Over the last couple of years I have spent some time in Syria where I keenly observed the norms of gender relations and social etiquette.  From my observations I concluded that social etiquette in Syria, generally speaking is based on the notion of looking after women and making life easier for them.  Although running contrary to my ideals and values, sometimes I couldn’t help but feel secretly delighted with men feeling the need to look after me.  For example, walking down a steep and potentially hazardous set of stairs, even my most westernised Syrian male friend insisted on holding my hand in case I was to trip.  Similarly, sitting at an outdoor cafe one cold winters’ night, the waiter felt compelled to drag the gas heater, (which previously was in a position to heat both myself and my male Syrian friend equally) right next to me to ensure I was as warm and as comfortable as possible.

Other occasions pulled at my heartstrings and filled me with guilt at the lengths men would go for me because of my gender. For example, on a crowded bus it is customary for a man to vacate his seat for a woman.  On one particular occasion an elderly, rather frail man offered his seat to me because I am a woman, despite the fact I am young and healthy and more capable of standing than him.  Another time I was moving into my new room located on the sixth storey of the student residence of a university.  There was no elevator so the manager of the building insisted on carrying my enormously heavy suitcases up to the sixth floor while I was left carrying nothing.

I also learned that according to custom an Arab man could never allow a woman to pay for the bill at a cafe or restaurant. Such a thing would be considered emasculating.  I witnessed this many times many of which left me feeling horribly guilty considering I had proportionately much more money than many my Syrian friends who would insist on paying for my food because I was female.

The etiquette governing gender relations in Syria reflects the society’s general attitude towards women.  In Syria men are the traditional providers and women are considered vulnerable and must be protected and cared for.  This prevailing mindset helps to explain the abundance of “gentlemanly” customs in Syrian society.  This behaviour can be easily understood in a society where men and women are seen as having very different roles and qualities.

What is not so easily understood is gender interaction etiquette in Australia.  In Australia we espouse notions of equality and respect for women and their capabilities. Australian women have long fought for the right not to be seen as vulnerable and needing men’s protection and care.  So with this in mind is behaviour such as a man opening the door for a woman or a man paying the bill at a cafe a gentlemanly act or is it better seen as a remnant of a time when Australia’s attitudes towards women were more akin to those of Syria? Is a “gentleman” a polite and respectful man or do his actions merely perpetuate patriarchal norms?

As a feminist can I accept a man opening a door open for me and allowing me to enter the room first?  Should I be impressed and delighted with his chivalry or should I be offended because I am perfectly capable of opening the door myself?

Similarly, when a male friend asks to pay for my coffee should I consider this a polite and gentlemanly act reflecting a caring and respectful man, or is this an insult revealing an ingrained patriarchal attitude that belittles me and my ability to pay for my own refreshments? Surely this indicates a fundamental lack of respect for me and my ability to provide for myself?

Personally I am unsure of how exactly to interpret such behaviour.  I am particularly perturbed by my own gut reaction to these “gentlemanly” acts.  I consider myself a feminist but deep down I do enjoy being “looked after” by the men around me.  For instance on one occasion my date picked me up from the door of my parent’s house and delivered me back there afterwards.  To a committed feminist, this screams with patriarchal symbolism – my suitor was collecting me from the protection and care of my father’s house and then delivering me back to that protection at an appropriate time.

Despite these patriarchal undertones I couldn’t help seeing this gesture as traditional, respectful and overall quite pleasing.  Likewise, I am delighted when a man opens the door for me, pulls out my chair or pays for bill.  I enjoy being “cared for” by a man but at the same time I see myself as equally as intelligent, competent and capable of earning money as a man.  Does my attitude towards social etiquette run contrary to my view of my own role in society as a woman? Is feminism compatible with what is traditionally considered gentlemanly and chivalrous behaviour?

A male friend of mine once said; “If you want to be treated equally in all walks
of life then why are there certain exceptions? Don’t expect me to pay for your meal unless you will be paying for mine the next time.  I am expected to pay for a girl on a first date just because I am the man, how is that fair?”  A very valid point, how is that fair?