…a (controversial?) dissertation chunk…
Entreaties to “fit in” aside, the excavation team was constantly harassed by the locals on the street, particularly the women on the team; no amount of discreet dressing or walking in pairs stopped rocks from being thrown or come ons from local youth. Being up on the opposite tell was a relief from living in the small, rural town; only a few goatherds and our trusted workmen accompanied us while we were on site. Still, the relationship we had with our workmen was complex—most of them did not speak English and most of the archaeological team did not speak Arabic. The workmen were primarily older men who had lived and worked in the area for most of their lives, while the archaeology team was young and foreign; as a younger woman directing older men within a landscape that was more home to them, I negotiated the difficulties in customs and language as best as I could.
It is a truism in the Middle East that white women are to be treated as men by Muslims, though in truth we inhabit a third gender, an ambiguous pastiche of impressions gleaned from foreign media, personal experience, true curiosity and a profitability assessment. While we could negotiate this ambiguity on an individual basis, or in small groups, our status as outsiders made us extremely vulnerable to harassment and insulting encounters outside of the confines of the accommodations and the tell. Many female archaeologists are loathe to discuss this aspect of working in the Middle East (or, indeed, in other contexts–sexism is not an exclusive trait); we are expected to “fit in” and not complain so that we will be viewed as equal to male archaeologists. Complaining about ill treatment would jeopardize our standing as equals to male archaeologists. Not “fitting in” bears a stigma, if you are harassed then it is seen as a failure as an anthropologist to successfully negotiate your surroundings, and this has a serious chilling effect for women working on archaeological projects.
In 2011, journalist Lara Logan was attacked while covering the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir square, but she spoke out regarding her sexual assault, and in doing so both highlighted the embodied violence that both western and local women are threatened with on a daily basis. Working in much of the Middle East is a tacit acceptance of treatment that would not be acceptable in the United States, submitting to this treatment in hopes to “fit in” and remain silent and professional is part and parcel of this arrangement. Working in the Middle East is a constant negotiation of gendered terms, re-positioning our identities as professionals and respectable women in a context that has absolutely determined that we are neither of the above.