On managing stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, such as my husband!

I get the sense that this is the image most Americans have of Middle-Eastern men…and this makes me sad.

You may recall, dear readers, that I wrote a little something about the receipt of my very own Sicilian message of sorts.  I am referring to the story of when my husband’s brother, let me know in no uncertain terms that a woman cheating on her man was NOT ok, and would have dire consequences – in the form of rape. Pretty strong words, but just words.  Totally unacceptable nonetheless.

Sounds like your worst stereotype about Middle Eastern gender relations, doesn’t it?  In some ways, yes, I suppose it is a stereotype and in other ways, it is not.  We hear plenty of terrible things about what Middle Eastern men (beyond Osama bin Laden and the Taliban) did and do to women on a daily basis…

For example, my beloved and meaning-well feminist girlfriends often send me the latest report about ‘honor killings’ in the Middle Eastern world, Turkey in particular, where my husband is from.  I always open these emails with a sinking heart.  I never know if this is because they think I would be interested in a key topic for women in the region or if they think that I might end up one…it is an awkward in between.  Do I say “thanks for the (horrific) article, isn’t it awful?” Do I engage in a conversation about the equality, freedom, love and respect that are the core elements of my relationship?  Do I get a little defensive and point out something like “well, a) this was a very religious family and b) this was in the Eastern part of Turkey where this stuff is more common than in the West?”  It is all a cop out.  Any possible answer feels like a cop out anyway.  I have said all of these things – and it doesn’t seem to matter.

Either way, I sound defensive, so usually I engage in a bit of an attempt to educate “he is from a totally secular family, I know more about Islam than he does” and a bit of acknowledgement “can you imagine, how terrible this is, how could this be changed in this culture?”  I never quite know what to say to them the next time I see them, and I often just blow it off completely…as if it has never happened.  The truth is that it chips away at me inside, knowing that they must have some sort of doubt, or at least that is what I imagine.  One woman posted here early on in the life of this blog, saying, essentially, “I just stopped trying to explain to people, I just gave up.”  That is one way, and may indeed be a functional way to handle it.

Photo taken from White Girl Blog: Anything But Vanilla

Since the “Sicilian message” post, my husband and I have spent a great deal of time revisiting the topic.  We address day-to-day stereotypes people have about Middle Eastern men on a regular basis.  As in, the times (plural) M. has been stopped in the most liberal of liberal bastions, to be searched or the time it was assumed he was not a U.S. citizen when he went to vote, when he is asked about whether he had shoes (or a camel) growing up, why he isn’t wearing an outfit fit for Yasser Arafat, and on, and on.  I have written before about the things that highly-educated and traveled people have said or asked about M., such as this post on a colleague’s comments on whether M.’s family wanted him to take a second wife.  And then there is the whole Turkish love rats thing…see my post on that here in which I come to terms with stereotypes about relationships between Turkish men and non-Turkish women on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.  Sometimes, my Turkish-American home feels like an umbrella deflecting the constant stereotypes and assumptions we face.

Now, dear readers, before I protest too much, I must acknowledge that much of this is akin to the experiences of many African American and Black men, Latinos and Native American men.  While we are not alone in dealing with this crap, it is still crap to deal with. So anyway, since my Sicilian message post, I have never had quite so many private emails from blog readers I know personally or otherwise. I had expressions of horror, solidarity, shock, concern, anger and even disbelief (“he COULDN’T have said that, you are making that up”).  So, I am faced with the “how to handle it” thing once again.  Of course, I knew this would happen.  This is, perhaps the agent provocateur in me, but I feel that putting things on the table for consideration and discussion are probably the best thing I can do…

But back to mid-life.  It wasn’t until I wrote this post about X. and the rape comment that I realized what I have not addressed – not just here on the blog but as a person as well.  What I haven’t addressed relates to what happened back on that breezy, sunny day overlooking the Aegean, where X. told me he would have addressed a woman that had cheated M. by ” taking her up to the mountain and raping her a thousand times.”  I realize that I have been fighting so hard to show people that the stereotypes about Middle Eastern men are not always true that I have not really accepted that sometimes those stereotypes are rooted in reality. 

Of course, I know, I know, of course they are.  Intellectually  I know this.  I have studied women’s history, the various forms in which women are and have been oppressed due to patriarchal structures yadda yadda (or as the Turks say falan filan).  I think this is part of coming to terms with having a Middle Eastern partner as a non-Middle Easterner.  Interestingly, I think M. is WAY ahead of me on this.  He is always pointing out the flaws of Turkish “manly” culture (his word for macho) and telling me about the ways his mother taught him to respect and love the women in his life.  Sometimes I wonder if M. and X. truly came from the same family given how different they are.  I wonder what X.’s mother would say about the rape comment.  M. often challenges “manly” ways head-on.  Not the most effective, but at least he gets the dialogue happening, something I have not been brave enough to do.  Most of all, I think he just ignores such comments and lives by example.  I love him for this.

My very own M., at the iron of his own accord

M.’s view on the rape comment was something like this:  “It is an unacceptable, manly comment, you shouldn’t take him seriously, he is just mouthing off, but it does come from that manly place.”  Last Saturday morning, M. and I were talking about it with a friend, and M. was commenting on the matter of what X. had said all those years ago.  M. said “if you think like X., the problem would be MINE not his, so he is doubly nuts.”  I cringed in my armchair, scanning M.’s face and our friend’s face.  “Is he going to think M. really feels that way? What if he misunderstands? What if he tells our other friends that?”  Luckily, we are close, and we “processed” the whole thing afterwards.    My fear of the negative influence of stereotypes is very strong, and ever-present.  It’s a lot to manage, but it’s what I have taken on.  My only hope is that like the explanation of the evil eye beads not being voodoo beads, small conversations on a 1:1 level (or on this blog) can make some difference in the long run…and perhaps someday I will revisit the rape comment with X. should the opportunity present itself  I will let you know if I do.