Young Gulf Arab Women’s Views on the Abaya

This post continues the series of articles I’ve written based on interviews with five young Qatari women who are now attending universities at Qatar Foundation’s Education City in Doha, Qatar, including Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth, and Swansea University in Wales.  This article focuses on the girls’ views on wearing the abaya (long black cloak).

During my first foray into the Arab world, on a trip with my husband (a Lebanese native) to visit his relatives in Jordan and Lebanon in 1996, I was quite startled at the sight of a woman enveloped in black, from head to toe, standing against a far wall, waiting in the gate area, as were we, for our flight from JFK to Amman, Jordan.  This woman, seemingly devoid of personality or expression, melting into the background, was wearing not only an abaya, but a coal-colored face covering that hid her eyes, and black gloves.  I found myself having to stifle any outward signs of consternation and surprise, although I did manage a few prolonged sideways glances.  This image and the associated feelings of curiosity tinged with bewilderment stuck with me for several years until it became part of the “everyday” after we moved from Washington, DC to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in November 2000.

By September 2004 we relocated from Saudi Arabia to the small, yet progressive, Gulf nation of Qatar.  While accustomed to seeing women dressed in long black robes, I remained curious about how Gulf Arab women, themselves, felt about wearing the obligatory abaya.  During the course of my time with five young Qatari women who were gracious enough to grant me extended interviews focusing on topics such as how they balanced their traditions with western influence and their thoughts on pursuing a career versus marriage, I had the opportunity to ask their views on wearing the abaya.

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Self-confident eighteen year-old Sherifa Hammam, a student of business and law at Swansea University in Wales, explained, “You first wear the abaya when you reach puberty.”  Her eyes intent on mine, Sherifa continued, “I didn’t see any problem with wearing the abaya.  I was cool with it, because I believed in it, you know.  Not only because it’s our social custom, it’s our religion, first.  Our religion says that you have to cover your head, and wear something conservative.  I first started wearing the hijab in grade-8, and when I reached grade-10 I wore the abaya.  So I did have my time for fun.”

Reserved and soft-spoken, Sara Abdulghani, a student at Virginia Commonwealth , divulged, “When I was really young, like ten or eleven years old, I wanted to wear the abaya, but my mom didn’t want me to.  I was crying to my mom, ‘Please, I want an abaya.’ I wanted to look older.”  Taking a sip of water, Sara resumed, “When I first wore an abaya, I was really happy.  It was so amazing.  I felt so high.  I was like ‘Yeah, I’m wearing an abaya.’”

Two Arab Women in Abayas at Souk

Sara, adjusting her eyeglasses, maintained that these days, “I feel really comfortable in the abaya, but then sometimes it’s kind of annoying.  If you’re sitting down and you want to move it always sticks in the wheels of the chair.  But, you know, in our culture and religion you have to wear something decent.  And not everything in my closet is decent.  Like if you have skinny jeans, or something tight, you just wear the abaya, to cover over it and become decent.”

Currently studying Jounalism at Northwestern University, bold and resolute, eighteen year-old Mouza Abdulaziz, declared she was around thirteen when she started wearing the abaya.  “At first I didn’t like it.  Because back then I couldn’t run around or act crazy, but, in time, I learned to love it.”  Mouza highlighted the importance of accessorizing the abaya asserting, “I think some women look extremely beautiful in the abaya, especially when they know how to present themselves with the handbag and the shoes, even the way they wear their headscarf.”  Like Sara, Mouza feels the abaya can make daily fashion choices that much easier.  Her hands folded on the table, Mouza remarks, “Okay, when you’re a teenager and you have to go to school and you don’t have a uniform, you’re like, ‘Oh what should I wear today?’ and sometimes you get to the point where you don’t want to wear anything in your closet.  So, when you wear the abaya, you don’t have to worry about the clothes underneath.”

Two Arab Women Dressed Up in Abayas

While the abaya might make the daily challenge of what to wear less difficult for Gulf Arab women as compared to their western counterparts, there are, increasingly, distinct fashion statements Arab women can make with the abaya that include quite intricate and colorful designs.  Twenty-two year-old Fatma Ibrahim, also studying Journalism at Northwestern University, however, appreciates the simplicity of a purely black-toned abaya.  Fatma renders, “I like the abaya, but I don’t like colored embellishments on them, and mine are mostly black, if you notice.  Even if I have designs with lace or something it would all be in black.  I feel it’s more elegant that way, and lots of embellishments can look a bit tacky.  Not too many people know how to balance between elegance and tacky.  So, I just try to stay on the safe side with the black, and abayas are usually supposed to be black, all black.”

I was curious if the young women ever felt compelled to wear the niqab, full black face covering.  I had seen older, more conservative, Qatari women wearing the niqab, covering not only with an abaya and headscarf, but their entire face – their eyes disappearing behind the black veil.  Sara, her dark opals studying me, replied, “When I go to a wedding party or something and I have a lot of make-up on my face, yeah, I like to cover it.  Because you know in our religion they say you’re not supposed to show your face with a lot of make-up, and I do cover my face, but a lot of people don’t do it – but I like to do it.”  The wedding party that Sara speaks of is a “women only” wedding, a tradition in the Gulf region.  Sara added, “It is polite for my religion to cover my face, because some men stare a lot.”

Woman Wearing Abaya (Two Men to Side) at Souk

I asked the girls about the traditions on when it is appropriate to wear the abaya.  I knew young women are required to wear the abaya in public settings where men are present, but what was the tradition for wearing the abaya when around male relatives?  The girls disclosed that they did not have to wear the abaya around their uncles, but they did need to be covered around male cousins.  Mouza explained that the abaya must be worn around those men you could possibly marry, which includes cousins but not uncles.  In the Arab Gulf region it is not only common for cousins to marry, but it is encouraged and is considered commendable, as it makes the family circle tighter.  According to Sara, “In my family, when our gatherings include just my uncles, I don’t cover my hair in front of them.  Usually on Fridays, though, I wear anything I like.  I like to be looking good in front of my female cousins.  We’re all dressed up and we sit and we chat but sometimes we have my cousins, like the older men, so we have to cover our hair.  If they come inside we just cover our hair and cover ourselves and we sit with them.”

Fatma, pulling a wisp of hair away from her face, conveys, “I only wear the abaya when there are male relatives coming and going.  Like, for example, around my cousins, my older cousins, the guys, but not my uncles.  Like on Fridays when the male cousins are coming over, they tell us and we put on our abayas.  Before they come in they say ‘Okay I’m coming in,’ like they knock first.  So, if you’re not covered, cover.”  Fatma reveals that she wears “mostly jeans and t-shirts” when around other women and her uncles.

Me in an Abaya at Qatar Foundation

According to Mouza, her tone becoming animated, when women gather in the home, “We wear whatever we want, because it’s all girls and women.  If a male relative is coming in the home, an uncle or older cousin, we just leave and go to another room and sit there until they leave.  And the men here in Qatar if they know that there are women sitting in the room they will just say ‘hi’ to the older people like my aunts and then they just leave.  They know that we’re there.”  Mouza added that the men have their own majlis (sitting area for social functions) and typically assemble there, separate from the women.

It is clear that these young women who are attending prestigious American universities in Qatar, and who have lofty career ambitions, continue to hold their native traditions close to their hearts – as they should.  Thank you to Mouza, Sherifa, Fatma, and Sarah for helping to demystify the abaya!

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.”

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.