The Twittersphere was pretty riled up yesterday about the news that Saudi Arabian Airlines may introduce gender segregation on their flights. Well, it turns out this was more or less made up by an overzealous Twitter user who was trying to make the day more interesting. What I found interesting was how quickly the discussion became racist. On one side were people who didn’t understand Middle Eastern culture and wrote it off as “backwards,” followed by accusations of misogyny and a general condemnation of Islam and Arab culture.
On the other side, people were supporting this policy: Either because they understood the cultural reasons behind it (in particular, that it isn’t about subjugating women), they experienced harassment on a plane, or because they had a negative opinion of Arab or Muslim men and saw an opportunity to point to their inferiority. Arab men have been thrown under the bus as “savages” who can’t be near women without abusing them. Needless to say, this is beyond absurd, not to mention highly offensive.
When I read Elena’s well written post on the topic, I thought I’d chime in with my own thoughts. While it’s already been debunked as a myth, the topic of gender segregation has been coming up quite a bit, with men from the Haredi Jewish community coming under fire for refusing to sit next to women on planes. If any airline actually implemented a gender segregation policy, I wouldn’t see a problem with it. I know enough about Islam and Middle Eastern culture to understand that gender segregation isn’t so much for the benefit of men than it is for women. Talk to any Saudi woman and I guarantee she’d prefer not to sit in a cramped seat next to a strange man on a flight of any length. Then there is the common reality of being a woman anywhere in the world: You’re going to encounter sexual harassment in your daily life, an experience that is amplified while traveling alone.
I personally know one too many women who have been sexually abused on domestic flights – by non- Arab, non-Muslim men sitting next to them. So let’s debunk this myth that sexual harassment is only an issue in Arab or Islamic countries. I’ve encountered harassment while traveling, walking down the street, taking public transportation, and even in a professional environment with highly educated and “civilized” individuals. Not only is this a reality in most women’s lives, but so is the fact that the perpetrators often go unpunished. Middle Eastern cultures are hyper vigilant about preventing these scenarios, which is why relatively extreme precautions are taken. Whether segregation is a correct way to handle the problem or not, the fact remains that gender segregation isn’t about subjugating women, it’s not an indication that all men of certain cultures are savages, it’s about preventing the very common occurrences of sexual harassment that women of all cultures deal with on a constant basis.
As for the idea that gender segregation stems from men viewing women as inferior, I find that notion ridiculous. There is a tendency to vilify men in this situation and misconstrue their intentions. A perfect example of this was the story a few months back about the Haredi men who held up an El Al flight because they did not want to sit next to women. Shortly after the incident, one of the women wrote about her experience in the Huffington Post. She took the incident to be a personal attack, branding the men as misogynistic, which I found really unfair and dramatic. The way I saw it, it wasn’t personal nor was it sexist or misogynistic. It was about safety and maintaining a social order – not at the expense of women but for their benefit.
The idea behind these seemingly extreme social/religious principles is that everyone follows them so there is no guessing whether, as a woman, you end up sitting next to a civilized person or a pervert who is going to feel you up just as soon as you doze off.
Those are my two cents on the subject. Some of you will probably disagree with me. By all means, feel free to let me know in the comment section. As usual, if you want to be heard, please keep it civil.
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