Holding a Space Open for the “Other”

How good are you at hearing someone else’s opinion? How long can you hold a space in your heart open for someone who is very “other” than you?

I’m new at living in a Middle Eastern country. I’ve been in Qatar 6 months now and although I’m new to it I am also immersed in it. Everyday I’m watching and processing what I’m seeing. Everyday I’m confronted by differences and everyday I’m trying to understand. Everyday I’m reading about the culture around me. This does not make me an expert. Everyday I resist the temptation to move from a position of learning into a position of ‘got it figured out now’. This would only yield partial understanding and half truths and block the way for clearer understanding.

Part of the process is learning that I was wrong about some things. We know, intellectually that we are shaped by the news we hear, other people’s opinions and our own cultures biases, but when a new piece of information arrives on our doorstep, how do we handle it? Especially if it’s not really what we want to believe or if we don’t like it.

I’m going to invite you to an exercise that I partake in regularly. Exercising my ability to stay open even when I’m uncomfortable with the information being provided. This has become so important for me, here in the Middle East. And I believe it’s important for all of us in our increasingly interconnected global village.

It’s become so important to have and cultivate skills in restraining our egocentrism and ethnocentrism, skills in critical thinking and in waiting, and holding our opinion at least long enough to let other’s opinions sink in. It requires restraint and humility.

Here’s an opportunity for you to test those skills and see how you do. I’m going to share with you some thoughts that are new to me since moving here. Ideas that were hard to find a place to hook into my western/feminist steeped ideologies.

Remember this: 1) you don’t have to agree with these thoughts, just sit with them and stay open to them for longer than you’re comfortable with. Try to remove yourself from your own culture and enter someone else’s. Observe how long you can be open before you find yourself making opposing arguments. What are your opposing arguments based on? Do you know for sure? Do you need to be right? Why do you feel the need to jump to reiterating your arguments? Do you feel you have something to lose? Is your reaction and response proportional to the issue at hand?

And 2) When you do start to make your argument (if you do) ask yourself if there is a reflection of what you’re arguing against in your own culture/church/family/life. (ie. do you find yourself saying ‘that’s not religious, they’re socialized to think that way’? Are there things we’ve thought are “christian” but are really more an expression of socialization?)

Muslim Women Covering Their Heads/Faces

I am a Canadian woman, born in the 60’s, into a family of brothers whom I had to compete with (and did so successfully). I’m a mother who has had a number of successful careers. I’m deeply concerned about women’s issues and equality. I have been treated as an equal participant in family, marriage, ministry and business. I can spot chauvinism a mile away and can sniff out even a hint of male superiority. I react like most North American women (and many men) to issues of inequality. If you understand where I’m coming from then I suspect you could easily make an argument against women being veiled. I can.

Here’s what I’ve been confronted with in Qatar, which, it should be noted, is a relatively moderate Muslim country where veiling is optional as far as the law is concerned but very definitely the social norm.

One of my first jarring realizations made me feel like I was a poor excuse for a feminist. My neighbour is a divorced, single mother from Lebanon. I wondered for far too long as to why she covered her head. If you wanted to shed the head covering, moving to another country, away from the social pressures of family and culture would do it. Lebanese women here are very mixed about covering and no one would have thought twice if she didn’t cover. Also, she has no husband here that might make her submit to wearing a head covering. I’m ashamed to admit that it took far too long for me to come to the conclusion that she has a faith of her own, that she has considered the teachings and practices of Islam herself and that she has decided for herself that this is how she’d like to express her own faith and submission to God alone. She has her own religious convictions. I know that many women here say that it’s their choice, but I suspect social conformity to be a really big factor. Until you remove yourself from your culture I doubt you can actually tell how much is your choice and how much you are keeping the peace. But for my neighbour, I see no other reason.

