Fatima Al Shamsi on why society would benefit were boys and girls allowed to mix more.
My Life: On gender segregation
A while back I was out for coffee with two new friends I had made in New York, a brother and a sister from the UAE. It was nice to see how close the two were and reminded me of my relationship with my brothers. Whereas I enjoy spending the little time I get with my brothers, I have noticed as I get older that, for the most part, siblings tend to stay segregated when they go out in the Emirates.
Coming from a culture and a religion that encourage modesty and discourage dating, I have always felt that the social segregation that tends to exist outside the immediate family dynamic is more harmful than productive. A lot of my female friends in the Emirates complain about an inability to interact with men in a platonic way without it being awkward or frowned upon.
That's where I see the potential for sisters and brothers to be out together with friends back home in the Emirates. This not only increases the probability that as a woman you will not be harassed, but also creates a religiously and culturally accepted environment in which young men and women can interact. I'm not saying that women need to have male chaperones, rather that male and female relatives can mutually help each other learn to interact with the opposite sex and prevent the negative mindset where men and women see each other solely as sexual objects.
One thing that annoys me the most when I am out, whether it is in New York or back in the Emirates, is unwanted male attention. It doesn't matter if I'm in jeans and a T-shirt or under the safety of my abaya, harassment is almost a given, especially if I'm with a group of female friends. My solution while in college was to go out in large mixed groups. Whether from my capoeira classes or from my physics lectures, there was nothing like the presence of a male friend or two to keep unwanted males away.
This can also help mend the brother-sister relationship. In many instances, I find that the older brothers and sisters get, the more separate they become instead of relying on each other. Society pushes brothers and sisters apart as they are told to interact only with their gender when they're outside of the house. But perhaps if boys were out with their sisters they would realise how rude their catcalling habits are, and girls would realise that not all men are scum.
Also, socialising in mixed groups fosters a healthy and safe space for young people to meet each other, especially at a time when many of them are avoiding arranged marriages but are having trouble finding an alternative to dating that is family friendly.
While I understand and see the benefits of gender segregation in school -I have many foreign friends who attended women's colleges in the US - their segregation wasn't a complete one in the way it is at many schools back in the Emirates. And while I valued my time and experience at such a school when I briefly lived in Abu Dhabi, I think that interaction between boys and girls in an academic setting can make for a healthier social climate.
Especially as more and more women enter the workforce, interacting with the opposite sex needs to be recognised as ordinary, and having acquaintances of the opposite sex at work or at school needs to be accepted as normal.
As a woman I understand and appreciate the comfort that comes from an all-female outing, as it is more comfortable for women who wear the hijab and cover up, but I don't think the whole social structure should be organised like that.
Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati based in New York.