Had the opportunity to have a ‘community Iftar’ yesterday which turned out to be a much more interesting encounter than I had anticipated. I sat with a friend I have only recently been acquainted with, a vivacious French woman who has recently moved to Dubai after almost two decades of work experience across multiple sectors in Europe, with both of us munching at an interesting menu that was supposed to be a Japanese-Arab fusion. Seated on the bench next to us were two clearly younger women (mid 20s probably) who we hardly had any interaction with throughout the Iftar time. At one point my friend goes to the restroom, and I ask one of these girls to pass me the Arabic coffee on the table, and she responds by saying “here is your qahwa (coffee)” in a very Saudi accent, despite her looking Southeast Asian to me. I was super intrigued, and so started making conversation with the two girls. I quickly realized this girl was half Saudi-half Chinese, and more interestingly the Chinese part comes from her father’s part (such a rare occurrence in the region in my opinion). Not only that, but this girl had studied law in Australia, and spent some time there. As an added coincidence we found out we both went to the same high school and know of common friends! Her friend was an Iraqi-Australian, with a very interesting immigrant background story herself.
Despite the fact that at that point my friend and I were about to leave, we ended up sitting for an additional two hours to discuss lots of global topics, including the current wave of feminism, and the changing role of women in society and the workplace with these girls. I sat back (while recovering from my post-Iftar food coma) and marveled at the varied experience on the table, not only across cultures and backgrounds with experiences being relayed from all of the Middle East, Europe, the US, China and Australia, but also across the different age brackets, with the age range going from 25-43, and truly internalizing how much has changed in society and the workplace when it comes to women for the different generations present at the table.
At one point, the Saudi-Chinese girl was retelling one of her discriminatory work stories (ironically bought about by a female manager), and her passionate and outspoken response to her manager refusing to accept the incident. My friend, the French woman, who is in her early 40s said:
“See this is what I love about millennials. You’re very outspoken about everything, and you want to change everything, and you will refuse to be just bossed around for no reason. Good for you, but there is a sad part of me when I see how passionate you are about speaking out on everything. My sadness comes as I reflect on my own career and wonder why I never spoke out myself, and why my generation did not act in the way that you did. I was almost raped three times in three different work contexts. That is aside from the endless trail of incidents of very visible sexism I have observed working in the hugely machismo automotive sector. I was told to fetch the tea when I was meant to be the presenter in different meetings. I was told off in Germany for putting on French manicure and some light makeup, and told I didn’t look professional enough and that I wouldn’t be taken seriously by the men. I spent years waking up every day thinking of how I can shield and hide my feminine self as much as possible going into work every day. I was always referred to in emails as Mr. Vincent, even when I would respond back and make it clear I was a female. I was told to go through ‘customary check ups’ of the automotive company I worked at for years in Germany, where the first health checkup needed on the front cover of the manual was that of the prostate, and HR didn’t even bat an eye or internalize that the manual itself did not assume the presence of any women, and this was in the 2000s. But I stayed silent, and kept going on because my female colleagues and I – we could see that those who spoke out and complained too much ended up somehow losing their jobs. And for me maintaining a job and financial independence was key. But now when I see how outspoken you all are I say maybe my generation we were just cowards.”
The Saudi-Chinese girl quickly puts her hand on the woman’s shoulder and responds: “No. You can’t ever think of it that way. Why don’t you think that because you persevered, because you stuck it out you and your female friends, you were not laid off, and so eventually you were promoted, and then you started being aware that you should hire more women as you were just saying. As a result there are a lot more women in the workplace now and it has become a more normal occurrence that we can now afford to speak up in the way that we do. So in a way your silent perseverance is what enabled us, because maybe had you spoken out earlier, we wouldn’t have been here today because you would have been silenced or removed from your post and that status quo would have prevailed.”
The French woman, taken by these words, teared up lightly, and said “oh thank you what a lovely way to frame it – to make it feel like we’re all part of one journey, as opposed to disjointed stories…you’re so right!”
I sat back and smiled and thought what great interactions come when people from different backgrounds collide, have a discussion and share experiences and more importantly when women of different ages and backgrounds sit at one table and relish each other’s true presence as opposed to sizing each other up on society’s metrics of youth, beauty, fashion etc. There was so much to take in at that table. The Iraqi path to Australian immigration, the Saudi-Chinese girl’s mother’s struggle and strength to marry a non-Saudi, the French woman’s path of independence and her own intriguing story of adoption and tracing her roots back to North Africa. The beauty on that table had nothing to do with how these women looked or dressed or how old or young they were, and that feeling felt very refreshing. Now I felt re-energized to lean back in…only to grab the dessert on the table though;)