الاثنين، 23 فبراير 2009

Globe and Mail: Girls Will Be Boys-- and Risk Jail

An uproar over homosexuality in literature this week prompted Margaret Atwood to cancel her visit to the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, young women in the region risk humiliation and jail time by masquerading as young men. Our writer goes undercover to find out what makes them do it.

Distracted and thinking about work, I was in line for coffee at an all-girls college when I heard someone behind me compliment my funky army trousers. Turning to say thanks, I saw my smiling face reflected in a pair of oversized sunglasses whose owner clearly was smirking.
That was my first encounter with Alia. But with her close-cropped hair, masculine shirt, baggy jeans and a massive gold Rolex on her wrist to match the gold-framed Ray-Bans on her nose, she could easily have called herself Ali.
With a look that said, "Don't mess with me," she had only to nod and grunt to have her coffee
served the way she likes it - no cream, no sugar.
Then she and the rest of her tough-girl troop headed to a table in the corner of the college food court. The six of them weren't interested in socializing; theirs is an exclusive group. Although she looks masculine, Alia insists that "I am not a boy - I am a boyah."
In the Persian Gulf region, boyah is a term traditionally used for a tomboy (boyat for tomboys), but the phenomenon has become increasingly controversial in the past year. The ranks of the boyat have risen notably since the creation of dedicated Facebook groups attracted hundreds of "friends" within weeks.
Now, targeted as socially undesirable and often shunned as "confused lesbians" (a label many of them reject), they have come under fire from a government that's still uncomfortable with sexual norms accepted elsewhere but taboo to Islamic society.

This week, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood cancelled her planned appearance at Dubai's first international literary festival when its organizers rescinded an invitation to British journalist Geraldine Bedell because her new novel was found to contain references to homosexuality.
Ms. Atwood, a vice-president of the writers association International PEN, was to be there in person next Saturday; now, she will appear by video link to take part in a panel discussion about what she calls the "censorship fracas."
Ms. Bedell, a writer for The Observer newspaper, was planning to launch her novel at the festival. Called The Gulf Between Us, it is set in the region and is said to feature, as a minor character, a sheik with a British boyfriend. But the festival's director feared that the gay sheik, along with the book's backdrop - the Iraq war - "could be a minefield for us."
In many ways, Alia and the hundreds of other boyat in the UAE and other Persian Gulf states are already in a minefield. Islamic tradition considers one gender acting like another to be deviant behaviour. According to a recent on-air sermon, "Men likening themselves to women and women to men, whether in clothing or the way they talk, walk or in their demeanour and appearance, is despised by any person whose nature has not been corrupted."
Last year, the UAE mounted a national campaign to discourage cross-dressing in schools, calling on teachers and parents to get more involved. They were never mentioned by name, but the rise of the boyat was known to be at the heart of the campaign. Now, government agencies are trying to launch the flip side: a public-awareness drive to have young women "embrace their femininity."
Experts trace much of the reason for the rising number of boyat to the rapid opening of a once-closed society. To see if that is true, I decided to get to know Alia and her friends better. To do that, I had to go undercover. I had to dress like them, walk like them and pledge allegiance to them, before being trusted enough to hang out with them.
First, I needed the watch - a massive masculine timepiece the boyat use to recognize each other - so I borrowed my father's gold Rolex. Then I needed the right clothes: loose-fitting male attire with a touch of the military, vibrantly coloured dress shirts and "boyah jeans," which are baggy with big prints all over them. I also had to behave properly. To be a boyah, you can be neither weak nor submissive.
After that first encounter with Alia (the identities of the boyat, and my own, have been concealed to avoid detection and a jail sentence for what UAE officials consider gross indecency), I worked hard to cultivate the group. Finally, after several weeks, they had seen enough of me and my new look to open the door, but only after I had said I, too, wanted to be a boyah did they share their stories with me.
They argue that what they do is more than role-playing; it is self-assertion on the part of young Arab women forced to manoeuvre within strict social norms. In many ways, it is their version of feminism.

