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The Middle East @ Work

Unlucky Thirteen

Meaw Mar 14, 2008

We took a few hours off to go to the beach today. Jumeirah Beach Park costs just 5 dirhams to get in (less than $1.50), and it’s beautiful. The water is swimming pool blue, and so salty you can just sit back and float with no effort.

The scene is pure Dubai. European women in thong bikinis seemed right at home alongside fully-covered Arab women. Yet I saw a lifeguard tell an African man he couldn’t go around in his briefs. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking Dubai is just like America. Until your web search gets censored. Or…as it turns out…you try to get on the bus.

I’ll let Nancy pick up the story…Thanks Amy.

At first, we tried to get a cab. That didn’t work. It was rush hour and cabs rushed by us. Hailing a cab in Dubai is like waiting for the Cubs to win the world series—lots of hope at the beginning, impatience in the middle, and defeat at the end as you watch other teams and cabs just go by you. So Amy suggested taking the bus–a trip she made a couple days before with her husband. The bus pulled up and we waited behind an older British couple. They checked their destination with the driver. Satisfied, they paid the fare and found the last two empty seats. It was about 4:30pm. The bus was packed with men in their construction uniforms standing in the aisle. A sprinkle of women–all sitting.

Amy approached the driver. And I handed him the money. I’ll let Amy tell continue….

Okay, so the driver wouldn’t take Nancy’s money. At first we couldn’t understand why. I thought maybe he didn’t have change, but then noticed a whole tray full of dirham coins. But he gestured to the back of the bus and said “Ladies no stand.” And it slowly dawned on us that he was saying we were not allowed to stand on the bus. And that, because all the seats were taken, we had to leave. Outraged, all I could think to say was “That is so backward!” Ridiculous, offensive…just bizarre. But the man walking onto the bus behind us confirmed–ladies no stand.

So Nancy did some research…Thanks, Amy.

Before I share my research, let me take a brief detour. Sorry about the pun. At least in other places in the Middle East, women have a choice–you can stand in a packed bus–sometimes uncomfortably, nestled between someone’s armpits. Or you can wait for another bus with empty seats. But you have the freedom to make that decision, the freedom to decide your journey.

Okay, back to the question…why?

The Roads and Transport Authority of Dubai (RTA) reserves a certain number of bus seats for women. That number is 12. And all the seats are in the front of the bus.

Simple math follows. If you get on a bus and there are already 12 women on that bus, your chances of staying on the bus…next to nil. If a man offers to give you his seat, well…that doesn’t work either. Women can’t sit in the male section. The RTA is studying the issue–and plans to increase the number of reserved seats for women on…and here’s the operative phrase…certain routes.

So we ended up taking a taxi, after all. Our driver didn’t share our outrage. He made some comment about how lucky we were that we didn’t have to walk to our destination in the afternoon sun. He laughed and laughed and laughed.

Amy again. And then he proceeded to drive us the long way back to the hotel. The fare was about 30 times what it would have cost to take the bus. Guess that’s what you get for being the unlucky 13th (and 14th) woman.

  • Nancy Farghalli and Amy Scott

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