I always knew that if I were to go to the Middle East, I would need a man.
Did I really say that?
Oh, yes, I did.
Let me explain.
First of all, I knew from my Saudi Students in Indiana that in Saudi Arabia, it’s actually the law for a woman to have a male “guardian”. OK, but I’m not in Saudi, not now, and probably never; so why would I say that I need a man? This first reason is a foundation for all that follow: the simple fact that a nation run by Islamic rule states that women are required to have a male guardian means that other Islamic nations hold the concept dear, even if not forced by law.
The second reason is that American and other Western movies portray an interaction between men and women that is familiar and “free”. While I too adhere to such freedoms with male friends and acquaintances, my Western counterparts and I understand the nuances of this freedom and do not confuse it with a license for sex; people who are not familiar with these freedoms however, often do.
The third reason is that in a place where men and women are segregated to the Nth degree, opportunities for men to see and interact with women are rare. As a result, too many men are lurking in wait for an opportunity to lock eyes with a woman. And when they do, there is an assumption that the woman who happened to glance his way and get caught, has the same desires and intentions that he has.
Finally, I had male friends from Saudi Arabia while in Indiana. And with friendship, I got fierce loyalty. This loyalty changed my mind about the roles of men and women and about female independence.
Saudi men are “manly men”:
- They declare leadership
- Are quick to exercise swollen egos
- They like to make decisions
- And they like to be RIGHT.
- They command physical strength
- And mental stamina.
- They are gentle with women
- And accepting of the feminine energy.
My Saudi male friends in Indiana recognized me as a woman, and within the confines of male and female roles as defined by their cultural upbringing, they gladly took me as an important female in their lives. Within this dynamic, those manly men enthusiastically acted out the responsibilities they understood they had for me as a result of our friendship.
“Call me if you need anything,” they told me. It wasn’t just a rhetorical courtesy; they meant it. I know because I called. And they came.
Those wonderful manly men were always by my side. They shared with me their stories and their sorrows. Together we broke bread over laughter and more stories. Together we met challenges, explored ideas, faced fears and dreamed dreams.
Those wonderful manly men accompanied me on mundane errands from taking my dogs to the dog park, shopping, banking, the farmer’s market, and doctor’s visits. Together we attended lectures, performing arts events, music concerts, poetry readings, cultural festivities, bonfires, campus gatherings, and other university events.
Those wonderful manly men taught me about their own traditions from Arabian hospitality, Arabic language, prayer and fasting rituals, spontaneous poetry games, and even animal sacrifice.
Those wonderful manly men defended me to their friends who complained about our language program and used slanderous terms for their teachers. They taught me and advised me in dealing with other Saudis. There were even times when they physically stood between me and the unwelcome solicitations from strange men.
Through it all, I maintained my own strength and independence as I came to appreciate the presence of a man who felt proud to protect me.
Yes, I accepted the protection and I liked it. It didn’t diminish my mind or lessen my personhood. The protection of a man raised me to new freedoms and gave me a deeper level of self confidence.
From the loyalty of my Saudi friends, I gained a new understanding of what it is to have a protector.
When I first arrived in the UAE, I forgot that I might need a man because I was always with a group of girlfriends. We were all new expats and all moved through our days in symbiotic oneness. We functioned perfectly fine without a man. There is power in numbers, I suppose. It was easy to avoid and ignore the circumstances that when experienced alone, highlight the vulnerabilities of being a woman.
But then, we each went our separate ways. We settled into our own living spaces and spent our days in our own schools. Little by little, as I ventured out more and more alone, I began to long for the friendships and guidance of my Saudi Protectors.
I feel the eyes of men scan my body and linger too long over feminine curves as I walk through shops. I could peel the film of their gaze from my skin. I step back during negotiations; men here step forward, ever inching into my space. Draping a black scarf over my head suddenly makes sense. Deliberate brushing of hands in the exchange of coins, blatant invitations to meet after work, small pieces of paper plunged into my hand with phone numbers and hotel room numbers written on them. One stranger invites me for tea. NOW because this “might be our only opportunity.” Another one asks how soon my husband will join me as I nervously watch the elevator floor numbers light up. Yet another kissed me on the jaw before I could run away.
Oh, where are my Saudi protectors? I long for the presence of those manly men – a presence that cloaks me like a big black Abaya and shields my face from wandering eyes. I long for their answers to my questions, their banter at the end of a long day, their initiative, leadership, and guidance.
Oh, where are my Saudi protectors?
I’ll tell you where they are: they are in my heart and in my psyche. They are in my memories and in my philosophies.
They are not here in physical form, but the gifts they planted in me in those days, now long past, linger in my memory and empower me with strength and confidence. For my protectors, I breathe gratitude and thanksgiving. Though I long for their presence, I know that I carry those manly men in my heart as I navigate this new territory alone. For lessons learned and days lived in safety, I am grateful.
Wherever you are, my dear, loyal friends, I thank you for your manly-man shield in my woman’s world. Here, where men and women move side by side in separate corridors, I walk gingerly the narrow line of culture and gender and faith and somehow, though I long for your presence, I know I am protected.