“Excuse me madam?”. The Filipino shopping assistant at my favourite shop at my favourite mall is obviously bored. There are hardly any customers around on this ordinary Tuesday afternoon, when most other people are at work. We have already done some small talk about the shoes that I am trying on and the skirt that I am definitely buying, what I am doing in Kuwait, and she has also recommended me to travel to the Philippines for my next trip, so it is about time to get personal. “You went out alone?”, she inquires. I confirm this, and explain that all my friends are at work now, so that I have to entertain myself.
“Brave, brave woman!”, she says admiringly. “But aren’t you afraid?”, she wonders. I, in my turn, wonder why this speaks of such courage. My former fellow students travelling to Iraq or Afghanistan, them I consider courageous people. But surely not me, in Kuwait? There is no Middle Eastern country where I feel safer than in Kuwait. I have never been afraid here. It is true that I have not been out alone here a lot, as during my internship I was mostly in the company of male friends, but I have never felt bad vibes here. Whereas my friend from Cairo adjusts her clothing when she takes a taxi, I felt it was safe enough here to wear a dress while doing the same. I go out at night as well, and faced no issues. I don’t feel like I am taking big risks, so surely I don’t need to be admired for my courage? Is my sense of safety and security maybe misleading?
I wonder what kind of experience this Filipino girl has had that I have not, and I decide to ask further. “You don’t go out alone then?”. She tells me she hardly ever does and certainly not at night, because she feels unsafe. Men stare at her a lot, and sometimes they approach her too in a bad way. She wonders whether I don’t mind that, as especially with the dress that I’m wearing I’m certain to attract quite a bit of attention. I say I don’t really mind the stares, as I also look when I see an attractive guy in dishdasha (and there’s plenty of them here!) walk past.
“When they see me, they see a weak Asian girl”, she explains. “You are a strong European woman”. She says even the teenagers can’t leave her alone, and sometimes they come in groups too. I wonder whether it is Kuwaitis, or men in general that do this. “Oh ma’am”, she sighs.. “it’s men in general here!”. “When they see you, they are afraid and they won’t do anything. When they see me, they feel strong”.
Little did I know about non-Western stereotypes until today. This young Filipino girl at the mall made me realize how your nationality does not only define how you are treated as an individual here, but also as a woman. Two girls, two different experiences. Whereas I can go around on my own relatively undisturbed, she cannot without feeling unsafe. And yet she is here, living her life the best she can so very, very far away from home. Who of us is really the brave one now?