Tribute to My Friend, Sherifa

I write this tribute in honor of my friend, Sherifa, a young woman who taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar.  My hope is that Sherifa’s voice and sentiments live on in the dreams of other young Qatari women.  This article recounts several interviews I had with Sherifa. 

Sherifa died in a tragic car accident on November 22, 2013 on the precarious, and sometimes perilous, streets of Doha.  She had turned 23 just a week prior to her car accident.  Sherifa, who received her law degree from Swansea University in Wales only months ago, had a dream to become one of the first female judges in Qatar.  This young rising star was the eldest of five children, and was cherished by family and friends.  Short in stature, Sherifa’s candid charm, infectious spirit, and commanding manner always filled a room.  Sherifa loved her Smart Phone, texting, and shopping at Doha’s malls for designer jeans, handbags, and shoes, yet regularly stood up for those less fortunate than herself.  I was frequently disconcerted when Sherifa routinely ordered for the entire table when my husband and I joined her and her family for dinner – a highly unusual action for a young woman in the Gulf region.  Sherifa’s forthright actions say not only a lot about her own nature, but the unique environment in which her parents raised her.  Sherifa, who defied all stereotypes, was bold and resolute, yet compassionate and a realist.

Sherifa

Sherifa

I first met Sherifa in February of 2009 when I was looking for female Qatari university students to interview for a series of articles focusing on the role of women in the Arabian Peninsula, the effects of western influence on the everyday lives of young Gulf Arab women, and concerns around balancing career/marriage/family in a changing region.  Five young women, three of whom attended Northwestern University-Qatar and one at Virginia Commonwealth-Qatar, graciously agreed to be interviewed, Sherifa (who attended Swansea) among them.  Immediately following our initial interview, Sherifa insisted I go to her home to meet her family and experience some “real Qatari hospitality.”  That very evening I found myself seated on a bright red overstuffed loveseat being served cardamom coffee and Arabic sweets on a silver platter by Sherifa herself in the luxurious sitting room of her home.  I had the pleasure of meeting Sherifa’s mother, father, as well as a younger sister and brother.  Later in the evening, my husband, Bishara, and I met Sherifa and her parents at Villagio (an upscale mall) for coffee, the beginning of a deepening friendship between Sherifa and her family, and Bishara and me.  We had an instant “cellular” connection.

After several interviews with Sherifa, it became apparent that her views and outlook reflected a deeply ingrained need to adhere to her traditional Gulf lifestyle, tinged with an attentiveness to the “creep of westernization” that had infiltrated her world holding open the possibility of new opportunities.  Around a year ago, Sherifa and her family most graciously invited me and Bishara to a day-long fete at their desert family farm, around an hour outside of Doha, which included a sumptuous traditional meal and a healthy dose of Gulf hospitality.  I had the good fortune of interviewing Sherifa during this occasion.  We started our session seated atop colorful cushions outside the women’s tent where chatter and Gulf music permeated the night air; in the distance laughter from Sherifa’s male relatives and my husband arose over the din of the crackling grill where lamb kabobs roasted.  Poised and leaning forward, casting the light from her phone over my interview notes, Sherifa divulged that she was “not comfortable” when asked if she was being encouraged to get married and settle down.  Sherifa went on to declare, “My family wants me to get married as soon as possible. I don’t know, I just feel that I like my freedom. I’m not even trying to meet any one.  And, I don’t know, I’m not going to say I agree 100% with arranged marriage. I know it is my culture and all, but I want to actually meet the person I’m going to marry before getting married.”  Sherifa’s family’s concerns were understandable in the more conservative Gulf region where an unmarried woman in her late 20s is considered an “old maid.”  How did Sherifa think she would meet that special person?  “I don’t know. Maybe work, maybe a workshop, or travelling. I thought maybe while studying, but I’ve never really thought about it. It’s not one of my biggest missions. My focus is about my education. And my education comes first.”

Sherifa revealed that attending Swansea University in Wales had been a life-changing time for her.  Taking a deep breath and crossing her legs across the cushion, Sherifa maintained, “When I first went to Swansea I was 18 years old. I learned how to be independent. I learned a lot of things. When I’m there at Swansea, I’m not going to say I’m alone, but you know, I need to take care of myself. I need to figure everything out myself. I can’t just go and cry and tell my Mom to help me. Because my life here (in Qatar), we are so spoiled. Everything is done for us by our household staff–maids, cooks, and drivers. We don’t have to think about anything; everything is just casual and everything is organized for us. When I went to the United Kingdom, it became a very different journey for me. I knew since I was a kid I wanted to study abroad. I had dreams about it.”

