It was a very warm day in Abu Dhabi. Not a suitable occasion to take a stroll at all. But that’s what we were doing, anyway. So when we came to the beach, with its powdery sand and turquoise waters, it was irresistible. Not having brought any beach gear with us, we just removed items from our pockets and jumped in wearing our street clothes — we knew we’d dry off soon enough in the sun. The water was not at all chilly — it was just the right temperature to comfortably cool down, and we really enjoyed it.
For about ten minutes.
And then the lifeguard came over and said, “I’m sorry, but you can’t swim in pants here; you have to wear swimming trunks or shorts.”
If I’d been wearing shorts, that would have shocked them off. I was perfectly aware that a conservative country like UAE has restrictions about exposing too much flesh in public, even in the sultriest weather. But never in a million years did I expect to get busted for covering up too much.
Note that this was a public beach on the shores of the Arabian Sea. While it obviously was under the jurisdiction of some government agency — hence the lifeguard — it was not a privately owned resort at which the proprietors wanted to maintain some kind of posh decorum by having all guests wear beige and chartreuse, or whatever. This beach had a rule against swimming in pants just because it had a rule against swimming in pants. It was as if a city put up stop signs in unnecessary locations, just for the sake of putting up stop signs.
There are other rules, customs and presumptions here that are equally pointless. Riding on the municipal bus, we were amused to see that there were separate seats designated for male and female passengers. There was no partition separating the sections; some male seats would be right next to some female seats; so the arrangement did not prevent the sexes from (horrors) engaging in conversation. And there was no difference in the design or quality of the seats themselves. So what’s the issue? Is there really such a danger that in this reserved society, men and women sitting together in the back of the bus will become inappropriately intimate?
When you get right down to it, a great many of the pointless rules and customs are gender-based; which is to say, they are little tokens of patriarchy, as if they are designed to be reminders for women to stay in their place. There’s the fact that only men pray in mosques. There are the head coverings and veils. And the fact the women wear black, while men wear white; not only does that pay homage to the symbolism of black being more tainted and sinister and white being more pure, but black absorbs more heat — it’s as if the society was deliberately engineered so women would be more uncomfortable. Some cultures, lest we forget, practice genital mutilation on children — rendering women incapable of having or enjoying sexual intercourse, and making urination a difficult chore.
But before you look down your nose at Islamic or other societies, you should be aware that there are plenty of pointless rules, customs, traditions and practices in the U.S. of A. as well. Sometimes it’s very minor, but still annoying. When you go to a restaurant and ask for a glass of water, they almost invariably put ice cubes in it — even if the temperature outside is cold enough to freeze a dragon’s breath. This isn’t just irritating for those of us who don’t like icy water on icy days, it’s also potentially unsanitary — servers have been known to toss in the ice with their bare hands. Other practices, like daylight savings time, capital punishment and corporal punishment, are much more widely inconvenient and even harmful.
Many of the social constraints in the U.S., whether dictated by law or custom, are also gender-based. Married women assume the surnames of their husbands, and until rather recently, pledged to “love, honor and obey”. The language is full of diminutive labels suggesting that females in a particular role are of less stature than their male counterparts — actress, poetess, bachelorette, etc. Women when dressed up “properly” in formal attire wear uncomfortable and damaging high heels with panty hose over their closely shaved legs. Even the most attractive women paint their faces like clowns (something forbidden in hardcore Islamic countries), because their culture has convinced them that enriching the coffers of the cosmetics industry makes them more glamorous — or at least more socially acceptable. *
But it isn’t just the patriarchy flexing its muscles. It’s the ruling class in general. The U.S. also has a long history of racist repression — “separate but equal” water fountains, and all — which it has barely shaken off. And it still hasn’t shaken off its theocratic tendencies. Officials and witnesses are sworn in on the Bible, weddings are performed by ministers, and oaths are affirmed “so help you God”. Like the obnoxious amplified calls to prayer belting from a mosque at all hours of the day and night, church bells rudely and arrogantly disturb your peace, if you’re living nearby, at inconvenient times — just not as often.
These social norms, which can almost always be traced back to some point in history when the haves were thinking up ways to keep the have nots under the boot heel, are often cited as their own justification: “this is the way things are because this is the way things have always been”. This is the only justification that people really can offer, for instance, for wanting to maintain the number of Supreme Court justices at 9. No such provision is in the Constitution.
Some of these “rules” (written and unwritten) actually serve a constructive purpose. Playing and standing for the national anthem can help provide a sense of national unity; but if some people attack those who do not participate in such rituals, then that rather defeats the purpose. The Colin Kaepernicks of the world are doing what it would behoove us all to do: examining these cultural mores and deciding for themselves whether or not they want to do something that might pay homage to, and help perpetuate, an oppressive system.
That doesn’t mean that we should resist every single questionable rule or tradition — doing so would leave us absolutely depleted. I had better things to do with my time than sit in an Abu Dhabi jail for defying a lifeguard over my attire, and it would not really have accomplished anything. We need to pick our fights wisely. But it’s certainly a good idea to be aware that many of these rules are created and imposed expressly for the purpose of keeping you, or someone, below the salt.
*(But let’s not be too judgmental about the use of makeup. It does have its practical purposes, such as covering or mitigating scars and blemishes. At the time I met my wife, she wore a considerable amount of it — her mother was a cosmetics pusher — a practice she eventually abandoned. But at the time, she commented that she thought of her face as a canvas, and the makeup as an artistic expression. So there’s that.)