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.

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

  1. jolly joker says:

    “he always wants to get a second wife, then the third one eventually but he couldn’t find any better and prettier then me” you should say to people (like Yoda’s talking)

  2. Liz Cameron says:

    The jolly joker strikes again. If only I were brave enough to say such a thing. You are one in a million, canim. I love you.

  3. Jack Scott says:

    Turkey is not Saudi Arabia and we both know it’s lazy thinking to say so. Yes, of course, bad things happen here, they do everywhere. But Turkey is a working democracy (even if I’m not too keen on the current Govt.) and isn’t afflicted with the same medieval attitudes as some Islamic countries. Most Turks I’ve met (outside carpet shops!) are decent, honourable people. Good God, they even put up with two opening gay people living among them!

  4. Liz Cameron says:

    Well said, as always, Jack. Would that the standard U.S. populace I interface with “got” these points. The ignorance around me is generally pervasive. Never surprised me much that you and Liam have been accepted (more than put up with, as I read it) where you are. The dualities are everpresent in my experience (the buttoned-up sexuality in some corners while the pornographic ice cream ads are blaring on the tv). As for the carpet sellers….well, let’s keep the stereotypes so we don’t go on a magic carpet ride that crash-lands in the money pit. 🙂

  5. pisisultan says:

    Hello Liz,as a Turkish girl and as a muslim,I know the world sees us as a bunch of middle easterner but in reality we are Eurasian(central asian ancestors+mostly Anadolian Christian ancestors),in order to be a real middle-easterner you have to be part of a tribe,we Turks are not tribal,but rest of the muslim world is,why the world skips this fact when dealing with muslim societies I don’t get it.We are part of a nation.You know what,those evil traditions (honour killings,marrying more than one wife yada yada)mostly stems from tribal traditions;tribal peer pressure I guess; and this traditions were already there before Islam.I don’t think we Turks have the power to change this tribal people,they believe without their tribes they can not exist,and it is such a strong feeling.Religious or not we hate tribal traditions,and I can easily say this,tribal traditions of non Turkish muslim world ate my religion and stole my identity as a muslim.

  6. Liz Cameron says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate that very much. I have always understood Turkey to be categorized as part of the Middle East from a political science perspective, thus the choice to use that term in the header. I think we can agree that to stereotype a large group of people based on the actions of relatively fewer people is an abhorrent yet common practice in this world of ours. Your words on having your identity stolen as a Muslim do not belie the sadness behind them. Thanks again for sharing your views.

  7. Alan says:

    stereotyping is rammed into heads by the media/industrial/intelligence complex – it keeps people scared of their neighbours, the guy down the street and the ‘rag-heads’ and ‘gollies’ the other side of the world who are dead set on infiltrating and destroying our ‘Western Civilisation’. It sells weapons, surveillance, private prisons, advertising space, you name it; and buys politicians and pays CEOs their obscene bonuses.
    Your approach of sensitive, insightful writing (and face to face explanation) may seem like a drop in the ocean, but, on a more human scale – how do you fill a bucket? One drop at a time! How do you move a mountain? One stone at a time! Or, even, eat an elephant? One bite at a time! Overcoming prejudice, whether silly or obscene is a lifetime’s mission.
    Remember Churchill’s graduation address in the US – he mounted the podium and surveyed his audience for some 3 minutes, then said ‘Never give up.’ Waited a further minute before repeating ‘Never give up.’ He then left the stage. The status quo is never good enough! Mind you Status Quo are bloody brilliant! 😀

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  10. I soooo love your blog. Thank you for writing it! And you are so prolific! I can’t imagine how you are able to write so much, so well, so frequently! WTG!

  11. Dear Diane,

    Thank you so much – really SO much! It means a lot. I love to write – and as a professor – I write for a living. I have just decided to turn my attention to a little bit more on the personal writing front these days in the hope that by sharing my stories, it will illuminate something for someone somewhere – or help in some way…thank you for the encouragement!


  12. leggypeggy says:

    Very nice to find your blog. Even nicer to read some level-headed commentary on the Middle East. You raise excellent, insightful and heartfelt points.

  13. Dear Leggy Peggy,

    What a great moniker, btw. Thank you so much for your kind thoughts – and it is very much appreciated by both of us here at slowly-by-slowly. I just dipped into your blog – and I love the “travels with dogs” photo – we are also of this ilk. Will look forward to reading your posts on travel in Turkey!

    All the best for a future of crossed blog-roads!


  14. leggypeggy says:

    Thanks Liz — I look forward to exploring more of your blog too.

  15. Thanks for liking my post! I have had a read of your blog – it’s really interesting. I found this and your Sicilian message post very thought provoking, and also psisultan’s comment above re: Turkish identity versus other Muslim countries’ identity. I’m going to follow your adventures… 🙂

  16. Thanks for the kind words on the blog – I am glad you are enjoying it! Looking forward to seeing you here again!!

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  18. Marilyn says:

    Great post. I have struggled with similar feelings growing up in Pakistan and then living in Egypt – wanting to challenge stereotypes, yet the minute I challenge them, another horrific story comes up on the news. I think what I find most difficult is the arrogance with which the west views the east, often dismissing those excellent pieces. Hospitality, warmth, strong sense of family, and I grow tired of the west saying “We have those things too” – I didn’t go a week without being invited to a home, a party or a gathering of some kind in Pakistan and Egypt. In America, most foreign students go home after 4 years and have never been invited to the home of an American. It’s definitely a larger conversation but I appreciate the post.

  19. E. says:

    Hi Marilyn,

    Thank you VERY much for your comment- I really appreciate your observations and sharing…you sum up a lot in this nutshell and have given me some ideas for a new post that extends into the realm of a larger conversation.

    Many thanks!


  20. One of the most interesting posts I’ve read. I feel I learned a lot. Thanks, and all the best to you and Mr. M. : )

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