Before heading to the Middle East to work a six month contract, I knew I might be in for a bit of culture shock, especially as an American woman. Accordingly, I tried my best to mentally prepare myself ahead of time, and to not let myself fall into the pit of eurocentrism. I arrived in Oman feeling ready and excited for the upcoming months, but what came as a shock wound up not being the new country I was living in, but rather the UK-based company that hired me.
Perhaps I had simply been lucky in the past. My first experience working in the outdoors was for a California-based company, the majority of the staff comprised of bad-ass ladies from all different backgrounds. Thanks to the community I created over the three seasons I spent working there, I hardly had to give being a woman in the outdoors a second thought. When I moved to Malaysia to continue to pursue my passion for getting kids outside, my male boss encouraged me to take the reigns on any new projects that interested me, allowing me freedom and independence to use my creativity wherever I liked. Having transitioned to outdoor education from a meandering career path headed towards non-profit public health, I finally felt like I’d found where I was supposed to be, doing work I loved while surrounded by like-minded colleagues and friends.
This may be why I was entirely unprepared for the experience I had working in Oman. I’ve hesitated in telling friends and family any concrete details, and I hesitate now while writing. Even in my own head I’m still trying to make sense of exactly why everything felt so wrong, and I find myself dismissing my feelings, telling myself I was over-reacting or just being too sensitive. The idea of anyone reading this and rolling their eyes makes me cringe, but even so, I need to write, to untangle my thoughts and clear my head.
I arrived ready for work after a summer of sea kayak guiding, excited to begin at a new company that fused both guiding and outdoor education. Professionally, I was eager to gain more guiding experience, especially with rock climbing. Being one of only two women on the team didn’t bother me, having always had a mix of both male and female friends, I figured this was just the way the cards had fallen.
However, I quickly felt singled out, in small ways that are hard to explain. While focused during office days doing mundane tasks like inventorying gear, I would be told to “smile, sweetheart.” Anytime anyone showed even a little emotion they were quickly shut down, often by saying “Don’t be such a vagina.” One of my coworkers complained how guiding groups of women is horrible, going on to say how glad he was to work at a company where he could be surrounded by men who “know how to handle themselves outside.” When I felt offended, I was told by a different coworker “Oh, you must be on your period.” Even though this was said with a joking tone, I’d never had my reality or perspective so completely and effectively discarded, and the dismissal felt like a slap in the face.
Once my contract was over and I began traveling for a couple months, I was reminded how I’ve found this attitude in nearly all of the 50 countries I’ve visited, in varying degrees. Here in Egypt, a taxi driver explained how two wives are worth the expense, since a woman is worthless for two months after she gives birth. The punchline of every joke seems to be that women are crazy. Gary constantly is asked if I’m his wife, and then told that his wife is pretty and that he’s a lucky man, all while I’m standing right next to him. It’s as if I was deaf, or mute, and it reminds me of the way we talk to dog owners or parents of young children: “Aww, is she yours? She’s so cute!”
Earlier in our travels, one of the women on my trek in Ethiopia wound up sleeping in a family’s hut to escape the rain, and said the next morning that overnight it sounded like she had heard a woman in the room next door being assaulted. As she was wondering aloud if she should have intervened, she was interrupted by a man who had been sleeping in the tent next to mine. “There’s no way that would have happened, you probably heard wrong,” this white, American male asserted confidently, his certainty based on nothing except his belief that his baseless knowledge was superior to hers.
Compared to the time a stranger followed me from car to car in the middle of the afternoon on the Madrid subway while jerking off, or the time a drunk man in Guatemala pulled me off the sidewalk, trying to pull off my pants and chasing me home, this all seems like nothing. (Although as a side note, when I shared that subway story with a close male friend at the time he sort of laughed and replied “Well, you’re cute, what do you expect?”.) I haven’t been raped; I haven’t been hit; I haven’t been verbally assaulted; I know the privilege inherent in writing this as a white woman.
But, do you see? Whether working or traveling, whether Oman, Egypt, Ethiopia, Europe, the U.S., it doesn’t matter- it’s everywhere. Minuscule, insidious, pervasive, it’s inescapable, subtly woven into the seams of every society. Daily these micro-aggressions remind you of your status as slightly less, as not quite equal. There’s no way to address all of it, and honestly, it would be hard to know where to even begin. Seven months into this current trip overseas, my initial outrage has veered into exhaustion. I’m so tired- tired of this same story, tired of trying to figure out when and where is appropriate to stand up for myself, and most of all, tired of trying to just let it go.