Testosterone Hell


The other day I had A Bad Experience. The weather is cooling down a bit, so I decided it was time to start exploring Dubai on foot, since the last few months, with temperatures hitting 45’C on an almost daily basis, going outside for more than 10 minutes at a time was impossible. I jumped on the Metro and took the newly opened Green Line to the old side of town where the souks (that’s Arabic for markets) are. Dubai has lots of souks, such as a textile souk, a fish souk and a plant souk, to name a few. I was heading for the most famous of them, the Gold Souk.

Getting there was no problem, but once I got outside the station and started walking around I noticed something that made me a bit uneasy.  There were millions of men, and me. Because Arabic women tend to cover up, foreign women are serious eye candy, even if you dress conservatively. And there I was all alone wandering around like a lost lamb amongst a pack of wolves.

I wandered around the streets for a while, trying to find the Gold Souk, and finally arrived. There were lots of tourists walking around, taking advantage of the low prices of gold. And the gold was absolutely stunning. But the men working there were unbearable, following me around, harassing me, not giving me a moment’s peace. I stopped to look at a blouse and the sales guy started peppering me with questions, like whether I am married and where is my husband today, looking me up and down, telling me I am “very good”, whatever the hell that means.  One aggressive salesman selling shawls literally threw a pashmina on my shoulder as I walked by. I threw it back to him and decided to leave the market.

I wandered around outside in the streets where there were lots of clothing shops, but outside was even worse. I could feel all the men staring at me as I walked past. I stopped to admire a blouse hanging up in a shop, and a man in a white robe with a long beard said something menacing in Arabic in my ear, and I didn’t need a Babel Fish to know what he meant.

Men outnumber women big time in Dubai since so many of them have left their home countries, like Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, to come to the glittering city of Dubai to try to save some money to send back home. Then there are the modern day slaves, the construction workers from Bangladesh, India, who live in labour camps with hundreds of other men, and don’t see or interact with a woman at all and can’t help but stare at any woman that passes by. You can practically smell the desperate testosterone in the air. You can feel it. That day in the streets outside the Gold Souk, it almost made me want to go into a women’s store and buy a black abaya and cover myself from head to toe just so that they would stop &%$#ing looking at me.

Maybe I am just too sensitive, or maybe going there alone was just a bad idea. Maybe I need to toughen up my skin or learn to not study it. In Asia I never felt intimidated by the men because they don’t look at you like they want to rape you on the spot. And back home in Trinidad, yes the men look at you but it is flirtatious, playful, and they at least give some good lyrics (Gyul, yuh nice and thick like condensed milk from de tin). So this experience was definitely a bit of culture shock. No wonder in some Middle Eastern countries women have to leave the house with a male guardian. In a culture like this, to be alone is to be vulnerable.

Talking about culture shock, in the next post I’ll be featuring four other Travelling Trinis who are contributing their thoughts on how long it takes to adjust to a new country and start to feel more comfortable. Stay tuned.

(Oh yeah, and here are some pictures from the souks. The souk itself is actually quite nice and I would go back — just not alone.)

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9 thoughts on “Testosterone Hell

  1. Oh, no! That’s upsetting. I usually love traveling as a single woman in Muslim countries because I don’t get unwelcome attention – stares yes, but not like you’re talking about. And one time a man was too “friendly” in Jordan and random strangers on the street called him out and told him to leave me alone. Strong social censure to behave. Probably Jordan and Senegal are the safest places I’ve ever been as a woman, so that’s troubling that Dubai is so messed up.

    I have friends who were recently living in Oman and said it’s a GREAT place to visit even as a single woman, so it’s interesting it’s so different from Dubai.

    Is there a high rate of actual sexual assault in Dubai in such settings, or is their aggression limited to their looks? In Liberia I think it’s more like Trinidad (love the condensed milk comment!), and if i don’t express interest I’m eventually left alone – most violence against women is done by men who know and say they love them.

    I don’t know if the abaya really stops the looks – the visual aggression you describe seems solely because you’re a woman. (Honestly – I stare more at women in abayas. I try to be discreet, but there’s always something interesting about the way they walk, what’s on their feet and hands, etc.)

  2. Marie — I’m not sure, to be honest. This is the first time I’ve really felt very uncomfortable/intimidated. Guys stare here all the time… ALL THE TIME… and I don’t dress up sexy or revealing at all. Perhaps I misread their aggressive sales techniques!

  3. Wow. I’ve never experienced this since I’ve been in the M.E. Stares- yes, but nothing like what you’re describing. I have always felt far more vulnerable in Trinidad, from the looks to the things people have said to me. I also do not go anywhere, like a market, alone in Trinidad for those reasons.
    I do know a few expat women that wear the abaya (without the hijab), they get special treatment (better service, etc),.. But like Marie, I stare more at the women in traditional dress, and even more at a foreigner dressed in an abaya.
    I’m sorry about your experience and I hope they are few and far between.

  4. Gosh, i’m so sorry this happened.But it’s the same all over.You get used to the stares though.I once had a man follow myself and a girlfriend while we were jogging in a very public area. It got so bad that we eventually picked up some stones to throw at him but got into a taxi to take us home just in time.

    I have always had the same experience where the Emirati/Qatari men are actually very polite . It’s the expat workers(Indians especially) that have absolutely no respect.

    I’ve just learnt to ignore them.If anyone bothers you again just threaten to call the police. See how fast they leave you alone. Wear your headphones next time too 🙂

    Hope to see you next time in in Dubai 🙂

  5. The feeling of beeing threatened and intimidated by crowds of men here never really goes away. What does happen though, is you learn to avoid places where you know there would be a lot of them, you also learn to look down on (arrogance works) or not notice the starers if you have to make a tour of Nasser Square on your own. Depending on your caracter, at the end of it you either become racist enough to shock friends back home with your comments or want to embrace the workers hardships and go out of your way to make theirs a better life.
    And, if you do get angry but not scared, a couple of phrazes involving ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ should do the trick!

  6. Safia — for sure the local Emirati men have never said anything to me and have been very polite, even offering up seats in the train a few times. The workers at the gold souk, who knows where they come from but they definitely weren’t local. Staring is one thing, but people sneering in your ear while you are shopping is entirely another. Gross!

  7. I so hear you about not dressing sexy or revealing. Somebody told me the other day that I wear trousers so men will check out my butt! I too don’t dress at all revealing, no tight clothes, very conservative, so the truth is that I wear trousers SO THAT I’M NOT NAKED.

    If women are objectified, they’re going to be objectified no matter what they’re wearing. Just like a woman will be raped no matter what she’s wearing (unlike the stupid urban myths that “She asked for it because of what she was wearing”). That’s why I’m not sure that an abaya makes a real difference with the leers.

    I remember a southern Indian friend of my talking about Eve teasing there and what a problem it is.

    And that sneering in the ear thing is TOTALLY gross!!

  8. I hope your husband will be able to go with you the next time and can stare them down so the next time you go it won’t be so uncomfortable. Maybe it was because it was the Gold Souk and not a food souk where women do more shopping. I think you were very brave to not show intimidation.


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