Young Gulf Arab Women: Viewpoints on Western Influence

This is the third of three articles I wrote in mid-2010 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 the effects of western influence on the everyday lives of these young Gulf Arab women, as well as their views on their changing world. 

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For Sherifa Hammam, an 18-year-old Qatari girl, a typical trip to the mall would not be complete without stopping into the Dolce & Gabbana store to browse their luxury handbags or cruising through the shoe boutique to pick up a pair of Converse sneakers, her mother or girlfriend by her side.  Sherifa’s shopping excursions are well-deserved outings, giving her a break from her rigorous academic schedule at Swansea University inWales.  Sherifa, along with four other young, Qatari women, is a recent graduate of the Academic Bridge Program at Education City in Doha. I had the privilege of conducting a series of interviews with these girls about their academic and professional pursuits, perceptions on cultural shifts in Qatar and the Gulf region, and their social activities. On this occasion, we temporarily suspended our conversation about global politics and classes to discuss a subject dear to many women’s hearts around the world: shopping.

Sherifa - 2nd Blog Post

Qatar’s traditional Arab marketplace, the renovated Souk Al-Waqif, may hold considerable fascination for the western expatriate,but it is the upscale malls and their couture stores that captivate the region’s young women.  In addition to shopping for jeans, tops, and handbags, Sherifa enjoys endless browsing for the perfect dress, preferred attire for the lavish “women only” social functions she attends.  Mouza Abdulaziz, one of her cohorts, currently majoring in Journalism at Northwestern University in Doha, shares Sherifa’s love affair with the mall.  For Mouza, McDonalds is a popular food destination and she admits spending money on an accessory many young girls want: phone credit. “I love to talk on the phone,” Mouza declares, “I love to text!”

These young women may harbor high career goals such as someday running Al-Jazeera or launching a new graphic design company, but when it comes to activities like shopping, spending time with friends, or enjoying social media sites like Facebook, the Qatari girls discover aspects of a universal culture that they share with international classmates.

Majless at Qatar Foundation

Eighteen year-old Fatma Abdallah, who isattending classes at Northwestern University at Education City where she is pursuing a degree in Journalism, lights up when the girls talk casually about their favorite pastimes outside of school.  She says “One of the simplest things I love is going back home at the end of the day, lying in my bed and just watching Friends.  Whenever I’m in a bad mood, Friends always makes me feel better.”  The girls nod in agreement. “I love Facebook,” Sherifa blurts. “Seriously,” she continues, her eyes widening, “I’m addicted to it. I could stay for hours chatting with my friends, and I also like surfing on the internet most of the time, sometimes for movies and sometimes for assignments.”  She laughs at her ownenthusiastic confession, and then, as if struck by the need to concede for her guilty pop culture pleasure, adds, “I also love my grandma.”

After living in Qatar for nearly seven years, I have observed the way this country incorporates western culture.  The proliferation of American universities at Qatar Foundation’s Education City along with other progressivecultural initiatives and programs make it one of the most open countries in the Gulf.  Other effects of Western influence are seen in the popularity of malls, fashion trends, internet accessibility, and technological devices such as DVD players and iPods.  I was curious if the young women felt that Qatar was becoming too westernized.  In an earlier interview session, one young woman went as far as to suggest that Qatari culture was “dying off.”  Twenty-two year-old Fatma Ibrahim, also enrolled at Northwestern University in Doha, spoke up to tackle this difficult question:  Maybe because of globalization Qatar is opening up, but I don’tthink it’s really dying off.  We’re still wearing the abaye, and we have a lot of cultural restraints.”  Fatma continued, “We take the good things from the West and we leave the things that don’t agree with us.  You know that’s how we can progress.”  Sherifa related another perspective,commenting that she felt uneasy about some aspects of the western presence in Qatar.  She pointed to the influence of fashion as impacting the culture: “The teenagers,” she began, “they’re wearing like jeans and t-shirts, and not always the traditional men’s thobe.”

Mouza - 2nd Blog Post

I asked the girls if they thought their lives would be different growing up in the U.S. or the West.  Mouza’s large, brown soulful eyes became intense and she remarked, “It’s a big thing when you’re 18 in the US.  That’s when you can move out; you can go live where you want.  Unlike here in Qatar, you could be 40 years-old and still living in your parents’ house.  It’s not a weird thing to see and it’s usually kind of nice.  You keep close to your family.”  Fatma Ibrahim gingerly placed her Turkish coffee cup into its saucer and paused before stating, “Your family are the people who you can rely on, and who will always be there for you.”  The girls smiled at one another, signaling their consensus.

Along with trendy stores and MP3 players, I wondered if western influence has raised the specter of greater freedoms.  I pursued this topic with the girls, inquiring about their desires to live a freer life in Qatar.  Crinkling the sides of her nose in consternation, Sherifa responded, “I think for this to happen, it’s hard because still it’s our culture.  Even if you think of us, as girls, having more freedom, like going out wherever we want, like in the States, and date whoever we want, it would be difficult for our culture to absorb the idea.” She hesitated before continuing, “I think, okay, I’m with the freedom, like everyone has the right to do whatever he or she wants, but there are limits.  Even in the States, there are limits.  So, I think we are having freedom now.  I think we have reached the level that we want to of freedom.”

Education City (Qatar Foundation) - Doha, Qatar

Education City (Qatar Foundation) – Doha, Qatar

The influx of new media plays a role in shaping the perspectives of these women about topics such as freedom, dating, fashion, and movies as much as it impacts how other cultures view the Arab region and the activities and views of their young inhabitants.  Fatma Ibrahim spoke to her concerns over the media’s influence: “I think that western people shouldn’t believe all that they see in the media, they should look into things, not just take whatever the media gives them.  We’re all the same, we all have the same problems, we all want the same things, and we all want to be loved.  Maybe we have some differences, but these differences are not so important.  Fatma Abdallah added, “We’re all just teenage girls trying to get through life.”

Education City - Arab Sign

After having spent many hours with these five young women I was touched by their openness, sensitivity, and awareness and impressed with their resolve to find their own, better way in a world that has become more complicated and challenging.  Near the end of our interview sessions, Sara spoke up again. “You know,” she began, “whenever I think that the west is totally different from us in Qatar, I remember this commercial on TV that said even though we’re different societies we still breathe the same air, we share the same land.  It really hit me, and I started crying.  For me, it was some kind of awakening to realize that we’re still living on the same earth.”

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