Longing for Sharjah in Trump's America

American University of Sharjah, where I studied and lived from September 2013 to January 2014
American University of Sharjah, where I studied and lived from September 2013 to January 2014

It’s been two weeks since I learned definitively that I would be a woman living in Trump’s America. I had known in my heart for a longtime that this was a possibility, though I fiercely hoped that I was wrong. I wanted my friends’ confidence that Hilary would “break the glass ceiling” to prove itself well founded. But as the election results began trickling in on Tuesday evening, my fears quickly shifted from possible to inevitable. As a woman, I began to feel sick to my stomach.

Even as I struggled to accept these election results I recognized how lucky I was – as a well educated white woman, I would remain more or less untouched. Still, I found myself deeply hurt by the direction America had decided to turn. When Americans elected Donald Trump as President of the United States, they sent me a powerful message: they told me that because I was a woman my health, safety, and humanity were negotiable.

No matter how many times Donald Trump publicly claimed that no one loved women more than him, his actions and statements about and to women have proven his deep rooted misogyny. He openly bragged that because of his fame he could get away with doing anything to women without waiting for consent, even “grab them by the pussy.” And even after multiple women confirmed that they had been sexually assaulted by Trump, he and his campaign dismissed his despicable conversation as “locker room talk” and “boy talk”. He has said that pregnancy is an inconvenience. He has regularly demeaned women for their biology – attacking Megyn Kelly after she challenged him during the first Republican Presidential Debate, derogatorily implying that she must have been menstruating. The list seems endless. When Americans elected Donald Trump, they told me that they agreed with or could at least overlook these demeaning words and actions and accept Trump as the top representative of America.

My knowledge of the limitations of the presidency have allowed me to remain cautiously optimistic about the policy implications of Trump’s victory. However, what it has revealed about the American ethos deeply pains me. The American people have decided that it is okay to disrespect and demean women, such as myself, and be openly hateful and vicious towards all minorities. The people I love are at risk of being attacked simply because of who they are. This breaks my heart.

One week after the election, I reflected to my professor, role model, and mentor, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, that what this election told me about America’s value of women made me want to move back to Sharjah, a conservative emirate in the United Arab Emirates, which has codified many elements of sharia law into its legal system. Even as a Muslim man who passionately speaks of the feminist elements of the Islamic tradition, he was taken aback. After all, here I was a successful, accomplished, highly-educated, fiercely independent, unapologetically liberal, 22-year-old woman with nearly endless freedoms expressing a longing to return to a place governed by sharia law. I explained, I have never felt as safe and respected as I felt living in the UAE. The restrictions to my lifestyle were a small trade-off.

Me riding a camel during a cultural excursion in the UAE desert. 
Me riding a camel during a cultural excursion in the UAE desert. 

I recognize that my experience is not what is universal throughout the Islamic world. Many of my female friends experienced harassment in the Levant and North Africa, but I never felt as safe and respected as I felt living in the Islamic World.

Without a question, moving from Washington, DC to the UAE required a number of adjustments that weren’t always easy. Certainly at times it was frustrating being required to be covered in the humid, 110-degree heat, but I could appreciate the value placed on modesty. Some nights I wished that I did not have a curfew and could stay in the library late at night or explore Dubai’s nightlife, but I found comfort in knowing that someone cared if I got home safely at night. It was strange not being allowed to be alone with a man, even walking through the street after years of living in co-ed dorms. But these adjustments were small prices to pay for the level of respect that I received and the safety that I universally felt.

In the United States, rarely a day goes by that I don’t find myself catcalled or called an inappropriate pet name, such as “sweetie” by a man that I have never met. This is not a compliment. This is men reducing my value to my physical appearance with no respect for my feeling of personal security. Not once in the four months I spent in the UAE and travelling in Qatar and Oman did a man direct an inappropriate comment at me – despite my conspicuous long, wavy, blond hair and choice to wear clothing, which narrowly fit within the boundaries of the dress code. In fact, I never even caught a man looking at me inappropriately.

Christmas dinner at a French restaurant in Sharjah with my friend Farhatt who went out of her way to make sure that I had the
Christmas dinner at a French restaurant in Sharjah with my friend Farhatt who went out of her way to make sure that I had the opportunity to celebrate.

When I walk down the streets in the United States, because I am a woman, I have to exercise caution about where I go and the time of day that I travel when I am alone. I cannot trust that I will be left alone, even when I remain in familiar, well-travelled neighborhoods. Meanwhile, I could confidently run errands alone throughout Dubai and Sharjah without fear of harassment.

In the U.S. I would never dream of leaving valuable items unattended in public place. They would likely be gone before I returned. I would be “asking” for them to be stolen. Throughout the UAE, I could leave my laptop, cell phone, and purse while I used the restroom or ran a quick errand anywhere I went. And if I forgot something, even the smallest item would be saved in case I returned for it. Once I forgot my notebook in a Starbucks and it had been kept in the lost and found untouched for the four days that it took me to retrace my steps. I was able to trust strangers to an extent that I had never imagined possible.

Since returning to the United States in January of 2014, I have consistently looked back on this time in my life fondly. But now, more than ever, since I learned through Trump’s victory that in America my right to respect and safety are negotiable because I am a woman, my heart has longed for the unequivocal respect and sense of safety that I felt throughout the Arab Gulf.

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