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?”

DSCF5142

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.”

DSCF5186

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.”

DSCF5189

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

Snapshots of Qatar ~ 2013

A year filled with happiness, tragedy, and inspiration.

DSCF5998

Souk Al-Waqif

DSCF6000

DSCF5996

Lunch-time at the souk!

DSCF6004

DSCF5334

Horse races at the Equestrian Center.

DSCF5906

Fly Board World Championships at The Pearl-Qatar.

DSCF5384

Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

DSCF5456

Graduation at American School of Doha

DSCF6011

Common sight in Qatar!

DSCF4749

Bounty from the Vegetable Souk!

DSCF5125

American Women’s Association Bazaar

DSCF3914

Ready for some belly dancing!

DSCF5930

We launched Desert Horizons Tutoring Services, a community-based outreach tutoring program.

DSCF5923

Doha’s nighttime skyline.

Me & Sherifa in Desert of Qatar

Me and Sherifa.  Sherifa passed away in a tragic car accident. Sherifa taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar. Rest in peace, dear friend.  I will miss you greatly.

DSCF3556

We also lost sweet “Callie girl,” our precious furry daughter.  You are forever in our hearts.

DSCF3997

 

A Heart Divided

The Middle East is a tinderbox – Syrians being massacred by chemical weapons, Egypt in continuous turmoil, Lebanon being torn open by old and new wounds, not to mention Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya enduring a chronic state of flux.  This is the Arab world my husband, Bishara, and I were returning to after an extended peaceful and restful summer vacation in the U.S.  Just five weeks earlier I had felt wistful about leaving Qatar for America; I would miss meandering along the alleyways of Souk Al-Waqif, walks along the Arabian Gulf, gatherings with Qatari and expatriate friends, and our two miniature poodle pups who would be staying behind with friends.  I was a happy and content expatriate living a full and comfortable life in the tiny nation-state of Qatar.

Doha's Skyline

Doha’s Skyline

The Pearl-Qatar (Man-Made Island)

The Pearl-Qatar (man-made island)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

Fast forward five weeks to the end of August, and we are about to board a plane in Washington, DC for our flight back to Qatar.  CNN is reporting on defiance of the curfew in Cairo and Syria’s warning against outside involvement in its conflict on a big screen TV as we sit in an airport restaurant sipping iced tea.  We reminisce about family and friends in America who had inquired about our future safety in Qatar.  “Are you guys going to be okay over there?”, “Isn’t it time you came back to the States?”, “You’ve been in the Middle East how long?”

The Middle East has experienced years, decades, centuries of conflict, but the new rounds of strife across the region were hitting close to home.  As we waited in the Washington Dulles airport gate area, I thought back to bike riding through the streets of the small island town off the Virginia coast, our home of eight years, the sea breezes and salt air fresh in our faces and playing havoc with my curly hair.  The many walks on the protected beaches, Bishara bodysurfing and frolicking in the ocean swells.  And the heartwarming time spent with family and friends was irreplaceable.  In Qatar, and the larger Gulf region, the incautious driving precludes relaxed weekend bike rides, and while “beaching it” or sitting poolside in the winter months is superb, sunbathing in the summer months is synonymous with being trapped in a sauna.  Our ties to the East, though, had Bishara bringing his tablah (Arabic drum) to the Blue Dog restaurant in Snow Hill, MD over the summer where he was hopeful that his drum beats just might synchronize with the World War II music and singing pulsating throughout the intimate surroundings.  To Bishara’s dismay, the opportunity never materialized.

From biking and bodysurfing along the eastern coast, our summer travels brought us to crisp, refreshing mountain air and a most special family reunion in Glacier National Park in Montana.  Bishara and I made it a point to go horseback riding with a bronco-riding cousin, our trek taking us alongside babbling streams and through mountain pastures filled with wildflowers.  As my cousin hopped off his horse to show us a wild anise-type root and explain its medicinal purpose, Bishara, again, brought us thousands of miles eastward, remarking that our horse ride reminded him of riding camels in southern Lebanon as a child with his grandfather in summers past.

As many good memories that we have of the Arab world, from Bishara’s sentimentality surrounding his childhood in Lebanon and Jordan to my blossoming from an introvert to a committed belly dancer and chatter at “women only” fetes in Arab friends’ homes, we have had our share of scares while in the Middle East region.  In 2004, we had to make a quick exit from Saudi Arabia due to bombings of western expatriate compounds in Riyadh, which ultimately prompted our move to Qatar.  And then there are the horrific stories of abuse, and other atrocities, that appear in newspapers and other media, like the recent 8 year-old Yemeni child-bride who tragically died on her wedding night.

When friends and family ask how we can live in an area where this sort of thing happens, I am often left feeling some level of unease, even embarrassment, and at a loss for words.  At these times, I find myself going back to conversations I have had with Bishara and my own conscience.  While my initial interest in living in the Middle East was centered on a singular cultural experience, my years in the Arab world have given way to an enriched life with a healthy balance between work and private time, as well as the opportunity to experience time, and time again, the hospitality and generosity of the average Arab – my friends, my workmates, my community.

I remember quite clearly my consternation over Bishara admonishing me for admiring a Saudi friend’s handbag when we lived in Riyadh, and the friend insisting that I accept the several hundred dollar handbag as a gift.  (It would have been an insult had I not accepted the handbag.)  Or the bedraggled desert Bedouin who needed our help to start his truck, later pressing us to join his family for a camel feast.  And visits to Arab friends’ homes that begin with “Come in, my brother and sister” tend to continue with extended conversation over cardamom coffee and sumptuous meals of lamb and rice.  This magnanimity, based in tradition and religion, first became apparent to me in 1996 when we had a stopover in Lebanon, Bishara’s homeland, during which Bishara’s mother and sister could not feed us enough molkiha, stuffed grape leaves, and kibbe; it was a point of honor and privilege that we be well fed and properly tended to.

