BY YASMEEN RIFAI AND LAURA ABUJABER // DEC 5, 2011 //

In America, there are many misconceptions about the Middle East. From conversations we’ve had with numerous Curry students, those misconceptions are plentiful on campus, too.

We are from different Middle Eastern countries (Lebanon, for Rifai, and Jordan, for Abujaber) and we are both Arab women. Yet, on an almost daily basis, we’re asked questions about our cultures and countries that are seemingly based on cartoons.

“Do you have cars over there or do you ride camels for transportation?”

“How many deserts do you have?”

“Do you live in tents?”

“Do you have televisions and phones?”

Some students thought we might be Arabian princesses who already have arranged marriages waiting for us when we return to our palaces. No, neither one of us had a bodyguard to bring with us to Milton, and we did not have to take off our burqas when we arrived.

In fact, although we share similar cultural backgrounds, we are from different religions. Not every person in the Middle East is a Muslim.

The “Arab Spring” has received a lot of media attention in the United States since it began a year ago. Citizen demonstrations and protests in Tunisia and Egypt forced longtime dictators to cede power. In Libya, a civil war—with outside help from NATO—forced a change in government, and citizen protests in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have all called for greater political and social freedoms. There is no lack of easily accessible information about the Arab Awakening, yet it’s clear that few students have taken an interest in the broader world.

Student misconceptions about the Middle East are even greater when it comes to women and their rights. Unlike what many of you think, we have always worn our own choice of clothing, spoken freely on various topics, and we drive cars. Just because women don’t have the right to drive in Saudi Arabia does not mean that every Arab woman in the Middle East has the same restriction. These are  vastly different countries!

Americans seem to think that all Middle Eastern women are oppressed. They think we are just like the women they see on television, covered from head to toe, controlled by men and possessing no rights. However, those who wear the “hijab” (a scarf and clothing to cover one’s hair and body) choose to dress this way because they respect and love their religion. That said, those who wear a hijab or an abaya (a loose robe-like garment) represent only 10 to 12 percent of the Middle East’s 150 million women.

The Middle East, in our opinion, is an amazing place to be a woman. There are areas that need improvement, yes, but even here in America women are still not paid equally to men in many of the same positions. Now, that is what we would call discrimination.

You don’t need to travel to the Middle East to learn about our cultures. Just turn off the cartoons and try to understand us as we truly are.

Yasmeen Rifai is a senior communication major, and Laura Abujaber is a junior communication major.

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