I inquired how Sherifa was treated as a young Arab woman in the UK.  She took a sip of her Turkish coffee and replied, “I know that not all people accept me back in the United Kingdom. Even in the U.S. when I visited Oklahoma as part of my university program, I know some people who were saying, ‘Who’s she?’  ‘Where is she from?’  And they think that because we’re wearing a scarf, or because we’re Arabs, we come from a really restrictive place. I know a girl in the UK who cannot even smoke in front of me, because she thinks it’s disrespectful of me. I told her ‘You can smoke, I don’t mind.’  And even some people I know in the UK cannot curse in front of me. It’s their right to speak as they wish. You know, when I’m with my friends and we’re chilling, who cares. Like seriously, why are you putting boundaries?”

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Sherifa’s family farm in the desert. (Men’s Tent)

When asked about her plans for the future, Sherifa, surveying the desert horizon, responded, “A few months from now I’ll be graduating, hopefully by June.  So I’m thinking of working in the Ministry of Justice in Qatar, a part-time job. In the morning I’ll actually practice law, and go back in the afternoon and work at the company that sponsors me, since I need to work for them for the same number of years I’ve been away at university. They sponsored me for four years, so I need to work for them for four years.”

Given her impressive academic credentials and career aspirations, I wondered if eligible young men might be intimated by Sherifa.  Always the realist, Sherifa announced, “This has already happened, and I think this will happen in the future. I do want to marry a man who has an even stronger background than me, so he can lead the family, as I know that otherwise it would always be a problem.”

I knew Sherifa would also face expectations that she have children once married.  Large families are a staple in the Arabian Peninsula where it is not uncommon to have six or more children under one roof.  According to Sherifa, “People [in the Gulf] believe that children will bring more joy and happiness than getting married.”  What were Sherifa’s own personal thoughts on having a family, especially given her lofty ambitions?  Had she thought about how many children she would like to have?  Sherifa fixed her eyes on mine, and related, “It’s hard to say. I want to give them the best education they can have. I want them to live the best life they can have, so if I have money it’s okay. I’ll have to think about it financially. I’m a planner. I want to look at the future. In the old times it was like just keep, keep, keep having children. I say, no, I have to think about how I am going to feed them; am I going to be able to be there for them. They need not only financial support, they need emotional support, my support.  Time management is a big issue, and in my type of career it’s going to be a helluva lot of work. I’m going to be a lawyer, and if I want to have a lot of kids I want to know I’m going to have time to be there for them. Both at school, after school, even on the weekends and all, I need to plan everything. If it’s up to me, two to three children, max.”

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Feast at desert family farm.

Several years earlier when discussing children and marriage I asked Sherifa if she would need the permission of her father before she married.  Sherifa affirmed, “If I ask my Dad’s permission it would be easier for me, because even if I’m married to this guy who I love I would still be thinking about my family, because family is the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Steadfast, Sherifa emphasized, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

When speaking of family, Sherifa often became animated.  “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,” pronounced Sherifa.  “We need someone to share with us our happy moments, sad moments, to be around, you know.”  Families, immediate and extended, gather often in the Gulf States, and cousins are particularly close, meeting often on weekends at a family home where they might dance to Khaleeji music, watch movies, divulge secrets, or decide to go out to a mall.  Sherifa highlighted the value placed on family connections and Fridays, in particular, that are “like a holy day for us, when we get together to see our parents and other relatives.  Like we go to my grandfather’s house.  Sometimes we eat lunch there, and all the males in the family go to the Mosque together, and the females go to my grandfather’s house where my aunts prepare lunch together, and then we sit together and eat.”  Sherifa added that her family sits “on the floor, on the carpet, the traditional way,” eating from large communal trays.

I was curious if Sherifa had to wear an abaye (long black robe) during family gatherings.  Brushing a wisp of hair from her forehead, Sherifa explained, “Yes, only my shayla (scarf), and I have something ready to cover with, because I have my male cousins I have to cover around.  In my culture, you’re not allowed to be uncovered unless it’s your father, brother, [uncle], or your husband.”  In other words, the Shayla is only worn around men you could potentially marry.  Sherifa continued, “If you’re in puberty it’s “haraam” (forbidden) not to cover.  You become a woman, so we have to cover ourselves.”

How did Sherifa feel about the cause of women in Qatar?  Her hands folded on her lap, Sherifa responded,  “I feel that we used to be a bit restricted, but now I feel we have more freedom and rights, and individuals are realizing that if you want to do something for women, it’s easier now. We have the basic right for women to drive, which is not the case, for instance, in Saudi Arabia. I think we’ve changed a lot in Qatar. Even the way we think, about co-eduation. There are many more co-educational schools than in the past. Even my Dad, I believe, has changed in his outlook over time. The views of the older generation, like my grandfather, though, are much the same as in the past.  If I see my grandfather, and I sit with him, his mentality and the way he thinks about Qatar’s development is very different from my Dad’s view. I can’t really use my Dad as an example, though, because he went to the U.S. and, actually, has been around Western society and has, therefore, been influenced, I could say, a bit, which does make a difference.”

