Walking along a quiet, narrow street in downtown Madaba, Jordan in late September, I’m on…
The more I integrate myself into the cultures of the Middle East, the more I cringe when I hear people of my native American culture making inaccurate statements about the people I’ve come to know so well. So I’ve written up this short list of misconceptions about the Middle East, followed by actual truths.
Muslim Women in the Middle East are Required to Cover their Heads
If you want to make a Middle Eastern Muslim woman angry – or make them laugh at you – tell them that you think they have to cover their heads. In most of the Middle East wearing a hijab is usually driven by cultural, family and personal values and not by law, requirement or force.
People of all religions in this region, including Islam, are more modest than in westernized parts of the world. Men even cover their heads with scarves in some parts of the Middle East, such as in the Bedouin cultures and the Arabian Gulf countries. Some older men in Palestine, Jordan and Israel cover their heads with scarves as well.
Maybe in Iran and Saudi Arabia women are required by law or their fathers or husbands to cover their heads in public – I’m not sure – but these are radical countries. Most of the Middle East is much more moderate.
The Roles of Men and Women in the Middle East are Strictly Defined
Not exactly. In this part of the world gender roles are more traditional, as they were in the Western world decades ago. But people are people first and genders second.
Men work. Women work. Women take care of the children. Men take care of the children. Women cook. Men cook. Unfortunately, some women smoke. So do some men. Fortunately, some women also exercise and take care of their health. Fortunately, so do some men. The list goes on and on.
Middle Easterners are Anti-American
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about the Middle East. Hundreds of times throughout the years when I’ve told Middle Easterners I’m American, they have responded by saying America! and welcoming me to their country enthusiastically. Even as a Christian living in ultra-fundamentalist Sharjah, UAE. Even alone on the streets of Cairo when the city was hopping with fear and suspicion in the years immediately post-revolution.
I have never personally had nor has anyone ever told me they’ve experienced any type of negative response to being American in the Middle East. The people of the Middle East are not anti-American, period.
Middle Easterners “Target” Americans
Target us for what? Terror attacks? Of all the misconceptions about the Middle East, this one is the most off base.
In Israel the Arabs and the Jews target each other. They are not interested in anyone else. In the rest of the Middle East, terrorists target enemy factions, the local population or whoever is in their way. Americans are sometimes victims of terrorism in the Middle East, but we are almost never the focus.
Women in the Middle East are Controlled by Men
Almost without exception the women in the Middle Eastern cultures I know are not at all controlled by men. The word “controlled” is very harsh, inaccurate and demeaning. In Middle Eastern countries it is typical for men to be the heads of the family, as was the case decades ago in the US. This is not about control and oppression, this is about cultural tradition.
I do know one culture in one country where most if not all of the women actually are under the control of the male leader of their family as well as other men in their family. This is a horrible situation, worse than it sounds, and I hope it’s going to end soon.
Women in the Middle East are Not Allowed to Drive
This is now one of the most outdated of the misconceptions about the Middle East and is 100% false. This was true only in Saudi Arabia, and the law was recently changed. Women are now legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and everywhere else in the Middle East.
Jews and Arabs in Israel Hate Each Other
Actually, this one is not entirely a misconception. But it is not entirely true either.
Many Arabs in Israel hate Jews. Many Jews in Israel hate Arabs. But many do not.
There are Arabs and Jews who work together in Israel. There are Jews and Arabs who are friends. There are almost no Jews and Arabs who intermarry, as this will usually result in total estrangement from both of their extended families and sometimes will lead to death. At the same time, though, there are Jews and Arabs inside Israel who work hard side by side in organized groups to try to make peace. So hopefully one day the Arab/Jew conflict will also be a total misconception.
You’ve heard what I have to say about misconceptions in the Middle East. I’m interested in what you have to say too. If you have an opinion or a fact you’d like to share, let me know in the comments.
Written by: Sabina Lohr