Over my first few days here, Josh took me around to the common places of the island like the Navy base, the grocery store, our gym, etc.
We live in Amwaj, the man made islands at the Northeastern corner of Bahrain that were basically built specifically for westerners. It is the only part of Bahrain where you will see women wearing bikinis (and I did, yesterday; they were sitting by the pool while I was on the treadmill).
Most of Bahrain is VERY westernized, especially Amwaj. Every sign is in either both Arabic and English, or just English. Advertisements use photos of caucasians. Women will be dressed in anything from jeans and a stylish blouse, to full a niqab which leaves just the eyes and hands uncovered. I have not, however, seen any other red heads.
Even though the country is the most westernized of the Middle Eastern countries (so they say- I haven’t been to any others except for my brief layover in Kuwait and Bahrain is definitely more westernized than Kuwait), whenever I am out in town I am painfully aware of how different I look from the rest of the residents in Bahrain. Even though Bahrain is heavily saturated with ExPats from Europe and Australia, not to mention the large military community with service members and contractors from all over the world, red hair, blue eyes and fair skin are far and few between. In some parts of town, I regularly catch people staring at me with puzzled looks on their faces. When I catch a woman staring, she is quick to look away. But when I catch the eyes of a man staring at me, he holds my gaze with a terse look on his face and I quickly look away as though I were the one who was caught staring. Even though I am looked at as a strange and foreign creature, the looks were not offensive. The staring made me feel mildly uncomfortable, but not in danger. And let’s be honest, if any of you saw a woman dressed in a burqa walking down the street in your home town, you’d probably stare too.
Yesterday while Josh was at work, I walked down to the lagoon for lunch and to pick up a few things from the grocery store. While I was waiting for my meal, I found myself captivated by a little boy and his sister sitting with their parents a few tables over. The boy was about three and a half years old, his little sister a year younger than he. The two children were playing around the restaurant’s patio while their parents looked on and ate their lunch. They were a traditional Muslim family, the matriarch dressed in a full abaya. The little sister was CLEARLY in charge of her older brother. He would follow her around, dance for her, and obey her instructions diligently. “Sit!” she said. And by golly, he SAT! “Here!” she said. And he galloped after her. I couldn’t help but laugh at how easy going the little boy was and how strong and independent the little girl was. With her pig tails falling out and shoes untied, she was not stopping for anybody!!
I know that the culture here in the Middle East is patriarchal, and women do not have as many rights as men. But, as I wrote earlier, I have never felt objectified because of my gender, and I have witnessed women living as women, girls living as girls, laughing together, living together, enjoying each other without fear of the man standing over them.