Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"What an amazing and exhausting day. . . "

As we got off the Dubai Women's College bus to return to our "home" at Al Bustan Residence, through my chilly and sleepy haze I smiled and proclaimed, "What an amazing and exhausting day. . ." Beth replied saying, "That sounds like the first words of your blog tonight." At the time I couldn't imagine sitting down to type up my thoughts and went up to bed after our day's debrief with the group. So here I am, at 6:30 a.m., after a good night's rest, ready for another mind-opening, and exciting day in Dubai and with my new-found friends at DWC.

I'm lucky that Molly found the energy to blog last night and so thoughtfully describe the day's activities so I can share my thoughts about our experiences without retelling the story.

I am touched by the openness of the DWC students' thoughts they shared with me and each other yesterday when we spoke about motivation. I asked each of them to reflect upon and then share answers to questions like, "Why are you here?" and "What do you personally do to keep yourself from giving up when you come to a challenging obstacle?" Their responses were sincere, brilliant and inspiring. These women give me goosebumps in almost every session every day. They have quickly become individuals who inspire me. I could not feel more rewarded for the work we have put into planning our leadership training.

The best part of our time out and about with the women at the college yesterday had nothing to do with the overwhelming plethora of shops selling amazing gold jewelry or riding along the creek seeing the sights of Dubai. Rather, it was the cross-cultural experience of spending candid time with the DWC students. I will never be able to forget the things we shared over my Iranian Chicken Tika with Yogurt.

I spoke very candidly with two students--Hamda and Amal--about what their shayla (head covering) and abaya (body covering) mean to them. I started out simply asking at what age they begin wearing their religious/cultural dress. Their response was interesting. Their first instinct was to reassure me that it was nothing that someone had coerced them to do, but that it was a choice their parents encouraged them to make at their own time. Hamda, who has visited Mount Holyoke, mentioned that her older sisters fully covered themselves sometime after she, the youngest member of the family had been covered for some time. They talked about how they would let the traditional dress be a choice for their own daughters, and would only insist upon loose clothing and a head scarf of some kind--which evoked images of many American Women who practice Islam. They shared their thoughts about the abaya and modesty from boys and men.

It is easy, especially considering the type of political propaganda that surround Islamic government in the United states, to assume that the shayla and abaya are things which are repressive to these women. On the contrary, they speak of their covering as a type of freedom from the guise of judgment about their bodies before their minds. I do not intend to make sweeping comments about Islam or Islamic states, as such comments about my own Christian faith have left me frustrated at times. However, in the case of these women it is clearly not their beliefs, their particular interpretation of their faith, that keep them from accomplishing their ambitious goals as leaders. Rather, it is the society and the government's interpretation of their faith and women's roles which may challenge and inhibit them. I hope that I will keep in touch with many of these women for years to come, and that I will someday see them in empowered positions in their respective fields. I envision them retaining their balance of proclaiming their strong faith and progressive feminist ideas by wearing their abaya to important meetings and presentations.


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