By Carol Rushton
Another very different aspect of Middle Eastern culture and society is the way women are viewed. In the ancient world, women overall were not valued as human beings. Infanticide was common for female babies. Archaeology.org documents a letter written in 1 B.C. from a husband to his wife about to give birth. “If it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it” (https://archive.archaeology.org/9703/newsbriefs/ashkelon.html).
This attitude toward females permeates the Middle East to this day among both Arabs and, to a lesser degree, Jews. Saudi Arabia allowing women the right to vote and drive cars is a very recent development. In many Arab communities across the Middle East, not only are women not allowed to vote or drive cars, they are prohibited from leaving the home without a male family member as an escort. While a few Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities also impose these prohibitions on women, they are less common among Jews.
Most Muslim and Arab men insist upon their women being covered from head to toe in the hijab, or headscarf, and the chador, a black cloak that covers a woman from the neck to the feet. While in the minority, some Muslims demand women wear a head covering with the only openings are narrow slits for the eyes.
Muslim men retain the right to kill any female member of the family who “disgraces” the family honor. The common reason given is because a girl has been accused of having sexual relations outside of marriage, no proof needed. The actual reason can be as tame in our eyes as wearing western-style clothes or having a boyfriend. When I lived in Israel, police would investigate honor killings in Israeli-Arab towns a few times a year and was always treated by Israeli authorities as a crime. The Arab men always justified the murder of the female family member because she had disgraced the family.
Among Arabs/Muslims, if there is abuse of a female by a male member of the family, the men band together against the woman or women involved. The type of abuse does not matter. Since a female is not permitted to go to the police or for any matter without being escorted by a male member of the family, the abuse usually goes unreported, and the female continues to be abused, suffering for years in silence except for those in the family who know and will not or cannot tell.
After an Arab woman marries, she must have a male child. If a woman does not give birth to a boy, the husband is allowed to take another wife; he does not necessarily have to divorce his previous wife, although he is permitted to do so if he wants. My father’s Israeli tour guide, Gila Triebich, had several Arab female friends who had already given birth to five or six girls. When they were pregnant again and told by their doctors they were going to have another girl, the women were distressed to the point of hysterics. “I cannot have another girl,” they told their doctors. “If I have another girl, my husband will divorce me and take another wife! I cannot have another girl!”
Arab Christians do not divorce their wives for other women if they don’t have a male child, but there is a sense of disappointment if the marriage does not produce a boy.
While all of this may seem barbaric and bizarre to Westerners, this treatment carries over into Jewish culture and society in Israel as well. It is not as extreme, but it is still there and can be seen in the following example.
For some of my years in the Middle East, I volunteered at The Jerusalem Post newspaper. My father knew Yehuda Levy, the publisher of the newspaper at that time, from when Yehuda was running a very successful tour business. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but one afternoon I was at the old Jerusalem bus station, not too far from the Post’s offices at that time. I was very, very hungry and wanted something to eat. The bus station had several walk-up restaurants offering the Middle Eastern version of fast-food, falafels and shawarmas. I always felt falafels were not very filling. It’s just not a stick-to-your-ribs meal. Shawarma is a pita filled with turkey or lamb meat shaved off a spit and includes French fries, or chips, something common in the Middle East but not well known in the U.S. Between a falafel and shawarma, it was an easy choice. I got in line at the shawarma stand behind some men to wait my turn to order.
I waited patiently for what seemed like at least 20 to 30 minutes for the men in front of me to order and get their food. When I was finally at the front and ready to order, the man at the stand ignored me and took orders from the men milling behind me. After 3 or 4 times of him taking orders from other men, I had had enough and had the effrontery to say in Hebrew, “Hey, I was here first.” In a very patronizing voice, loud enough so that everyone could hear, the man said, “Oh, you poor thing! You poor thing! So, what do you want?”
If I had not been so hungry, I would have turned around and left, I was so angry. I told him what I wanted and got my food, but I never forgot how he treated me. I never ordered from that shawarma stand every again. Not all men in the Middle East treat women like this, but it is an attitude that is more commom in Israel than you would think and that Westerners should be aware of if they travel or live in Israel.