(Published in Redivider Journal)
The male and female sides of Abu Dhabi University were mirror images: both pristine and starkly white, with South Asian security men guarding the connecting passageways. The male lobby was typically quiet, often witness to solemn greetings of salaamu alaykum, or the secrets of young men rushing to the computer lab in hopes of finding a woman to chat with over Instant Message. At any point in the day, a few boys would sit at one of the plastic tables in the male cafeteria, devouring a tuna sandwich or donut, silent and alone.
By lunch time, the women on the female side were raucous in their cavernous cafeteria: howling, shouting, sometimes dancing to Arabic tunes on an old boom box. They whispered in packed corners, scorned the popular and unpopular, and bombarded the Filipina women who worked behind the food counters in disorderly packs. These women, swathed in black, huddled into elevators arm in arm, while others dragged each other down the length of the hall in swivel chairs from the computer lab amid shrieks of laughter. They passed out endless slices of cake during English lessons to celebrate National Day, and decorated the female lobby with red and white streamers. Groups of female students posed for photos next to their patriotic displays, black headscarves pulled over their faces.
While the young male students frequented the malls and arcades, movie theaters and coffee shops, and the older men rushed to their afternoon classes from government jobs or family obligations, the women I taught mainly stayed in. Their families pressured them to remain at home when they weren’t at the university. Their mothers asked what was so special about wherever it was they wanted to go; brothers accused, asking their sisters why they wanted to attract men’s attentions, why they wanted to show their faces to strangers. All this, then, transformed the women’s side of the university into a safe and honored space in ways that the male students could never understand. The female side was theirs; it became a place to belong since they were unwelcome nearly everywhere else.
On the streets of Abu Dhabi, I walked among South Asian laborers seated on grassy patches or roaming beside the neon storefronts along Hamdan Street. As one of few women on the street, almost always the only Western woman, I avoided eye contact, not wishing to meet those lusty, hateful stares. I knew I would not be harmed by these men; the laws were strict and no one wished to risk deportation. Yet I still felt uneasy on those streets. And I felt uneasy in the Western-style bars, where men outnumbered women ten to one; I even tensed in the large, crowded malls, where Lebanese and Egyptian men often sat on benches, openly staring at women. Once, a man stuck out his foot and tried to trip me just to get my attention, just to get me to look at him. While I was determined to ignore this unwelcome feeling, to own these spaces as much as any man, I knew my presence was consistently unnerving to the overwhelming male population surrounding me, and I could no longer pretend that I wasn’t on edge whenever I stepped outside my apartment.
When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi and learned that I would teach sex-segregated classes, that the male and female students were so strictly separated, the Human Resources manager sensed my dismay. He chuckled, and said that it was just the culture here, and I would get used to it. “The boys want to see the girls, but they don’t want their friends to see their sisters!” He laughed again, and it took me a while to understand his joke, the culture of protecting women’s honor that still held considerable sway in this rapidly modernizing city. During those few weeks before the school year began, I had anxiety dreams about teaching the women. Each night, their black eyes glared at me, impassive; their dark cloaks and head scarves, their lack of contact with men, marked us as wholly different. I imagined they would never learn from an American woman like me.
I had never expected to feel so welcome on the female side, to discover that I too belonged. The daily stress of life in Abu Dhabi dissolved, and I was implicitly welcome for the same reasons I was not in all those other places: I am a woman. Even though I was able to interact with men in ways that my conservative Muslim students were not—sitting next to the male driver on the ride back to the city, informing the old Indian male janitor about the stuck window, crossing to the male side every afternoon— a sense of relief washed over me whenever I returned to that secluded, comforting space of the female side. Despite my uncovered brown hair, hanging loose about my shoulders, my Western clothes and pale white skin, I was easily accepted by my female students, and knew that I would miss the smiles and secrets of Shamsa, Rawdha, Eman and all the others when I left at the end of the school year.
In Abu Dhabi, I had never been so aware of my gender, what set me apart from men and connected me to women of any nationality. Even stepping into the female-only nail salons, with their opaque storefronts, I felt like a danah, a precious pearl, someone who was treasured and shielded from the outside world. Here the local women would take off their headscarves, have their long hair set into beautiful curls, and cover themselves up again. I loved the way they protected their beauty—why should anyone but those they chose to unwrap their headscarves for see those curls?
I didn’t cherish these spaces because I disliked men; I was newly in love with a man in Boston and at a stage of my life when I felt hopeful about the worth and wonder of all romantic endeavors. I enjoyed the company of my Egyptian male friends as we smoked sheesha at cafes along the Arabian Gulf coast; I even appreciated the antics of my male students, with their restless energy and immature flirting. My increasing desire to linger in all female spaces had little to do with my romantic relationships or personal disappointments, but a sense of deep comfort, an unspoken understanding, however different those women and I may have appeared to each other or to the outside world. By the end of one year in Abu Dhabi, I had met hundreds of female students, and listened to as many different opinions for the reasons why they preferred to be separated from men, and why they proudly wore their black cloaks and head scarves. I was struck by their other visions of what a woman is and should be. They continually reminded me that no one’s idea was better or worse, right or wrong; we could only acknowledge the myriad ways both men and women can pull apart and connect.