Aida al Busaidy takes both men and women to task for the absense of chivalry in the UAE
In the uncivil modern age, chivalry is all the more heroic
'After you," the nice gentleman with salt and pepper hair said, as I carried a box of cupcakes, my handbag and shopping bags, trying not step on my abaya while I rode the escalator down to the ground floor of the mall. He looked clearly western and was maybe in his early 40s. I thought: "He's so polite, why can't half the men in the UAE act like this?"
I say this because, most of the time, hardly any man holds the door open for me. There have even been a couple of times when I've dropped something, and a man nearby simply stands and stares, waiting for me to retrieve it. Worse, I have a male colleague who walks with me to meetings and has never asked: "Hey, can I help you carry your laptop?" Now I just take a proactive view and dump it into his arms.
A couple of my friends recently commented on my concerns about etiquette. They said that I probably give off a vibe that I don't need help, so men just back off. Or, they say, it's probably because you're Emirati, and men have a misconception that approaching an Emirati woman in any way is forbidden. That idea left me silent for a long while.
So I started wondering whether this was a matter of my perception of manners and respect. I started asking my friends, both men and women of different ages and nationalities.
Most people seem to believe that chivalry still exists and is not limited by nationality. Although the medieval understanding of chivalry revolved around courtly love, honour and knightly virtues, most now agreed that it's simply about showing respect for women.
So why aren't more men chivalrous these days? If a man was raised with basics manners, then he is more likely to be a gentleman - unless, of course, he succumbs to peer pressure. In that case, he might be afraid of being seen as a "softie" by his friends or someone just trying to "get with the girl".
This may come as a shock, but most of my male friends act like gentlemen and use phrases such as "please", "excuse me" and "may I". One of my friends put it in perspective, saying: "The measures of chivalry are very relative and very subjective, dependent on cultural norms, environment and upbringing in the house and social surroundings." That is the point that I'm trying to make - we are products of our upbringing, education, friends, work and so on, even if we think we are not.
The feminist movement can be partly to blame. Men sometimes have the initial reaction to help, but they don't want to offend a woman who wants to prove she is capable of doing it herself. In reality, I think, most women expect to be treated like princesses because that's how we've been raised.
It also doesn't help that pop stars reinforce negative stereotypes; Akon's song Smack That and Rihanna's Rude Boy quickly come to mind. In a popular culture that flaunts rude behaviour, the responsibility falls on individuals all the more.
But I'm not trying to bash men. If chivalry is about manners and being respectful, women, myself included, have to be held responsible too. How many times do women think: "Well, I'm wearing my new Jimmy Choos so I'm not really going to walk across the sand to help that old lady"? Why do we worry that our mascara's going to run down our cheeks if we go outside during the summer heat, but we're quick to honk the horn when a waiter is slow to brink a chai karak to our car?
I've seen girls who think they deserve to act prissy, but it actually backfires on them. My advice: Don't ruin it for the rest of us.
I'm sending out positive vibes to the men of the UAE to not fear our black abayas. Women do in fact appreciate an opened door and, trust me, most of us will say thank you.
Despite the ill-mannered people I've encountered, I still hope that the small percentage of men who are respectful and polite will set the example. After all, polite behaviour is rewarded tenfold.
Aida al Busaidy is a columnist and former co-host of a Dubai television show