How Arabs (Mis)perceive America, and Vice Versa
Minnesotan’s Book Aims to Dispel Ignorance by Promoting Cultural Awareness
By Mary Coons
To many in the Arab world, America seems like a threat – or at least the big bully on the playground. But America is not the real threat – although it can be a bully. Ignorance is the true threatening enemy.
I wrote Culturally Speaking: Promoting Cross-Cultural Awareness in a Post-9/11 World as an attempt to bridge some of those vast chasms of cultural gaps lurking out there behind heavy wooden doors by dispelling the ignorance that Americans and Arabs of the Persian Gulf have of each other’s cultures.
It is crucial that we listen and understand one another’s perspective, and not allow misconceptions to fester. This does not mean we must always agree with these perspectives. But we do have a responsibility to respect one another’s opinions as part of healthy, intellectual stimulation.
We must first admit our ignorance, recognize and dispel gross generalizations and, finally, begin to influence and inspire changed attitudes toward cross-cultural differences among family, friends, and co-workers.
In the book, Americans from the Midwest and Arabs from the Persian Gulf country of Bahrain discuss the interplay of religion and culture, media bias, hijab, Sunni and Shi’a marriage customs, Salifism, education and women’s rights, and of course, sentiments on the unpopular Iraq war. Through conversations, I identified eleven recurring generalizations each group had of the other, and allowed those myths to be discussed from personal points of view. One of those generalizations is excerpted below; to read all eleven, see www.culturallyspeak.com.
Culturally Speaking then attempts to push wide open that heavy door of ignorance to promote awareness, understanding and tolerance of customs, religion and culture. There is much to learn from both sides, although, in general, Arabs know more about Americans than Americans know of Arabs.
Arab Generalization #1: America has no respect for its women as evidenced by advertisements, movies, TV, and pornography.
It is true that the American culture is obsessed with beauty, being model thin, using cosmetic surgery to look younger – with a push for an endlessly youthful appearance. The reality is that people like to see beautiful people – maybe not necessarily scantily clad – but look at how Americans read everything possible about film stars. Beauty sells movie magazines, no doubt! And yes, objectification of the female body is pervasive in our culture.
On the reverse side, this generalization reflects a very personal choice that really has nothing to do with the United States as a country. If a woman has no respect for herself, she makes many self-destructive choices. If she wants to make X-rated movies, again, that’s her choice. And what about a woman who is portrayed as an absolute idiot on television commercials? Can’t that be translated, as well, as a lack of self-respect? Regardless, we would be prudent to refrain from judging others or generalizing about an entire country having no respect for its women.
“These porn movies are not made to please women,” a Bahraini woman reminded me. “They are made for men only. So to me it means that women are exploited for the pleasure of men. Furthermore, women from the West are seeking liberation, but they still worry about what men think of them.”
The advertising industry has always used sex to sell products, and that practice is certainly not restricted to the States. Arab advertisers do the same thing; the women are more covered up, but they still prance around on television to lure consumers into buying the product. An Arab Muslim man pointed out to me that Egyptian movies have always used women and female beauty to promote films.
Plymouth, Minn., resident Joan Corey, an administrative assistant, told me, “I don’t know why it is necessary to portray women scantily dressed. I think here in the States more women are being turned off by that kind of advertising. I have personally stopped at stores and told the management when their advertising was totally inappropriate. I’ve also told them that if I had children, I would never allow them to shop in their stores because of their advertisements.”
Maryam Al Sheroogi, who works as a social worker at an government-run girls school in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, voiced her opinion regarding the perceived lack of respect for women. “Arabs ask each other why Americans consider their women cheap. That’s somebody’s daughter there on TV or in a movie wearing a G-string. But Americans look at the Arabs and say, ‘Don’t you value your women? You just want to hide them, and cover them, and keep them in the house.’”
Michelle LaGue, who lives in Buffalo, Minn., commented. “I understand why the Bahrainis say we have no respect for women, but I feel the Arab Muslim culture has no respect for its women because of the restrictions, such as the clothing, dating, being alone with men, and those kinds of limitations that are placed on them. It’s ironic that they would say that about us, when that is the same perception we have of women there.”
“I know that Americans are more conservative than Europeans,” said Dr. Mansoor Al Jamri, editor of the Arabic daily Al Wasat News in Manama. “But in a way, from a Muslim perspective, women are used as a consumer product. Her face and body are used to attract and sell the product, and therefore, lots of films and advertisements show pretty women basically having fun. That attracts money. But that, in itself, whether it is respect or disrespect, is more a difference in perspective. There is a market – and a free market – from an American point of view. But from a Muslim point of view, there are limits about how far you can use an individual – man or woman – to attract money, because that individual is not a product. The dignity of a person is more important than using him/her as a means to get the money.”
The book also cites examples of what the United States and Bahrain have done to bridge the cultural gap, as well as offers ideas of what individuals can do. For example, through my interviews I was able to match a Bahraini woman with an American woman who were both professionals in the workplace, close in age, had children and grandchildren of similar ages, and most importantly, they both wanted to become e-mail “pen pals” in order to learn more about each other and her country.
My motivation for writing the book was fairly simple. I was hearing so many misconceptions about Americans from Bahrainis and vice-versa; both sides showed an ignorance of each other. I wanted to dispel that ignorance and allow the truths to come out. This book is not a cure-all to the problem, but it is a first small step in addressing this cultural gap. I have tried to identify the commonalities that each share so that readers will recognize that despite the differences, we all have a desire for world peace, respect for one another, love of family, career and education aspirations, and basic needs for sustenance.
—Mary Coons, owner of Pen & Ink Communications, has been a professional writer for more than 30 years and is the international editor of Bahrain Traveler magazine. She and her husband split their time between Bahrain and Hanover, Minnesota.