There are many expressions of covering. There are women who have just their heads covered, sometimes with very colourful scarves (I believe these women are from neighbouring Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan). The Qatari women are all in black but still with a lot of variety. Some are completely covered, head to toe, including faces and gloves. Others have openings in the veil for their eyes, some covered from the nose down and a lot have just their head (and body of course) covered. This leads me to believe that there is a lot of discussion and decision that goes along with their clothes. I know that there is lively discussion about faith and tradition, about what is acceptable and why. Why did I think it was done without thought, following traditions and pressures without thought? (Arrogance?)

The reasoning they often give for covering the women is that they are “precious jewels” to be protected and cherished, not to be flaunted or judged by others. I admit suspicion of this. I wonder, is this code, used by obsessively jealous husbands and prudishly protective fathers? Is this a mask for extreme subjugation of women? Maybe it is. I can tell you this; these women do not carry themselves like they are subjugated. They carry themselves like they are royalty (indeed, some may be). They walk tall. They smile kindly. The ones I have met are smart and determined. They are not wallflowers. Is it possible that they carry with them the feeling of being cherished like a jewel? Is it possible that they enjoy this tradition?

Many of the women say that what they like about being covered is that no one can judge them for their appearance. This made me really sad. I wanted to say to them, ‘my sisters, it’s ok, we won’t judge you, please come out and be loved for who you are.’ Then I realized just how blind to my own culture I really am. Is this my experience? Do western women accept each other and refrain from judging each other? On the contrary!! Western society is fraught with the repercussions of being very judgmental of the appearance of women and the illusive perfect shape and size. We are very hard on ourselves as a result. Is our way better?

Some may assume that the abaya/hijab coverings are an old fashioned, medieval reflection of this culture’s lack of exposure to the world around them and their submersion in the past.’ Au contraire again friends. The women covered by these abayas are actually driving the haute couture industry in the world today.

Assumption: Women do not want to be covered and are looking to be rescued from this oppression.

It took me a while to really enter into the thought that these women have never known any different. It’s not like they were all of a sudden covered and now want out. (On the contrary…it was I who was new to the covering of women…was it I who was anxious to have it changed? Projection?) Surely there are some who would like to break out of this tradition. I now suspect most are just fine with it. I have actually come to appreciate the fact that while so many cultures have been sucked into the vortex of the North American dress code this group of people has proudly hung onto theirs. Not just the women but the men in their crisp white thobes as well. I feel an unexpected “good for you!” rise up in my soul when I see them.

As I have been writing this post another one of my Muslim neighbours, who has not been covered up, has made the decision that she will now be wearing an abaya and a hijab. She was born and raised in England, is a school teacher in her 40’s and has no social or marital pressure to do so. This is her decision. She is also very open about it and I look forward to talking with her and finding out what is triggering this change.

The descriptions in this post are of life in Qatar. This is not a statement, for example, of the burka experience of women in Afghanistan or the experience of women in the Sudan etc.  My point here is to question an assumption that I’ve had for years. Is the covering of women, in and of itself, a symbol of the oppression of women? Is that what I see every time I look at a covered woman? Is there room for my thinking to be broadened and therefore more respectful of their rights, opinions and culture?

I was not prepared to respect the decision of women to cover up. Can you consider this? Can you hold a place open for the women who are intelligent and diligent about their faith and who chose to cover their heads? Can you see similarities with the Christian faith? How quickly do you want to fire off a comment to this blog? Can you take a breath first? Are there other issues in different cultures that you need to pull back your initial reactions and at least think about?

Adventures in cross cultural relations. May the open space we create be a place for us to meet with “others” in peace, understanding and mutual respect.







2 responses to “Holding a Space Open for the “Other”

  1. Pingback: Holding Open a Space for the “Other” (further thoughts) | Another Tribe Called Quest

  2. Thank you for this open post and your candor on this issue. I love the fact that you are sharing and opening up thought patterns that challenge status-quo thinking. We need more acceptance and understanding in our world and I applaud your contribution to uniting two different worlds of perception and ideologies. Would you be open enough to push yourself even further and try wearing a head covering to experience their world more deeply? Would such a gesture expand your perceptions and increase your awareness even further?

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