“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN SAID THAT. The circumstances were different at the time but many would argue this sentiment still rings true today. But despite this “rule,” I can say that I often felt safer living in an Arab country than I do in America.
I grew up in the United Arab Emirates, and even considering some public doubts and laborer rights investigations, I’ve always felt extremely comfortable there. My exposure spanned over 14 years — from when I was a young child to and adolescent and then later on as a married woman. Maybe it’s misguided but I am not referring to Sharia law or civil law, I’m solely commenting on the social conventions and the feeling that, as a woman, I was safer in a culture that shelters women. And I’m a feminist.
In a Muslim country, there are a variety of segregations for both men and women. For example, some women choose to wear the hijab (or abaya) but a vast majority of women do not. Regardless, no one minds you any differently — man or woman — as long as your attire is respectful. In my opinion, as a social norm, this creates a different reverence for all women whether they choose to wear the hijab or not. This, coupled with the absence of overtly sexual advertising, makes me feel more secure and less objectified.
In the United States, however, we’re used to seeing things like the American Apparel ads from a couple years ago, where T-shirt basics were marketed with what appeared to be seedy, suggestive, almost soft-core polaroids of bedroom scenes. (And in 2014, the CEO of which, was finally outed as a sexual predator.) Or consider any perfume add with an undressed supermodel precariously wrapped in bed sheets. This type of advertising is not found plastered over shop windows or blown up on two-storey billboards in the Middle East. And what are the consequences of that? I guess I knew nothing about fashion until I moved to the States as a teenager and got an immediate wake-up call, but that’s really it.
That being said, as a grown woman there is more to be mindful of, and being diligent is commonsense. No matter where I am I always pay attention to my surroundings but living in a country where nothing bad seems to happen can lead to overconfidence. In Abu Dhabi, I admit to one rookie mistake when my sister and I made ourselves vulnerable sunbathing at a remote public beach. One minute we had a quarter-mile of sand all to ourselves and the next we were surrounded by dozens of laborers. Nothing happened but we left immediately. Whereas in the States, like so many other women, I’ve been approached and subjected to chauvinistic comments countless times by cocky overconfident boys at the mall, guys at the bar, or even men at work. It never feels great.
So I did feel safer in the Middle East than I have ever felt here in America. When I was as young as 10 years old, I was allowed to roam several city blocks alone and later even take taxi cabs with friends all over town — and we didn’t have cellphones back then. This is almost unfathomable in most parts of the States today. And to be frank, I’m sure I had an advantage as a white Westerner in a post-colonial country, where the majority of the population is the labor force from regions with some form of caste system. But as a general rule, men didn’t mess with women. I feel no doubt the freedom I experienced then honed the beyond-my-years self-assurance that I developed at that age.
The common perception is that females are oppressed in the Middle East. There are separate female-only prayer spaces in some mosques, walled leisure parks for ladies and small children, private female-only beaches, and at certain restaurants servers will seat you in a private family section. These things never felt like a burden to me in the UAE; they were just nice options, opportunities to consider a more secluded, reserved area where I was sure to feel safe and unbothered. In fact, there were often more amenities for the ladies-only locations. This is not enforced in most upscale places in downtown Dubai today but this separation is still available in older parts of the cities and where locals have frequented for decades.
And experiences vary throughout the region. In 2015 I visited Doha, Qatar and every man I encountered there was more traditional. For example, when I approached the help desk at the Museum of Islamic Art I stood in the middle facing two Qatari employees — a man on the right and a woman, on her cellphone, on the left. I hesitated a moment and then began to approach the available man but he would have nothing to do with me and just pointed for me to go to the woman. While this may come across as cold to most Westerners, it was just customary to the locals. Manners are different in the UAE, yes, but most people are extremely warm and well-intentioned. The bedouin culture emphasizes hospitality so even if men were going to seclude me, they were typically going to be polite about it.
There was generally little crime to speak of and practically no homeless population. I imagine, this was partly due to alcohol not being widely available and the fact that penalties were so extreme for felony-type crimes that criminals didn’t bother committing them. I know crime does happen no matter what, but it was rarely publicized in the Middle East. NationMaster.com reports a wide range of statistics, including safety, pulled from a number of sources such as the World Bank and United Nations. A contributing numbeo.com survey (2011-2014) suggests that the citizens in the UAE feel 99% safer walking alone at night than those in the US. It also states that citizens in the US are 90% more worried about being attacked by a stranger than they are in the UAE. In fact, in over a dozen metrics about safety perceptions, the USA was overwhelmingly more concerned than the UAE. This mirrors my observations that people may feel safer living there when compared to the States.
I absolutely love my freedoms here in the USA, but it is interesting to note that my sense of personal safety was higher overseas. There are a lot of doubts about traveling or living abroad right now but I still do it. It’s true, women do have different liberties in the UAE but our perception of safety is higher. Yes, some violence against women does still occur on a smaller scale and the UAE has strides to make in the justice system. It’s very different and it’s not perfect. All I know is I generally felt safer there. Was it a consequence of the demeanor toward women? Was it the self-censorship that was less offensive? Was it a matter of my station in life there? Here at home, will our next president make progress in making our country more safe from threats foreign and domestic? What would Benjamin Franklin think? These are all questions I’m still trying to find the answers for, but until I get them, the debate goes on.