x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

What do you want to be today? 'Human' is not an option

You are judged every minute, so best to keep yourself as neutral as possible, if there is such a thing nowadays.

I was at a computer about to participate in a psychological study.

Before the test began, I was asked to first answer a series of "background" questions on the screen.

They were those same basic answers that we have to provide - and are discriminated against as a result - almost on a daily basis: gender, age, income, nationality and so on. I never like the feeling of being boxed and categorised, but that is the reality of the world.

But I paused at the question: "What are you?" There were many possible answers to pick from, including a mix of race and ethnicity options, which are often incorrectly clumped together. For people of mixed origin, it's confusing enough in the first place. I was about to pick "Caucasian", the simplest answer even though it felt incomplete, but then I ticked in "other".

"Human," I typed in the blank.

Sometimes, no matter how far you climb, you can be brought down by discrimination based on gender, colour, nationality or even your last name.

I have an example, which I admit sounds a bit odd, but it illustrates how the world puts too much emphasis on outside appearances: Saudi Arabia. When you live in the kingdom, where women have the same dress code, a black abaya and sometimes a headscarf, you end up being treated equally. OK, often it is equally insignificant compared to men, but among women, it is equal.

Wherever you go, be it a mall or restaurant, you are not an expatriate or a Saudi or anything else. You (if you are female) are simply a woman. There have been cases when I was being harassed by men, and both Saudi and non-Saudi women came to my rescue. There is a sense of sisterhood that develops from being trapped together in one box.

Ironically, in the absence of that kind of social limitation, when women can dress as they like and be themselves, often they can be very mean and discriminatory towards each other.

The problems that women face in society, particularly in markets that do not have fixed prices, is something of a theme in my writing. When a friend and I conducted an informal experiment in 2009, where we wore abayas and went car shopping, we were given royal treatment. When we went in jeans and nice shirts, we were ignored, even after pestering the salesmen for help. After many such incidents of differing treatment based on "who" people think we are, be it Arab, South Asian, western or Emirati, discrimination is blatantly obvious. It is always hurtful and causes resentment to build over time.

That is why articles such as I was ripped off for wearing a kandura (February 26), by The National's news reporter Thamer Subaihi, are important to highlight the various forms of discrimination and their pernicious long-term effects.

Recently I saw two young men elegantly dressed in shalwar kameez being ushered out of a store where they had been browsing. It was so rude, to the point where they were physically pushed out. I didn't see them do anything wrong; they had just walked in and were looking at video games.

Seeing this, I cannot really blame some of my friends who are of South Asian or Arab origin, but deny their roots (this, in my experience, is especially common among Arab friends), and say they are Canadian, British, American or anything else. They are not ashamed of their origins, they are just worried and tired of being discriminated against.

At the end of the day, it is all about self-preservation, making a living and wanting to be on the winning side.

My best friend summed up the idea best: "You are judged every minute, so best to keep yourself as neutral as possible, if there is such a thing nowadays."


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