x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

It's time to equalise our expectations of young men and women

Fatima al Shamsi calls for the end of "boys will be boys" while girls are held to a double standard, and letting young women grow.

I don't watch much television. I have no patience for commercials. But a while back a programme my mum was watching caught my eye. It was a sermon given during Friday prayer in which a sheikh was discussing a faulty cultural habit that parents in the Gulf still have - more leniency towards their sons than their daughters. He argued that when a boy does something that is considered taboo in society people are more likely to dismiss it as part of growing up, whereas if a girl engages in the same behaviour then she has somehow tarnished her honour and her family's reputation and all chaos is let loose.

The sheikh said that in the Quran, God did not specify that actions were sinful for women only and not for men, and that this is a cultural differentiation that we have carried with us for centuries and that it's time to treat women and men equally. He wasn't arguing for a sort of leniency, rather that we should treat our children equally and let boys know that they are responsible for their actions just as much as girls are.

Double standards have always existed in society and still survive to various degrees. Women continue to struggle for a sexual identity that doesn't imply promiscuity, as well as to establish themselves in school and in the workplace.

It's upsetting to note this even in New York, where women are supposedly at total liberty to do as they please. But women who are flirty and friendly are often considered "easy" while young men who behave as playboys are simply "doing what boys do".

I have been blessed to have grown up in a household where we were all held to the same standards. If my brothers could go out to see their friends then so could I. As we grew older, when they started travelling abroad with friends, then so could I. Small discrepancies always remained, and some I struggled with and some I understood.

The reality is, unfortunately, that the world can be more dangerous for women. Thus, I think it's natural to want to protect your girls. But there is a fine line between protection and restriction, and parents need to think about why it's OK for their son to do something and not their daughter. I've noticed that most of these restrictions have a "moral" basis - trying to keep daughters away from the bad-intentioned men of the world - but over time they just turned into blanket limitations.

As more people from my generation study abroad and travel, I think it's important that young women in particular are encouraged to do so. I have met a handful of young Emirati women in New York and have been impressed by how brave and determined they were to have moved somewhere so far away by themselves.

It's natural to worry about your children, but young women need to know how to handle themselves, too, beyond the watchful eyes of their fathers and their brothers. These restrictions come from a place of love and care but can hinder growth and exposure. You never know what you're capable of until you're given a chance to do it alone.

After all, it was our parents' generation - both mothers and fathers - who first went abroad and attained university degrees, and there's no reason to backtrack now just because the UAE has developed its own schools. The experience of leaving the safety of home, if only for a semester abroad or a summer programme, is priceless in terms of changing a young person's perspective and allowing him or her to become an independent being.

Fatima al Shamsi is an Emirati based in New York.