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Living in the Ultimate Boys’ Club

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Brenda Seymour, volunteer firefighter and council member in Spaniard’s Bay, Newfoundland recently took a stand for human rights. Her push for solidarity in a “man’s world” helped expose the ugly underbelly of the old boys’ club mentality prevalent in the province and has ignited a wave of support and resistance as was demonstrated over the weekend in St. John’s.

Seymour revealed the forces of oppression working against women and reminded us that they can be found thriving in our own communities, in a part of the world where in some contexts the battle for human rights seems long won. 

As a woman working in Iraq I am familiar with the struggle for solidarity and security in a “man’s world”, and I know that while the world is watching one conflict unfold in the Middle East there is another war that is far from over.

My first experience working in this part of the world brought me to Sana’a, Yemen two years ago. My superior, the department head of the English department for the school I worked at, at was a middle-aged, Jamaican woman from Virginia. To be completely honest, I could not figure her out. I thought she was brash and irrational and sometimes I thought she was rude. She never asked for things, she demanded them. She never socialized with us or the local staff. She never paid attention to how we were told to dress, or what we were told to wear (Yemen is still one of the most conservative Islamic societies). She was head strong and unapologetic, but she was good at her job. She was organised, efficient, and she was fair. She expected excellence and didn’t make excuses for the circumstances or situations that were often dire and complicated in the country we were living.

She was good at her job, which is why it is surprising that in the end, she was fired.

The day before she left I remember watching from the window of my second floor office as she marched through the front gate of the school, scarf carelessly tossed over her thick, stick straight black hair, ignoring the guards with their guns, mouths agape, watching this woman on a mission. She burst into the office and demanded to see the president of the college and to be paid her final salary. As it turned out, he had fired her and decided to only pay her half of the final month’s salary. This clearly wasn’t going to work for her. I remember pretending to focus on my lesson plans while sheepishly peering around the corner partly curious and partly afraid of the outcome of the situation.

In the end, she got her full salary and the next day she was gone. I remember sitting in our living room with my all male roommates later that night as we all laughed and agreed that she was just “crazy” — but I never did fully understand what happened, or why she was fired. The sad thing is that she would often try to have conversations with me, or pull me aside to dispense wisdom that at the time I dismissed as paranoid lamenting of a bitter old woman.

“You live each day with an internal struggle”

Two years later, my perspective has changed. Last week one of my male colleagues here in Erbil, Iraq looked at me and said, “sometimes it seems like you’re not very friendly.”

I immediately thought back to my former co-worker in Yemen, who I really hadn’t thought of much in the past two years. I recalled how I had the very same thought about her when we worked together. The truth is, I am friendly — I make friends with everyone. I am the ultimate people person. My colleague’s comment should have surprised me, but instead it made me mad. Frankly, it’s not my job to be friendly and I have been here long enough to know that a male counterpart would never be questioned on such foolishness. His comment should have surprised me but it didn’t.

It didn’t surprise me because as a woman in the Middle East you live each day with an internal struggle of which parts of you (physically, mentally and emotionally) are okay to show or express. We are up against a lot with cultural and language barriers and a dire security situation, on top of which we are rarely taken seriously and often put in uncomfortable physical situations or extreme danger, just because we are women. 

Photo courtesy Maria Mulcahy.
Living as a woman in the Middle East often requires many mental and physical adjustments. One of them can be changing the way you dress. (The author, in Sanaa, Yemen.) Submitted photo.

This sounds extreme, and it is, but it’s the truth.

The Middle East is the ultimate boys’ club and it’s not just the locals who take advantage of the patriarchal immunity afforded to men. It’s foreigners too, many of whom work for respected global NGOs or news organisations. 

Many times fellow female freelancers have met with editors or staff writers (from major news organisations that many readers would recognise) and have been lured, baited and groomed by promises of reporting jobs in exotic locales over drinks in the most expensive hotels. The catch is when we refuse to “take the discussion upstairs” the job offer turns into a cold and impersonal “apply through the website like everyone else.”

Recently, a friend and colleague working in another Middle Eastern country whom I keep in touch with by email, confided in me that she had met with a man from one of the most prominent global NGOs to discuss business. He had invited her to his apartment in a secure and guarded compound for dinner to discuss some professional developments in both their fields. He offered her a drink and she took it without hesitation. Six hours later she found herself back in her own apartment, clothes disheveled and violently ill. She has no recollection of what happened and was too afraid to go to the hospital in a country that doesn’t take sexual violence seriously. On top of this, the intimidation she felt by this man’s position and the immunity granted to him by his organisation left her without an avenue through which to hold him accountable for the crime she says he committed against her.

