafes have become an area where both men and women can enjoy their time. As a rule, cyber cafes are visited by a comparatively young audience; however, older members of the population also belong to the target population (Newcomb, 2006).
The presence of a woman, especially a young one, in the public place, is typically subjected to judgments and discussions in some Middle Eastern countries (Newcomb, 2006). Consequently, it is crucial for women in the identified countries to be able to justify their decision, though being escorted by a man is typically preferred. Furthermore, the attitude toward a woman walking in the public area in The Middle East is shaped significantly by the people that escort her, the dress that she wears, etc. Men, on the other hand, do not need to justify their presence in public places unless the latter are defined as socially ambiguous.
The gender-related issues that exist in The Middle East define the way in which men and women behave in public places. At present, women’s behavior defined by a range of restrictions regarding the choice of clothes, the way in which they can appear in the streets, their looks, etc. nevertheless, the specified differences are rooted deeply in the culture of the Middle East states, which is why many women consider the identified state of affairs appropriate.
Arjmand, R. (2016). Public urban space, gender and segregation: Women-only urban parks in Iran. New York, NY: Routledge.
de Koning, A. (2009). Gender, public space, and social segregation in Cairo: Of taxi drivers, prostitutes, and professional women. Antipode, 41(3), 533-556.
Newcomb, R. (2006). Gendering the city, gendering the nation: Contesting urban space in Fes, Morocco. City of Society, 18(2), 288-311.