Alia, for example, said she was just 12 when she decided to rebel against her family's expectations. "I feel tough and more comfortable in these clothes. Why should I be forced to wear what I am not comfortable with?" She, like girls in most wealthy Gulf countries, was supposed behave in a certain manner, with the ultimate goal being marriage. Now in her 20s, she still wears heavy makeup and "girlie" outfits to please her parents - but luckily they are rarely home. Describing herself as "disgusted" by passive women and willing to marry only after "living her life," Alia says she doesn't "want to be all weak and submissive. I want to be a leader and I want people to listen to me."
One of her friends has parents who are more strict, so instead of a pixie cut, she tucks her hair under a bandana or cap (and relaxes by crossing her legs like a man). "I am happy like this," she says, insisting that being a boyah isn't really so odd. "People are always acting this or that role, depending on where they are and with whom."
After being accepted by the group, I got to see just how the boyat "act" out their role. Within all-girl settings, like their college, they express themselves freely. With unplucked eyebrows, exaggerated sideburns and, perhaps, hair on their upper lips, they stand out but seem unconcerned about how either their immaculate, ultra-feminine peers or their teachers may react.
Many of the girls live double lives. After leaving home, they undergo a radical transformation, changing their clothes at school or a friend's house. While in transit, they run no real risk of being caught because, while in public, Emirates women are required to wear the national dress - a long black over-garment called an abaya, which makes it easier to switch roles without drawing attention.
Because they focus on themselves, not the opposite sex, the boyat spend much time reading, philosophizing and analyzing international events. They also meet regularly to recite poetry about things that have "touched" them.
But it was clear to me that they consider what they do a way of life, not just a game. Gatherings sometimes turned into therapy sessions in which each boyah spoke openly about her fears and problems. And they are especially active online, with blogs, websites and discussion groups, as well as the Facebook presence, all devoted to the movement. One group boasts 600 members with such nicknames as Mcboyah, Hot Boyah and Boyah Porsche. They discuss taboo issues such as sex and lesbianism, and some post daring photos of their adventures while in a kandura (traditional male dress) and boast about how many people they fool.
At the same time, the online groups stress confidentially and privacy for fear of "repercussions" - and most of all, they steer clear of those they impersonate. "Please," one Web community warns. "No males are welcome."
The boyat made their debut as a public concern last year when Dubai police denounced cross-dressing - its chief, Lieutenant-General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, called on the Ministry of Social Affairs to find out how widespread the practice is and what causes it.
His own prime suspect is co-ed schooling. "A boy brought up around girls, and a girl brought up around boys, will be affected by the opposite sex, which could cause confusion," he explained.
But experts see something quite different. They suspect the trend is bigger here because Gulf society remains so segregated. In their own circles, away from male scrutiny, women feel they have enough space to be themselves.
Rima Sabban, a sociologist at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, describes gender perception as "one of the major changes" in the Gulf states in the past 25 years. "In the traditional society, the gender role was taken for granted ... and didn't allow for much imagination and individualism. There was too much focus on the outside, and not enough on the inside of the woman.
With modernization, she adds, young women with strong personality traits have started to look for ways to express such traits, often by acting more masculine. Many come from conservative families, and are "reacting" to gender roles at home.
"It is not 100-per-cent clear why they do it - they themselves don't know," she says. "They just feel an urge to express themselves like that."
Others see a greater danger in the role-playing; they fear it can become permanent and cause great distress for the women and their families. "It can go extreme," psychiatrist Yousef Abou Allaban says, "where they change their sex and have an operation."
Dr. Allaban, a consultant at the American Center of Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi, says that "it is all about protesting against social norms. Exaggerated form is proof of this protest."

But the protest can have dire consequences. Two months after announcing the campaign against cross-dressing, the police said they had reduced offences by two-thirds. More than 40 people had been charged with committing indecent acts, punishable by as much as three years in jail.
From what I could see, Alia and her friends are less concerned about what has made them the way they are than what they need to do to be happy with the results.
In fact, some young women are so removed from the social norm that they have become secret outcasts of another sort. The banoutat ("girlie girls") are the polar opposite of the boyat - opposites that attract.
"I can't have a boyfriend," says one banouta, who looks like a life-sized Barbie, with dyed hair extensions, heavy makeup and a floor-length gown. "Having a boyah is the closest I will ever get to learn how to understand a man.
She comes from a family of domineering women and says her mother makes her feel "ugly" and "unfeminine." But as a member of Alia's circle, she feels special, beautiful.
"It is like being with Prince Charming, but without the stress of actually being with a man," she says of her "perfect gentleman." Alia corrects her: "You mean, gentleboyah."
As the gathering breaks up, the boyat reapply their makeup, hug goodbye and pledge ever-lasting friendship.
"Call me anytime," Alia says, "even after you get married."

The author of this article is a Middle East-based journalist.
World-- Saturday's Globe and Mail
February 23, 2009

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