American Female on the Loose: Part II

In writing this series of entries, I have realized I actually do think about gender more than I knew.  So much so, in fact, that I have developed my own set of expectations (okay, maybe biases or stereotypes is more accurate) for how I will be treated by men in different cultures.

I used to think the USA was gender neutral.  I grew up here, and because of that experience, I am fortunate enough to assume that I will be treated as an equal member of society.  No one looks twice at me driving myself, paying for myself, walking by myself.

I have learned that is not universally true around the world.

A case in point is the Middle East.

I took at sightseeing trip to Israel, and then went scuba diving in the Red Sea.  When I got to Israel, I started to understand what it would really be like to be somewhere gender neutral.  (Disclaimer: I know this may be offensive to Israeli men, but I am only recounting my experiences.)

In Israel, my friend Valeria and I were pushed, shoved, had doors slammed in our faces, were expected to carry our own (very heavy) scuba tanks and kayaks, and even had tall men push us aside at a concert so they could stand in front of us and get a better view.

These are behaviors I take for granted as being frowned upon in the “gender neutral” USA.  It made me realize that the USA is not really gender neutral, and I am okay with that.  I don’t mind living in a nation that is “gender aware,” where the taxi driver will help me with my luggage and my male friends will offer me their sweaters if it is cold outside.

I decided (because I am always doing root cause analysis in the back of my mind) that, in Israel, the fact that Israeli woman serve right beside men in the army is, perhaps, why there is such gender-blindness in how men treat women in public.  I don’t mean to imply that I am against women serving in the U.S. military – quite the contrary.

But because 100% of the population serves in the military in Israel, and woman are enlisted along with men, my theory is that has changed the societal norms for that country.  Thoughts?

So, coming from Israel where we felt genderless, it was a complete shock when we crossed the border into Jordan.  On the one hand, we were looked after.  Our dive masters carried our heavy tanks, took care of our fins, and offered to escort us to dinner afterwards.

They were protective and kind, and fun to be around.  On the other hand, I had one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life there.  When my dive master, Akmed, and I were coming out of the ocean after snorkeling, a man was walking by with his two sons.  The man asked if I would take a picture with his boys (2 and 5 years old).  I said yes, by now used to being my own walking tourist attraction.

But, his sons were terrified of me: a foreign speaking blond lady wearing just a bathing suit (in a conservative Muslim country where woman’s bodies are modestly covered).  They started crying, and screaming, and pleading, and grabbing on to their fathers’ legs, trying desperately not to be forced any closer to me.  I smiled and started to walk on, sure that Dad saw how bad an idea the photo was.

Nope.  The father started to physically force the boys closer to me, and their screams raised to bloody murder level, as huge tears poured down their faces and snot streamed out of their noses.  I kept walking, and the father started yelling something at me and Akmed.  Akmed shook his head no, and told me to keep walking.  Apparently the dad wanted us to help wrangle his hysterically terrified children, and now wanted me to pick his younger son up for a picture.

We escaped into the confines of the dive center, with the children’s inconsolable wails and the father’s angry shouts audible through the walls.

It’s a lesson in being careful what you wish for.  I claim to want gender neutrality, but when I experienced it, I was irritated at the disrespect and wanted to be seen as a woman.  Hours later, I was treated very differently for being a woman, and longed to disappear into the cloak of gender neutrality.

Those contrasting experiences within one trip highlight the magic of travel.  Travel isn’t just an opportunity to learn about the world, it is a chance to learn about yourself.  And, in some cases, what I’ve learned (about a place or about me) can be confusing, or uncomfortable.  In all cases, I am a better person for having learned it.