10/17/2014 05:07 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Protecting the Gulf's National Treasure: The Clash of Social Norms in the Gulf With the Gulf Woman's Dynamism

We approached the border, handed over four passports: one Bulgarian, one American, one Jordanian, one Bahraini. "Who is the Bahraini in the car?" the officer asked.

"I am, that would be me," I leaned forward from the back seat and waved. I was wearing a flat-top cap, a tank top, and my hair was not at its ruliest. As the officer walked away with our passports, I smiled and smirked, saying "I'm probably getting the special GCC treatment."

The officer came back, "Can I talk to the Bahrainiya (Bahraini woman)?" he asked. Convinced I was going to be asked to join a separate, faster line, I lean forward and smiled, said hello.

"Who are you?" he asked.

I was stunned -- was he asking a rhetorical question?

"Sorry, but what do you mean? My name is Rawan and I work in Dubai, you're holding my passport."

"No, really, I mean who are you? What do you do in Dubai? What are you, a GCC woman, trying to do by crossing this border?"

Quickly overcoming my initial amazement, I responded with the confidence that underlies any casual truth. I explained to him that I was on a trip with my colleagues and friends. We were all twenty-somethings, working in Dubai, and were taking a trip to Oman for the weekend.

"Where did you come from?" his response was severe, almost mocking.

"You mean right now? We all drove here from Dubai," I said, my aplomb quickly souring in response to the man's disdain.

"Well turn your car around and go back to where you came from. As a Khaleeji woman (a woman from the Gulf), I can't let you through the border without papers from your male guardian saying you can pass through. It's the law." I saw his lips curl up into a self-satisfied, humorless smile.

My initial shock and panic quickly gave way to affrontedness, as I recollected that this, in fact, was not the law. I argued, and saw the derision in his eyes grow with every syllable that came out of my mouth. I pointed out that a Saudi friend, also traveling as part of our group, was in one of the cars ahead and he had let her through. She even chose to use her Saudi passport over her American one, since it would grant her visa-free travel within the GCC.

His response was automatic, indignant. "Well maybe she wasn't in a car full of men? You're one of our own, a Khaleeji, I can't let you pass through. Why are there no other girls in your car?" his displeasure at 'one of his own' attempting to travel and talking back to him in the presence of men only grew. He asked us to turn back once more.

We parked to the side, letting others pass through. I told my friends I was going to go down and talk to him. I took off my cap, tied up my hair, and buttoned up a sweater despite the blazing sun. On the seemingly long walk to the border, I told myself that I would be kind and patient. I told myself he had been taught to 'protect' women like me. I thought of calmly explaining to him that I did not need protection and that I had not realized I was the only non-male in the car until he had pointed it out. This is what he wanted, right -- my protection? I would make sure he knew I was safe, in control of the situation. I would reassure him.

"Hello, excuse me. Hi."

"Yes? I thought I told you to leave."

"I just wanted to ask you about the law you referred to. I have never heard of needing papers from your male guardian to travel, unless you are in Saudi. I travel often for work within the GCC and I have never needed it."

He asked me for my passport once more. Opened it, read it, scoffed. I tried to understand why but struggled.

"Why do you have so many travel stamps?"

"I travel for work. I'm a consultant, and some of our clients are abroad. I've also travelled for job trainings, and to study."

"So, do you 'consult' the guys in the car with you?" he asked, the humorless smile giving way to a wider, teethier taunt, culminating in a chuckle.

"No, they are my colleagues."

Four hours later -- four hours of mockery from the border control, bystander amusement and curiosity, and frequent orders to get out of the border control line -- the Omani sponsor of the snorkeling resort we were headed to escorted me through the border. It took us three minutes.

In the Gulf, women are dangerously placed atop the social pyramid as unreachable, fragile beings. This shelved trophy mentality is dangerous, because women are so easily and very frequently dragged to the bottom of the pyramid through notions of patriarchy -- at any moment, every Arab man can assume the right to behave like her angry, dishonored father.

Khaleeji men are taught to honor women and to uphold the pillars of benevolent sexism. Khaleeji women are taught to be beautiful, elusive, strong, but silent. You sit properly in public, you avert men's gazes, and you watch what people say about you, because you do not want to be hauled off the top of the pyramid. The GCC woman, even with laws allowing her the same rights as Khaleeij men, does not have the social infrastructure to reap equal benefits from laws permitting her to travel, study, and work.

I am not calling for Khaleeji men and women to embrace 'modernity', nor to tear off their veils in fury, talk louder, or show more skin. I refuse to feed the notion of the oppressed Khaleeji woman, refuse to ignore the love and regard for the modest woman in her community, refuse to deny the pillars of compassion, strength, beauty, dignity, and assertive spirituality she embodies. This socio-religious status has been a long-standing source of pride for many Khaleeji women.

I am also not attributing the placement of the Khaleeji woman atop the social pyramid -- where she can be scrutinized, adored, and resented at the same time -- to backwardness. The kind of 'empowerment' that Khaleeji women need is the development of social norms to complement the expanding socio-economic spaces they are conquering.

Ultimately, Khaleeji society's acceptance of the existing and present Khaleeji woman's identity and her current liberties is crucial to the success of the policies and economies that enable her to drive, work, and run for parliament. Let's not pat ourselves on the back for the Harvard studies and discussions in the World Economic Forum telling us we are making great strides, that we are converging with the west's legal standards for women. (The rest of the world is already patting us on the back for that, anyway.) We need to visit our own social system, understand what gaps exist for women in achieving holistic and happy lives, break down resentment for free-willed women, and provide the legal frameworks for women to start defying the social hierarchy. While the legal frameworks are starting to be put in place, with women comprising approximately 40-45% of the labor force and around 10% of parliament seats in the more liberal parts of the GCC like Kuwait and Bahrain, Bahraini women winning the right to pass on their citizenship to children from non-national husbands, and Hanadi Al-Hindi becoming the first Saudi female pilot, the lack of social equality for women remains to be a hindrance. My experience with the Emirate's border control described was personal -- it happened to me -- but it is far from individual; it is not an outlier in a social system that allows arbitrary paternalism towards women. We need to know that not only are women legally allowed to cross borders, but also that haphazard sexism masked as an authoritarian argument for protection at a border is illegal.

As Khaleejis, we need to know that to truly ensure the fundamental right of the Khaleeji woman's pursuit of happiness, we must defend her social agency. A Khaleeji women's right to a self-determined life is robbed by the social expectation of preserving her 'treasurehood' -- when she chooses to cover her head or avert her eyes, it should never be for fear of losing her good name, but for her individual appreciation of modesty and derision of worldly vanity. By removing the Khaleeji woman from her status as a 'national treasure,' we finally grant her the liberties that our governments say we do on paper.