Women in Arab Society

Several years ago, at the intersection of Salome and Herzl in South Tel-Aviv, I pulled up next to a shiny black medium-sized SUV, and before the light turned green, the young Arab driver, grinning ear to ear, turned the video screen above his dashboard to me.  All I made out was a naked woman with large breasts surrounded by several other naked people.  He and his companion, proud at their toy, shouted something joyful at me, and I grinned in reply—for what other response would be suitable to a moment of male camaraderie in the night city?

As is my wont, from this exemplary example of shared male lust, I immediately began extrapolating to the far reaches of the globe.  It was quite clear to me that I had been presented with another effect of globalization, and, to my dismay, I realized that the upshot of it was that small, marginalized groups might not have to change: they could survive in their village more easily and find fellow villagers around the globe. I had hoped that globalization would bring humanitarian and political progress, but, perhaps, instead, marginal cultures had been empowered, not weakened.

You may ask, how I leapt from video porn to globalization? What struck me in my brief exposure to a naked lady was the assumption of male bonding among my Arab comrades on the road and the fact that modern technology allowed them to titillate themselves while driving and showing off their randy maleness wherever they went.  At the time, I lived in Jaffa among Arabs. There are many lovely aspects to Arab culture but not its presumption of patriarchy and its degradation of women. Once, when my friend Nick asked me, how to change Arab society (other than by battle George B style), I replied immediately, “Promote women’s rights.” The process would be slow but it would be inevitable.

Many years ago, we had a lovely, young cleaning woman in her early twenties, who was already the mother of two. She was quite beautiful. She had mulatto-colored skin and features (is mulatto a permissible word today?). Her face was round without a wrinkle; her eyes large and green. She had been originally engaged to another man but had married out of love—and for a while her husband’s family had been fearful for their lives, since her original fiancé came from a family of Jaffa criminals. I had met her mother-in-law as well, a rather regal, religious woman, dressed in white as she had made the hajj to Mecca.

She was, by the way, an incredible cleaning lady. Strong as an ox. Remarkably speedy and always thorough. And innocent, in a way: she radiated goodness and naiveté. She had two drawbacks. She wasn’t very bright,  and she invariably broke something. As her husband’s wife, she was expected not only to care for her children, cook for her family, and clean her own apartment, but to clean her mother-in-law’s every morning before setting out to work.

Her husband did not let her out of the house alone, except, of course, to work. She could not visit friends. If she sojourned anywhere, it was only in his company. Once, he took her and the children to an amusement park, and she felt as if she had been sent abroad. Europe could not promise her more. When she broke anything, he made her pay for it out of her own money. When she protested, he beat her. When she complained to his family about the beatings, she was told to maintain family pride and keep quiet.

Moslem Arab society holds fast  to the virtues of a patriarchal village—loyalty to family and clan and to the supremacy of the male and the subservience of the female. I write this now because a young Arab woman, the mother of two, was killed in broad daylight in the streets of Kfar Yasif, most likely by a member of her husband’s family because two years ago, she left him after he beat her, first for a shelter and afterward to a village in the north where she assumed another name and thought she might lead a different and fuller life.

What I realized on that night of video-flash was that I was given concrete proof that my faith in progress might be an illusion.  These men can connect to videos all over the world and continue in their narrow, contented lives.  And if the outside world will threaten them, they can use the same tools to hurry back to the dens they rule where women are property, servants, whores, or mothers and never equal.


About the Author
Living in Israel since 1974. Father of four children, grandfather of six. Worked as a kibbutznik, art critic, magazine editor, copywriter, and technical writer. Now freelance translator. Have lived in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel-Aviv and Jaffa. Reside now in Pardess Hannah.