CAPE ELIZABETH – While one would expect the dress of Arab women to turn the heads of students at Cape Elizabeth High School, it was actually the other way around last week as the school welcomed six leaders from the Middle East country of Bahrain.

The women, invited by a student club called the World Affairs Council and wearing stylish Western-style pants and sweaters or jackets, were greeted by around 40 students dressed like Halloween come early. With their faces painted in black and red and wearing outlandish black outfits, such as shorts topping lacy black pantyhose, the students explained they were celebrating senior spirit week, which made the visitors smile.

“My jacket is black,” one of the guests, Fawzia Abdulla Yusuf Zainal, told the students. “Can I join?”

The women had come to the United States as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program run by the U.S. Department of State and designed to build mutual understanding between the United States and other countries. The World Affairs Council of Maine then brought the women to this state, where they visited Gov. John Baldacci and spoke with women legislators before coming Thursday to Cape Elizabeth, where they busted some stereotypes about Arab women.

Their very presence put to rest a common Western perception that all women in the Arab world are relegated to the home, and not granted access to education and jobs, let alone political power.

All the women worked for the government or other organizations that deal with policy concerning women. Zainal, for example, is a consultant for strategic planning and development at the Bahrain Ministry of Culture and Information.

All six women had university degrees – most had more than one – and they said that women are making political progress in Bahrain. All six spoke English – which they said all schoolchildren study in Bahrain – but one relied on a translator at times.

None was enveloped in a long robe or veil. While four wore scarves over their heads, two were bareheaded. The women said what they wear is a personal choice, not something dictated by the state.

During the discussion at the school, the women spoke openly about the Middle East and the United States, and took questions while also asking some of their own.

Elizabeth Briggs, a senior at Cape, asked the women what they thought of the war in Iraq and how it was affecting Bahrain.

Maryam Ahmed Al Rowaiei, head of the public relations department for the General Organization of Social Insurance in Bahrain, said she believes the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq was wrong because there were no weapons of mass destruction.

Also, she said, “the conflict in Iraq has very adversely affected our life in Bahrain.” She and other women said that Muslims in their country had not previously identified themselves as Shia or Sunni, but now they do because the war in Iraq has increased conflict between those two groups.

Zainal said Bahrainis include not only Muslims, but Christians, Jews and members of the Baha’i faith. She said they get along but she is worried the Iraq war will create religious tensions.

The woman also said they are greatly troubled by all the civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and also in the Gaza Strip.

Zainab Abdulaziz Mohamed Noor Abduljalil, who is a program coordinator for the Supreme Council for Women in Bahrain, then asked the Cape Elizabeth students what they thought about the war in Iraq.

A student explained that many people in Cape Elizabeth are liberals and opposed the war.

After the talk, senior John Trafaglia said that he plans to major in international relations in college so is trying to learn as much about other countries as possible. “This was very helpful,” he said.

Peter Brigham, another senior an organizer of the event, said he realized from the talk that it is not only extremists who are upset with the United States because of its policies such as the war in the Iraq, but also mainstream people, such as the panelists.

“I learned a lot,” he said.

Bahrainian women


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.