So these are our options? Let you rape or assault us, or remain in a sphere of influence that doesn’t make you feel threatened by our professional capabilities?

In Yemen I lived in a house with six men. I was the only woman but lucky enough that my roommates were decent human beings who helped me navigate what was otherwise a very dangerous time and place for a single white woman to be navigating on her own. But it’s terrifying when you have to hope that you’ll be lucky enough that the men around you — in work, life, in friendship, or in mundane normalcy of everyday routine — won’t want to attack you or rape you.

It’s demoralising when I have to write a sentence like “I was lucky enough that they were decent human beings.”

It’s completely maddening when you feel like you have to sacrifice small parts of yourself every time you want to get ahead professionally. It has made me realise how much of ourselves we lose when we are put in a situation where our personal security and safety is not guaranteed — and sometimes taken away all together.

When you have to be constantly aware and ready to defend yourself, and when you have to spend exhausting and tedious hours proving your worth next to your male counterparts, self-expression and self-nurturing take a back seat. This is not “just how things are,” and this is not “boys will be boys”. This is nothing short of a gross violation of human rights and should be treated as such. 

The blame and shame culture of sexual violence might be slowly improving back home, but in this part of the world it is alive and well. On top of being asked what we were wearing, if we were drinking, why we were meeting strange men alone at night (in a country we know is dangerous), we are chastised for knowing about the security situation and ignoring it. This creates another reason to doubt our ability to work here, as women, and undermines our commitment to our professional endeavours.

The author with three artists in residence of the Castle Art Project at Akre Syrian Refugee Camps in Northern Iraq. This project engages young Syrian girls in creative art projects to help them deal with their experiences of war. Photo by Taylor Smith.
The author with three artists in residence of the Castle Art Project at Akre Syrian Refugee Camps in Northern Iraq. This project engages young Syrian girls in creative art projects to help them deal with their experiences of war. Photo by Taylor Smith.

In Erbil I am a private teacher for four girls between the ages of 5-14, and the rest of the time I am working with refugees on a project that helps teen girls from Syria express their experiences by painting murals on the walls of the camp they are living in. Daily, I am faced with the rewarding challenge of not only understanding and learning from these young women, but also teaching them and setting an example for them. I watch them negotiate their experiences and parts of themselves, and most of the time I see that they are fearless, outspoken and unapologetic.

I am at once both optimistic and terrified. Optimistic that these parts of them will only become stronger and wiser as time goes on, and terrified about the the very real challenges they will begin to face as they grow up and navigate this part of the world that still very much wishes they would remain anonymous.

Recently, while studying writing with a 14-year-old girl who will begin high school next year, she looked at me and said “I want to go to medical school. Can you show me some schools abroad where I might be able to go to medical school?” She is probably the most curious girl I have ever met — she loves biology, and we rarely get any studying done because she is constantly asking questions about the human body and how it works. I told her “yes,” and started googling different schools she might be interested in.

We browsed through them, and she asked questions about how long it takes, what she would have to study and when. Then she said, “Well, at some point I will have to get married.” Without thinking, I simply told her that, no, she doesn’t have to. I told her she can finish medical school and then decide what she wants to do. She looked at me, with a wisdom and acceptance beyond my own experiences and replied resolutely, “No. I have to get married.”

“If we remain silent the voices speaking against us get stronger”

There are many layers to life as a woman living in the the Middle East, and it would take a book (one I would love to write) to address them all. Part of my narrative is a foreign, white woman from North America working as a teacher and freelancer. My experience is one of many, and it greatly differs from those of the women who were born and brought up here, whose lives, experiences, families and futures are sown deeply into the soil of the earth. For them, the issues and dangers are different, but no less tangible, and in ways are much more complex.

I can’t write their experiences, but I know theirs are stories that would greatly improve our understanding of this region, and what it means to be a woman in the Middle East. Their experiences are as vast and diverse as the countries and societies in this part of the world and their voices are required if the historical framework we need for a positive future will ever be complete.

Now when I think of the woman I first worked with in Yemen I think I finally understand her. I understand how exhausted she was, I understand how she had her guard up all the time, not because she wanted to, but because the years of working in this region had shown her no other way. She was not “crazy” but maybe she did live with mental illness, and if so then I can have nothing short of compassion and admiration for her because it is hard enough to face the challenges of life here when you are at your healthiest.

Whether it is rural Newfoundland or Iraq, if we remain silent the voices speaking against us get stronger — and it is evident from the experiences of Brenda Seymour, to the experiences of my fellow female colleagues, to the experiences of the young girls who I work with, we still have a lot to say and we need to start saying it a lot louder.

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