(Editor’s Note: Alok Vaid-Menon is a war correspondent for Reuters covering the Syrian conflict. He is a Sunni Muslim from Delhi)
By Alok Vaid-Menon
Damascus, April 15 (IANS) I used to wonder what the difference between a woman and a man is. I would stare at a woman’s form and wonder if the owner of this body was the same person sitting inside it. “They’re not the same. Do I have to be concerned about the gender of my dinner date?”
It was not a persistent affliction – I quickly realised that any complications in a man’s appendage or a woman’s disease meant that both were suffering.
Then I got married. I love my wife dearly and even though I do think deeply about my identity as a woman, my husband is also a woman. He is affectionate, generous, warm and thoughtful. Even though our lives are parallel to a vast extent, we still remain completely distinct.
Thanks to our lives in the two most conservative Islamic countries in the world, we were shielded from some of the major social challenges faced by women in Islamic countries. Women in the UAE, for instance, had to wear a head scarf. My husband has no problem with this at all. He is okay with the scarf. While it would be tricky for him to accept female circumcision in India, he is comfortable with it in the Emirates.
I am okay with that. Living in the UAE and India, I believe I have shared a fair share of hardships with my husband – and that’s part of living with a wife. I am in a position to navigate these differences and if I became acquainted with some of the gender issues in the country where he lives, my struggle would be greatly compounded.
In Saudi Arabia, there is a legally sanctioned restriction on women driving, a situation that I can say is very similar to the one in India. Just like in India, there is wide-spread and widespread concern about women’s safety on the roads. The physical and mental hardships of being a female in Saudi Arabia with their laws, customs and culture leave little room for women to enjoy a normal life. It’s a status quo that I personally can’t stand.
What’s the problem?
They are nuts. This self-destruction and irrational fear of women is nonsense.
So, is it easier for women to be seen as male than to be seen as female? There are many such arguments that women see themselves as male but fear that they may be regarded as female. What’s the point of believing in something and then ignoring it? Is that not hypocrisy?
I don’t think there is any difference between the two genders, other than the simple fact that the (real) and perceived status of women are treated differently in the two countries.
While it’s an indisputable fact that the abuse, subjugation and humiliation of women (including certain religious groups) will never cease in Saudi Arabia, Indian society has managed to set its feet on a path of change. I can honestly say that I have benefited more from my Indian experience than my Muslim one. Not because I am a Muslim, but because I got into a Hindu marriage.
I was curious whether the same requirement of a female face and a male body existed for my Saudi wife.
Yet, I am left with the uncertainty whether that is the case in any religion or community in the world. When they restrict women, they restrict themselves as well.