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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Confusion is always the most honest response." - Marty Indik


Lifting the veil on women travelling solo

"I am certain that women even have huge advantages over men when they travel.

On many occasions I have been granted visas, interviews, permits and special permissions when my male colleagues have not. I recall a warm night in Addis Ababa some 10 years previously. I had been invited to a cocktail party where the rich, the powerful, the fat and the very fat mingled freely. It was a riot and the champagne flowed freely.

But from one corner, a Western man threw daggers in my direction. Finally, championed by the champagne, I approached him:

"Have we met before?" I tried with a nervous smile. "No," he replied still scowling. "But I know exactly who you are."

After similarly staccato exchanges, I eventually established who he was: the BBC's correspondent for East Africa. It seems he had been trying for four years to obtain an interview with Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.

"And you," he went on, his voice beginning to tremble with obvious irritation, "You've been here no more than a couple of weeks, and you sweep into town and spend an hour and a half with the man!"...

On wearing an Abeyya (full robe) and Burkha (face covering) in Saudi Arabia:

"To my surprise, I rather liked it. From within the veil I could see without being seen, understand without being understood, and ogle the magnificent tribesmen of Najran without suffering inspection myself.

"It shielded from the sun and deterred the dust; it hid blemishes and bags bought on by a late-night's writing or a 15-hour journey. It concealed uncombed hair, a crumpled shirt or clumsy cosmetics. When I later returned to London, the pressure to appear fashionable, feminine and au fait again seemed almost overwhelming. To my surprise, I secretly coveted those days in my coverings...

Saudi men manage too:

"From the fold in a woman's ankle, you know her age," Abdullah one day explained gleefully and sheepishly at the same time.

"From the size of her wrist, you know her build. From the abeyya in motion her figure; and from her hands, her complexion. And from the eyes, you have everything else..."...

Once I was privy to all the wiles and ways of "How to please your husband" at an all-women tea party in East Africa. I've read my share of salacious How-To Cosmo articles, watched enough episodes of Sex & the City, and dare I admit, had my share of boyfriends.

But compared to those women there, let me tell you, we in the West know absolutely nooottthhiiinngg.

In my travels, I've been flown by Saudi princes to see their falcons fly; shared pizza around the Cabinet table with a Minister of Interior, and been painted by an artist I had come myself to interview. What occasions such generosity, hospitality and privilege? No more than simply being a woman.

Yes, I do not deny that there are days that have their challenges. What woman has ever come to terms with the embarrassment, almost humiliation of eating alone in a restaurant?... "There is only one zing sadder zan eating alone," my neighbour, a particularly handsome Frenchman began with a low bow as he passed by me on his way out. "And zat is zeeing a beautiful woman eating alone. I wish you a very bonne nuit, Madame."...

If dining alone, here's a top tip: take along one pen and notepad. You'll be mistaken for a food critic and at the very least be guaranteed good service and a fawning, fulsome waiter...

Perhaps the top trick for sole women is to dress and behave more conservatively than you would at home."
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