When asked about her grandfather, Sherifa disclosed, “He’s old fashioned. I can’t, for instance, go out without my abaya when my grandfather is around, because he thinks it’s ‘shame.’  I can’t just be like this (in a t-shirt, jeans, and jacket) like I am now in the desert. If I’m downtown in Doha and dressed like this it is like ‘shame’ on me.  So, yes, I think my grandfather wouldn’t approve of how I’m dressed right now. Even driving. I can’t just go to my grandfather and say, “Well, Granddad, I drive.”  He wouldn’t understand; he would be like ‘Why? I’ll go and get you a driver, your own personal chauffeur, you don’t have to drive,’ because he’s that old fashioned. He thinks women should be treated differently. Women shouldn’t do anything, women should be spoiled. A woman’s job is to be at home, that’s it. Like nowadays, women want to work. I, myself, want to be something. I might be a judge, I don’t know. Like 10 years from now, no one knows.”

So, what is viewed as a more conservative outlook is actually about spoiling women, not about keeping them down?  According to Sherifa, her black opals flaring, “No, it’s not about keeping women down. Even in our religion, we should respect women. Our Prophet respected women, and everything about women. Women have rights, it doesn’t mean we don’t have rights, but the idea is men should take care of us. We are not supposed to do anything on our part; we just need to be handling the house and children. That’s the woman’s job, that’s the mentality of the older generation.”

Sherifa persisted, “Yes, but nowadays our society knows that women need to work. Because society is different, now we need to help our husbands, like for the future. I don’t only want to support my husband emotionally; I also want to be there for him financially. So, it’s different. If I’m going to follow the same ‘old’ mentality, then I’m going to sit at home and leave my husband with all the debt and everything. No, I’m not that kind of person, I want to help him. Back in the ‘old days’ you didn’t even have the right to think about helping, because it was like the husband would think he’s less of a man if he accepted money from a woman, which is not the case now. Because the idea of equality has entered our society, people are trying to understand that we are equal, as men and women. It’s not like we’re 100% equal, because it’s not going to happen.  Logically, it will never be equal. Men always have the privilege.  So, the idea now is we’re just trying to actually make it all work. You see it’s different now; women have more rights, and men are more understanding.”

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Women’s tent.

What were Sherifa’s thoughts on how Arab countries outside Qatar and the Arabian Gulf differ in their thinking on women’s roles, as well as in culture and outlook?  My husband was from Lebanon, which is like being on a completely different planet than being in Qatar.  Readjusting her headscarf, Sherifa asserted, “Exactly. Lebanese have more freedom. Their culture is more open. Okay, we, in Qatar have freedom. Like you see, I have freedom and everything, but at the end of the day, our culture comes first. Like what we have, our traditions and everything, comes first. But you see, like downtown, I can’t be dressed like this, in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s not the same here in Qatar; we still need to appreciate our traditions. In Lebanon, you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.”

I mentioned to Sherifa how much I appreciated the traditional Gulf hospitality her mother showed my husband and me when we visited Sherifa’s home.  I particularly enjoyed the custom of bringing female guests bakhour (incense) after a meal, which the guests waft under their clothes and around their faces.  Sherifa expounded, “Usually this is the way of saying you are welcome to our house, and that we have the pleasure to have you here. And sometimes if it’s getting too late and you want to say it’s getting too late, in a polite manner, so you just give your guests bakhour and it’s like a signal that was used in the old days.  We have a saying in Arabic that means when people give you perfume, it’s not that you have to leave, but that things are winding down, in a nice and polite way.”  When I imparted that Bishara and I were astounded by, and grateful for, the generosity we were shown when at her family’s desert farm, Sherifa smiled, her eyes flashing, “It’s one of the biggest Arab traditions, this type of hospitality, you know. It’s known among the Arabs.”

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women's tent.

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women’s tent.

Sherifa’s own compassion, and interest in improving the well-being of others, was remarkable for one so young.  When only 18 years-old, and a student at the Academic Bridge Program at Education City (Qatar Foundation), for instance, Sherifa worked closely with a human rights conference in which domestic abuse in Qatar, as well as poor migrant workers’ conditions were discussed, and potential solutions developed.  While serious-minded, though, Sherifa balanced her focus on improving community concerns, and an interest in regional and global issues, with a wonderful sense of humor.  During an interview, when I asked the girls if, given the choice, they would choose a different gender for themselves, Sherifa, with her trademark toothy grin, blurted, “Of course, a man; I could marry four women.”

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Sherifa’s legacy lives on in the four other young women I interviewed alongside Sherifa, (including Fatma I., Mouza, Sarah, and Fatma A.), and others like them, as well as in Sherifa’s two younger sisters, all of whom are smart, courageous, forward-looking and undaunted.

#longreads

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.