Culture

Column: I'm an Arab woman; am I oppressed?

Women who wear headscarves are oppressed in male-dominated societies, according to popular belief in the West. While Rim Dawa says her home country of Syria is too patriarchal, the issue is not that simple.

Rim Dawa (Privat)

Rim Dawa came to Germany from Syria in 2012

"You are oppressed!" That is the stereotype people in the West have about women in the Arab world. But are we?

I am reminded of a friend in Syria who once told me she hates the labels on bottles of perfume.

"There shouldn't be perfume for women and cologne for men," she said. I prefer the fragrances that are sold to men."

She wasn't joking. Of course, perfume wasn't really that important to her. Instead she was fed up with her situation and needed a breath of freedom.

My friend was the mother of two children and got divorced at a young age. She had spent years in a tiring legal battle over child support and was tired of feeling victimized. She'd also spent years looking for a decent job, but to no avail.

Perfume bottles (Fotolia/DigitalGenetics)

Does perfume really need to be gender specific?

How patriarchy impacts a girl's most personal thoughts

That is the harsh reality of Syria's patriarchal system, where the best way to keep women in check is to limit their ability to work. Meanwhile, the same men who restrict women's freedoms make long speeches praising human rights, their minds still set in medieval times.

As a teenager, I used to write naïve poems. Like my peers, I would address "Syria" in my poem as if it were my lover, not daring to put the name of the boy I admired in ink. Instead, I hid him in a country, in order to avoid accusing fingers and a bad reputation.

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Boys were allowed to fancy girls and didn't have to be ashamed for expressing their feelings, but as girls, we weren't granted the same privilege of the heart.

Mixed morals

I'll never forget the stares and comments I got when I rode my bike in public at the age of 20. That would have been ok if I were a man, but bikes were considered off limits for adult women.

Bikes, of course, were just the beginning. It was also taboo for women to live alone, travel alone or even walk along later at night. In many places, they aren't allowed to have male friends - and secondary schools were segregated by gender.

Living in Germany, I have a lot of admiration in particular when I see women in political offices - not least Chancellor Angela Merkel -, since I barely recall any women in Syria's parliament or ministries.

Watch video 02:06

Bikini or Burkini?

The big burkini and headscarf debate

When the burkini controversy came up in Europe, with some places wanting to ban the full-body swimsuits worn by some Muslim women, I remembered another Syrian friend's story.

In Germany, she has gotten some very funny questions about her hijab - like whether she actually has hair underneath it, and whether she has to shower with her scarf on her head.

Others have told her to take it off, since she is in Germany now and is free to do that. It was very difficult for her to explain to them that wearing the hijab was her personal choice; she hadn't been forced into it.

Even though her hair is covered, her mind is opened and she is ambitious and educated.

Read more: Why do women hide their hair?

However, for many Germans and Europeans maybe, the hijab remains a symbol of persecution.

Why I don't wear a hijab

Here in Germany, I've often had to explain why, unlike my friend, I don't wear a headscarf.

I grew up in the relatively liberal city of Salamiyah, where head coverings are not required for women. However, when I traveled to other regions, like Hama, I respected the local dressing customs.

Some women don a hijab due to their own religious convictions, others choose not to because of their beliefs or upbringing. But for me, the hijab is a women's choice and not a sign of oppression from a patriarchal society.

We have enough other freedoms restricted by the men in power. And even though my community didn't have a problem with women showing their hair, the rest of our freedoms were limited.

Read more: Woman 'barred from French vacation home pool over burkini'

'I will not surrender'

Looking back, I am nevertheless heartened by the tiny steps of progress Syrian society has made toward gender equality. Although no laws have been changed and men still maintain the upper hand, I've observed that the number of Syrian women who are aware of their rights - like my cologne-loving friend - has been growing.

Women swimming at a beach in France, one in a burkini, two in bikinis (picture-alliance/AP Photo)

Covering up is a matter of choice, not of oppression, says Rim Dawa

I hope that more and more will be able to find their voices and not just feel free, but live out their liberty as well.

Meanwhile, my friend in Syria is still trying to leave the country in order to protect her children from the ongoing war, but the children's father has refused to give them consent.

Nevertheless, she will never give up trying. She told me, "I may be persecuted, but I will not surrender."

I can feel her pain, because I too experienced persecution in Syria simply because of my gender. Here in Germany, I feel safe, protected and free to do as I please. But I'm taking a short break from riding my bike to work until the bruises from my recent fall have healed.

Rim Dawa was born and grew up in Salamiyah, Syria, and came to Germany in 2012 to complete her Master's degree in international media studies. She is currently a journalist with DW's Arabic department.

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