Young Gulf Arab Women in Transition

This is the unedited version of my article, “In Transition,” published in ‘The Woman’ (magazine supplement of Qatar’s ‘Gulf Times’), October 2010 edition.  It is one of three articles that profile five young Qatari women, four of whom are attending universities at Education City in Doha, Qatar, including Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth, and the fifth who is attending Swansea University in Wales.  This article focuses on how these young women of the Arabian Peninsula balance the “creep of westernization” with age-old traditions and customs, particularly with regard to negotiating career/marriage/family and gender issues. 

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The twenty-first century feminist riddle has found its way into nearly every corner of the globe: how do women negotiate the responsibilities of career and family?  In the Arabian Gulf region, an area of the world where family and children factor prominently into the futures of fledgling adults, young women find themselves gingerly turning over this question the way one handles a priceless antique.  Twenty-two year old Qatari Fatma Ibrahim expresses a view most recognizable by Western women, concentrating on their studies and burgeoning careers. “I want to establish myself,” Fatma says confidently. “I want to focus on my studies, then after that if there’s a possibility for a family, then, yes, why not.”

Fatma, currently attending Northwestern University at Education City in Doha, and a recent graduate of the Academic Bridge Program (ABP) at Qatar Foundation, is one of five young Qatari women I interviewed for a series of articles about their educational experiences and views on the culture of the Arab Gulf region. With the focus on family such a crucial element of the social fabric, women like Fatma represent a bold change in tradition in their willingness to consider making career a priority before turning their attention to child rearing.

Qatar Foundation's Education City - Doha, Qatar

Qatar Foundation’s Education City – Doha, Qatar

Asked why she felt strongly about devoting time to her studies and profession before beginning a family, Fatma responded, “Well, I feel it would be hard, because when you get married then you’d have to have kids.  My family would say, okay, you’re married now, have kids, but to me I want to finish my education first.” She smiled, adding, “I don’t think I can concentrate and multi-task.”

Eighteen year-oldSara Abdulghani, enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth’s Qatar campus studying graphic and fashion design, described her intentions of devoting herself to her career before considering raising a family.  Shifting in her seat, she declared, “Maybe after 10 or 20 years I’ll see myself married and having babies.”  She points out that ultimately family would likely become her priority.  “If I cannot balance my work time and my family time,” Sara says, “I would quit my job and be a housewife.  It’s important to take care of my kids.  I want to be a great mom for them.”

Mouza Abdulaziz pointed out that a college education and career can provide insulation against the uncertainties of life.  “I’d rather have my degree and ensure a good life than getting married to someone and suddenly something might happen,” quips Mouza, a poised 18-year-old and outspoken girl studying journalism at Northwestern University in Doha. 

Mouza Photo with Sunglasses    

Sherifa  Hammam shared the desire among the women to finish their studies before marrying.  “For me, I am a person who likes to do whatever I want.  If something is interesting to me and it’s really going to be helping me with my resume, I would like to do it.” Sherifa isa student at Swansea University in Wales, studying law and business.  She acknowledges that she would not mind giving birth to children, two children to be precise. “I love them [children], but they give me a headache,” she said innocently, causing us both to chuckle.

Sherifa Photo

The lessons and examples created from strong family ties inform the girls’ views on their own foray into motherhood.  It is not uncommon for Qatari families to have six, or more, children living under one roof.  Extended relatives — aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents — usually live nearby in either a communal compound setting or within blocks of their immediate family home.  “We usually visit each other often, and our first friends are our cousins,” Mouza states with noticeable affection and gratitude.  Most of the girls echo Mouza’s sentiment, citing various family members as particularly influential in their lives.

For Mouza, hermother holds exceptional significance.  “My mom is my best friend,” Mouza says beaming with pride.  “She’s stuck with me in everything,” she proclaims.  “When I fall she’s alwaysthere.”  The love and regard for her mother resonates in Mouza’s emphatic tones.  She seemsto understand that her life and opportunities are a result of her mother’s sacrifice and support.  At the same time, Mouza recognizes her need to forge her own path and identity as an Arab woman. “I want to be my own idol.” Mouza says.  “My sister used to tell me about this song, ‘Don’t follow people’s footsteps, make your own footsteps so people follow you.’  That’s what I want.”

Eighteen-year-old Sherifa, chimed in, “I believe my Dad has been my biggest influence, because he’s the kind of man who’s traveled all over the world and he studied in the United States, which is my dream to study there.”  Her tone becomes animated, deliberate in describing the subtle challenges that she and many others like her face as Qatari women.  Sherifa continues, “My Dad said ‘No, you’re a girl, you can’t go alone you have to be with someone else,’ you know.” She pauses, thinking over this conversation, “I think because my Dad stilllikes studying even though he’s old,I see myself like my Dad.”

Education City - Library Scene

Gender plays an important role in the futures these Qatari women carve out for themselves.  When asked to comment on the current status of women in the Arab world and the effects on the region, Fatma delivered a forthright response:“Well, I think women have come a long way from the olden days.  They have more rights now, more freedom, and they can do what ever they want now really, but there are still some restrictions and limitations.”

Nodding in agreement, Mouza asserted, “The future for Arab women is really, really bright.  Especially with Her Highness Sheikha Moza.”  Her eyes shimmering, Mouza elucidates, “She’s inspiring every woman to do things.  You may see like five years from now, a woman taking over some Arab country.  Women are softer.  They want everything to be good.  They don’t want corruption – they can’t stand seeing that.”

Sherifa concurred.  She has been involved in a variety of volunteer organizations through the ABP that focus on women’s and other issues, “In Qatar I feel we reached the point where women have their rights, their freedom of speech, and where they can just stand and tell the people we have the right to do this and that.” Sherifa said.   “But in other parts of the Arab world, I don’t know because in each region there are certain cultural and other beliefs.  So even though we are all Arab, we differ.  Even if we are allKhaleeji, it’s different to be a Saudi woman thana Qatari woman.  In Saudi Arabia, women still only work in schools and in the government, like ‘women only’ places.” 

Education City - LEARN Sign in Background

Their understanding of such explicit gender divisions inspired me to ask the girls if, given the choice, they would choose a different gender.“I would rather be a woman, of course,” said Sara with a delicate giggle.  The other girls smiled at her resolute response.  “I love being a woman,” she affirms.  “I think if I was a guy I would die like not to take care of my nails, wear a nice dress and heels.”

Fatma contended, “Well, since my family was a bit strict to the women, I’d rather be a guy.  As a guy, you don’t get questions a lot about where you’re going or coming from.  It’s freer as a guy.”  She lets her statement settle for a moment before clarifying, “Not that I don’t enjoy being a girl, I love it and getting ‘dolled up’, but sometimes it’s frustrating and I’m like if only I was a guy.”

The girls fell silent for a moment, perhaps mentally tracing the outcomes of their answers.  Sherifa broke the lull. “Of course, a man,” she offered.  “I could marry four women.”  The rest of us couldn’t help but laugh, as Sherifa broke into a toothy grin.

2 comments on “Young Gulf Arab Women in Transition

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