Black in West Asia
I seem to get my best makeup tips in the Gulf from women who look just like me. Sometimes they are Emirati or Qatari others Bahraini or Iranian. While not the typically advertised face of Arabia, there are significant numbers of people of African descent who are also fully Arab. It is hard to trace the exact number because unlike the transatlantic slave trade, the West Asian slave trade primarily targeted women who served as domestics, wet nurses, and sex-slaves.
In the Islamic tradition, the children of slaves and their masters were born free, their ethnicity followed that of the father, and they were legitimate heirs with rights to money and legacies. This facilitated rapid absorption of Afro-Arab children into the society. Moreover, within the context of Arab slavery economic and social mobility was possible.
Africans and their descendants were visible in the lands hugging the Indian Ocean well before the emergence of Islam.
The slow and steady transport of Africans to West Asia continued over centuries, with an estimated 10 million Africans removed through the Swahili Coast. Not all are descendants of former slaves the Ethiopians arrived in Arabia in 3rd, 5th, and 6th centuries as conquers. Merchants from East Africa have been trading across the Indian Ocean since pre-Islamic time. In other words, Africans and their descendants were visible in the lands hugging the Indian Ocean well before the emergence of Islam.
With this melting pot past, one might think there is reduced African descent based racism in these countries, while being American you may find this to be true someone from Nigeria or the Congo might adamantly disagree. In multiple articles, we have talked about the phenomenon of leaving the country and becoming first American, then Black. In the countries with high levels of expats, passport ranking followed by position (job/social) status can outweigh skin tone and hair texture. In a decade-plus experience working around West Asia, the only time I felt direct racism was in Israel going to and returning from Palestine. Israel like Saudi warrants its own article and I don’t consider my treatment there on par with other locations.
One former black American teacher recounts in her blog Live Travel More, “In Abu Dhabi…the grocery store in my building sells fresh collard greens, Jiffy cornbread mix, and Just for Me relaxer box sets.” She then goes on to discuss the availability of beauty salons and beauty products catering to women of African descent. Continuing she writes, “Black folks are not as big of an anomaly here as you might think. I’m not assumed to be a thug, or stopped and frisked, or lynched, or insulted just because I happen to have a bit more melanin than others. Me being Black is almost a non-issue.” Like many other Western women of color, I am better treated in the GCC than in the States. The gender segregation often works to our advantage— shorter lines and women only gyms are a couple. My friends and I sometimes wear abayas and instantly level of service goes up another notch. However, I would never think to order anything stronger than a mint lemonade when wearing an abaya.
The UAE is known for its ladies nights, if you look at your phone apps it is possible to go out any night of the week and to be given free drinks just for showing up. In my experience and from stories told among friends, as a black American woman, if you are dressed nicely there is little reason to be concerned about being rejected from entering a bar or club or refused service at a spa. In the wealthy States within the Gulf, the bouncers, hostesses, and the general public can gauge cheap from expensive, if only because there are malls at every turn pushing designer wears.
In the countries with high levels of expats, passport ranking followed by position status can outweigh skin tone and hair texture.
In Qatar, 2015 saw the revival of the Reflect Respect dress code in response to the ever-increasing number of expats sporting skimpy clothing beyond the beaches and pools. That short Missoni dress with the perfect cleavage is ok inside the club but put on a scarf or a jacket until you are clearly beyond the door. These are the same rules for coming from the beach or gym. I am always shocked when I see white people (typically Brits from the accent) at the mall in shorts or crop tops. While foreigners do outnumber locals, there is still a dresscode—be modest and show respect for your host country. Yes, it’s hot but read the room, women are walking around with niqabs on top of hijab.
It’s common to see white and black women in cheap revealing clothes working at a club or bar—they are working. At lower end venues, you may see Filipinas being denied entry. Sadly, this seems to be what happened to Subira Willock, a black American female tourist in Dubai. In an article on Madame Noire, she recounts the discrimination she and her nine traveling buddies encountered across Dubai—they were assumed to be prostitutes. Thinking back to the hooker stroll in front of the Costa coffee at World Trade Centre, they were easy to identify, flashing skin and showing off all their assets in cheap skin-tight clothing. Many of the women I saw were Sub-Saharan African. A black American woman walking around there or other known areas rocking tight clothing could leave people thinking you are a prostitute.
The black American men I know who have lived in the Gulf seem to generally share the sentiments of my female friends. Whereas the Africans I meet who are working in the sport and service industries encounter a completely different reality.Somalis, Ethiopians, Cameroonians, Kenyans, and to a lesser extent black South Africans have recounted horrible tales of abuse. On YouTube, you can find numerous videos on the subject. What accounts for the different treatment? Through an American one-drop rule viewpoint we are all the same—black foreigners.
It goes back to the local hierarchy and the way you are dressed. Your blue back passport, dental hygiene, and accent are the keys to perceived social status. Even if you don’t open your mouth, your clothes, your hair, and your carriage speak volumes. I know I can spot an American (black or white) in a crowd and I’m rarely wrong. For those who have been living overseas long enough, there may be more of a European aesthetic regardless, it’s not African. While this works to our advantage, sadly it’s what causes our brothers and sisters from the Continent to be lumped into a lower status, which in turn restricts their access to venues and diminishes the potential repercussions for mistreatment.