“Family Matters” in the Arab Gulf

I had the good fortune to interview five young Qatari women two years ago about everything from their daily lives, to their academic and career aspirations, their thoughts on the standing of women in the Arab world and the effects of westernization on their forward-looking Arab Gulf nation.  The young women, who ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-two, are now attending universities at Qatar Foundation’s Education City in Doha, Qatar, including Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth, and Swansea University in Wales.    

During the course of my interviews “family” (or a sense of “tribe”) was an inherent underlying theme.  Qatari families, and Arab families, in general, tend to have large numbers, as family is an important facet of life, and is dictated by both culture/tradition and religion.  According to twenty-two year old Fatma Ibrahim, her eyes reflecting the afternoon sun through the small conference room window, “Families are important, because the reputation, our reputation plays, a role in everything.  It carries the honor and stuff.”  Fatma continued, “For every family, the last name is very important, you know, and the family doesn’t want anything to tarnish that image and their family name.  Because it’s not just you, it’s your whole family, everyone who has your last name is in jeopardy if you do something wrong, so that’s a big responsibility.”  Sherifa Hammam, her voice rising, added, “It’s written in our religion we have to be bonded together by family, because this is how we’re going to survive in life.  We need someone to share with us our happy moments, sad moments, to be around, you know.”

Arab Children

The girls I profiled had between 4-5 siblings living under one roof, although it is not uncommon for families to have as many as 5-10 children in one house.  According to Fatma, “Children are considered a blessing.  Yes, it’s a blessing from God.”  Sherifa indicated, “People believe that children will bring them joy and happiness even more than getting married.”  Extended family members, including cousins, Aunts and Uncles, grandparents, and even second or third wives and their families, live in close proximity to each other, either within blocks of each other, or sometimes in a communal compound environment.  The first friends of young Qataris are often their cousins.

A smile spreading across her face, eighteen year-old Sara Abdulghani related that her favorite times as a child were, “Friday nights, family nights, because I would get with my family and all my cousins are there.  It’s always fun to be with my family.  My cousins are like my sisters and my best friends.  We would sit around and watch a movie together and there would be a lot of popcorn.  Usually we would talk about ‘what are you going to wear, what are you going to wear?’  It’s just my family, and since we didn’t have boys in our school there was not a lot to talk about.”

Me with Arab Children

Similarly, Mouza Abdulaziz, shifting in her seat, revealed her best times in childhood were, “When I was with my cousins, because I mostly grew up around my family, my cousins and my sisters.  Every Thursday night we have this tradition, like most families, where the whole family would go to the main house, which is the grandfather’s house, and we’d all sit there and see each other for a few hours, and have a big dinner.”  Mouza continued, “My aunts, and uncle and their kids, and their kids’ kids, and usually old family friends who are almost like family would also come by.  They would all be there.  There could be 30 people.”

Fatma also recounted happy times with family and cousins.  “On Thursday and Friday we’d go after school directly to the farm.  We had a farm, my grandfather’s farm and we’d sleep over, everyone would come there – cousins, and my grandmother’s two best friends, and all their kids and grandchildren.  We’d just run around with the kids and we rode bicycles.  We had cows and two Arabian horses that were beautiful.  We didn’t ride them.  They weren’t tame.  We also had camels, donkeys, chickens and ducks.  The farm was outside of Doha in the middle of the country, about 45 minutes away.  I loved sleeping overnight there.  We’d take lots of videos and we’d watch them there, like funny Kuwaiti plays – the older ones, like from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and Disney movies – Beauty and the Beast, I love that, and Aladdin.”

Qatari Man with Young Son

The eldest son in an Arab family plays a pivotal role in the household hierarchy.  Mouza, her eyes intent on mine said, “The eldest son is the one who usually takes over the family if something happens to the father.  In this case, the eldest son is going to be the one in charge of looking over his little sisters, his little brothers – what they need, what they don’t need.  So, he’s going to basically take care of them.”

A couple of the Qatari girls I interviewed had fathers who had a second wife.  Sara, adjusting her headscarf remarked, “Yeah, my father he has two wives, and each family live in a different household.  I think it’s more common to live in different houses.”  Sara went on to say, “(Our two families) we do socialize, you know, like we will go to their house and they come to our house.   It’s fun because I have a lot of brothers and sisters from their side – I have like seven or eight, I can’t even count them, and whenever I’m bored, I’ll be calling them one after one.  Like come pick me up, you know, and it’s really good.”  When I asked Sara if she thought about her step-sisters and brothers in the same way as her immediate siblings, she said, “I would say so, yeah, but there’s always this connection between me and my real family.”

Four Young Women at Qatar Foundation

When asked if her family and the family of her father’s second wife ever visited each other and socialized, Mouza said, “Yes, we visit each other.  Like on the way home from school I had to pass by their house so if I wasn’t tired or anything, I would say, ‘Okay, stop the car,’ and go see my brothers and my sisters, and they would come visit us too.  That’s the good thing, we always meet and things like that.”  Responding to the query about how her father splits his time between his two families, Mouza responded, “Well, my Dad used to spend the time with us, because we were the younger ones.  He would live in our house because we were young and the children of his other family were in high school, so they were able to understand why my father wasn’t in their house most of the time.  But nowadays, my Dad would visit his other family after the prayer at night, and he’d stay with them and sometimes we’d tag along.”  Mouza added, “It’s normal I think everywhere the father would like to stay with the young ones while they’re growing up to have a memory, or something, but then it doesn’t mean he disregards the rest.”

Sara summed up the feeling about family in Qatar, and the larger region, aptly when she said, “I think the best thing in my life is my family.  I’m very blessed to have my family.  With regard to my challenges, whenever I face a problem, I know I always have my family so I can learn and know more about who I really am.”

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