Men and women in society are expected to behave differently. The standards and expectations to which men and women conform to are called gender norms and the process of assigning roles to men and women is known as gender socialization. Gender socialization varies across cultures since gender roles are defined according to cultural beliefs of the two sexes. For instance, gender norms in the Western societies may vary significantly with those in the other societies like the Arab region in the Middle East. To examine how the Western gender norms are different from other cultures, I conducted an interview that featured three individuals from Saudi Arabia. While there were significant differences among the two cultures, the interview also revealed a slow transformation of the gender norms, resembling the Western societies’ gender equality.
Gender is the socio-cultural phenomenon of categorizing people as male or female, with each category having assigned roles, expectations, or stereotypes (Saewyc 2). Gender in the modern society has further expanded to include transgender. Individuals learn how to behave and what is expected of them from the social environment. Gender expectations vary from mode of dressing, how to communicate, and position in education, politics, marriage, and employment. From the interview, I learnt that the Arab culture is male dominated since women are considered inferior, although the society is slowly moving towards egalitarianism. In 2018, women in the Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive after a longstanding policy that banned them from owning cars or driving. Until recently, women knew driving was not their place even though some had the interest of driving or owning a car. The tradition, until recently, was very different from the Western societies where women are allowed to drive from as young as 16 years. “You do not realize how lucky you are that the state allows you people to get a driving license once you are 18”, said Faten, 35 year old respondent.
In most Arabian countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, there is a guardian system founded on the cultural assumption that females are inferior and cannot make sound decisions on their own. Guardianship stipulates that a woman cannot marry, get a job, travel, own property, or have elective surgery without the approval of a male figure considered as the guardian. “In Saudi”, Faten explained, “a woman’s first guardian is her father and later her husband when she gets married. If one is divorced or widowed, a male relative steps in as a guardian”. Arab women are also not allowed to freely associate with the opposite sex. While talking about this norm, Saleh, a 20 year old male respondent, said, “I am shocked how girls here are allowed to mix freely with members of the opposite sex. Back at home, things are different. Girls and women are segregated from men in classes, eateries, and other public places including mosques”. In the Western societies, however, girls and women have a voice and mix freely with the opposite sex.
In the Arab world, men are viewed as the financial providers while women are confined in the domestic setting to take care of families. Since men are required to be providers and supporters, they assume a greater control on women whereby they dictate their way of dressing and other decisions including child bearing. When talking to a 55 year old Khalid about the position of men in Saudi Arabia, he expressed harsh criticism concerning the Western culture that allows equal participation of men and women in the economic sector. “This is why your women are not obedient and have less time for families…very wrong”, Khalid remarked. Khalid’s sentiments represent Arab men’s views towards gender equality. Arab men have traditional attitudes towards working or educated females: they believe women should not get education or work (Elamin and Omair 750). He also mentioned how young people in the western society have a voice and their contributions are valid, which is different from the Arab world. When talking to Saleh, he said that older men in the Arab world hold power at all levels while young people are inferior due to “lack of economic power”. The gender norms in the Arab world vary in degree across countries since transformation, brought about by feminism, are evident. Gender equality is increasingly being embraced across countries in the Middle East whereby women are increasingly enrolling for higher education, excelling professionally, and having authority over their personal decisions, like in the Western culture. The number of women in the political arena has also grown drastically.
According to the interview, men and women hold different positions in the Western and Arab societies. However, gender equality is slowly being embraced in the Arab world. The transformation has been greatly influenced by globalization that allows people to travel easily across borders and not only learn but embrace other cultures too. Feminism, for instance, is a Western culture that has been diffused to other cultures through globalization. The transformation was also partly influenced by the British rule in the Middle East, which ended in the twentieth century. The British Empire spread its culture across the Middle East.
Elamin, Abdallah, M. and Omair, Katlin. “Males Attitudes towards Working Females in Saudi Arabia”. Personnel Review, vol. 39, no. 6, pp. 746-766. 2010. https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/00483481011075594?mobileUi=0&journalCode=pr. 15 April 2019.
Saewyc, Elizabeth. “A Global Perspective on Gender Roles and Identity”. Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 61, no. 4, pp. 1-2. Oct 2017. https://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(17)30356-7/fulltext. 15 April 2019.