Shatha Almutawa muses how her footwear and her life intertwine.
The women’s majlis: Walking dozens of miles in my shoes
I’ve owned more pairs of running shoes than I’ve owned stilettos, even though I’m not especially athletic. Most of my shoes are flat, since I live in a walkable city. In Washington, I walk to work every morning, to the grocery store, to wherever I’m going. My shoes frequently tread the floors of the Metro trains, the parks and the museums. Here, in America, they’re often on my feet as I write in coffee shops, eat out with friends and attend lectures.
When I visit my family in Dubai, my shoes take a break. I spend days inside the house, catching up with family, or reading in our garden. When I visit relatives, my shoes come off quickly, since shoes are not worn inside Emirati living rooms.
My shoes spend a lot of time in X-ray machines, as I travel back and forth to see my family. Living in two worlds means seeing the inside of airports all too often. But I’ve done that even before I was old enough to need to wear shoes, as my parents also lived between two worlds – my mother’s world in Kuwait and my father’s in Dubai.
Because the abaya was not a part of young Kuwaiti culture in the 1980s, I didn’t wear it, and without the abaya, stilettos seemed pointless. They complete the look of the shayla and abaya – the intricate make-up, the designer handbag and the stilettos turn that outfit from black on black to fabulous and glamorous.
So I’ve only owned two pairs of stilettos in my entire life – the pair that I wore to my engagement party and the pair that I wore for my wedding. When I wore these shoes, I was in the final stages of my doctoral programme in intellectual history at the University of Chicago. I can’t call myself The Scholar in Stilettos, because I haven’t worn either pair since I received my doctorate last year.
Instead, my flats saw the insides of the classrooms at Qatar University, where I taught during autumn 2013. These shoes also entered countless Qatari government buildings, where I tried and failed to get the elusive Qatari ID needed for most transactions in Doha.
Back in the United States, there are many people who don’t own more than one pair of shoes. Some own none. I see these people sleeping on the streets, and hope that my people will never stop helping each other, so that none of us will ever need to tape plastic bags to our feet. I hope that we’ll always be connected to each other, so that everyone will have at least one good pair of shoes.
Shatha Almutawa received her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2013. She now works as a magazine editor at the American Historical Association.
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