It is this focus on the “human factor” and family, known as tribalism in the broader sense, which drew me to the Arab culture and renewed my spirit.  But it is this very concept of strong familial ties, which makes the region rife for disputes and conflict between tribes, sects, and factions when the steadfast sense of loyalty, love and passion that exists within a household leads to a fierce need to protect the reputation and dignity of the family or tribe.

Regardless of the multitude of events occurring in this region, our hearts remain divided between the west and the Arab world.

Related article:

Why I Love Traveling in the Middle East (Planet Bell: A Travel and Photo Blog by Jeff Bell)

 

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage?

“We don’t have the freedom to choose our husband, you know,” eighteen year-old Sherifa said matter-of-factly. “When he comes, he knocks on the door, he comes to my dad, asks for my hand, and proposes.  My dad comes to consult me and then I get to see him like with the hijab on, and we sit together with his family and mine, and speak so I can understand him and he can understand me.  And if he’s the match, we get married and then that’s the end of the story.” She paused before punctuating her final pronouncement on the matter, “And then our children get married.”

Qataris and women from other Gulf Arab nations do not have the luxury of trolling for mates on popular dating sites such as Match.com. In a region where signs of progressive, western influence are everywhere, the dating game remains steeped in centuries of tradition.  My husband and I relocated to Saudi Arabia from Washington, DC in 2000, and later to Qatar in 2004 to pursue a new life and career opportunities.  As a writer, I have made a concerted effort to become familiar with the region’s customs, trends, and most significantly, its people. In my venture to learn more about the young women of Qatar, in particular, and how they negotiate the creep of westernization with age-old Arab traditions, I interviewed a group of young female Qatari students.  Among the variety of topics we discussed, dating and marriage drew strong reactions.

Mixed-Gender Arab Wedding

On any given night in most American cities, nervous and excited single men and women gather in boisterous sports bars and crowded restaurants.  Amidst the white noise of unyielding chatter or televised basketball games,people pass between one another, doing their best to crack jokes and make a great first impression in the hopes it may lead to that coveted first date. Little do they know that halfway around the world their Arab peers are experiencing their own, much different version of dating.

For most Arabs, courtship unfolds in a pragmatic, systematic manner. However, specific customs vary broadly by region.  For example, conservative Gulf region countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman follow conventional dictates of arranged marriage rituals in the Arab culture.  These six nations with ties going back to the ancient Najd Arab tribes of Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, ascribe to “khaleeji” culture: each country shares the same dialect, clothes, food, music, and the more traditional courting customs.

Even sophisticated young Qatari women like Sherifa, currently studying business and law at Swansea University in Wales, have strong beliefs regarding courtship and marital practices.  While moderating a school debate on courtship and arranged marriage, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, Sherifa voiced her resolute views.  One of the panelists, a young, Qatari male who argued in favor of Qataris dating in the same way that Westerners date, drew her ire. “He’s a Qatari, and he wants to date!” Sherifa recalled, her eyes flashing.  “I don’t know what he was thinking.  He really gave me a headache that day.”  I asked Sherifa to elaborate. Repositioning her headscarf, Sherifa continued, “It’s against our culture, and not everyone absorbs the idea that now we have the freedom to do everything. Like if I want to see Jassim, let’s say, like know him better, more than a friend but as a boyfriend, it’s like ‘A’ib’ (shame) on you to do that.”

Entertainment at Mixed-Gender Arab Wedding

Gender segregation plays a role in this mindset.  Sherifa, like many young, unmarried Qataris, spent most of her formative, adolescent years with other girls before entering college and the world of co-ed campuses.  I asked the other women for their responses to Sherifa’s opinions, wondering if they shared her traditionalist notions.  Fatma, a twenty-two year-old, well-spoken Qatari woman studying journalism at Qatar Foundation’s Northwestern University offered, “Well, I wouldn’t go for an arranged marriage blindly.  I’d rather know the guy from school, or work, or actually have had a conversation with him, you know, not real dating, just you know publicly and then having him go to my parents.”  Mouza, also attending Northwestern University in Qatar, chimed in, “It’s like big proof that they love you, if they go to your parents when they propose.” The other girls nodded in assent.

The closest thing to dating in Gulf countries takes the form of a pre-marital meeting between the bride and groom that takes place in the bride’s home within direct view of family members.  In contrast, Arab countries outside of the Gulf region, particularly countries like Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan exercise greater leniency regarding the tradition of arranged marriage.  In some cases, young men and women have a say in the selection of a marital partner.  Despite this courtship liberalism, dating normally becomes restricted to public places with a chaperon in tow, usually from the bride’s family.

Whether inside or outside the Gulf region, courtship and matrimony are deeply intertwined with the concept of family; kinfolk take intimate roles in nearly every step of the courtship process.  The business of seeking out a potential female mate for nephews, sons, or grandsons typically falls to aunts, grandmothers, and mothers.  This community of women may also make the initial contact with the prospective young woman’s family, usually her mother.  Fathers, however, sign the final marriage agreement, along with the bride and groom and witnesses.  To westerners, this practice may seem oppressive or even overly intrusive. However, for couples in the Gulf region, this hands-on involvement often strengthens family ties and brings the benefit of parents’ experience to the new couple.

According to the young Qatari women I interviewed, weddings, parties, and other gatherings are all common venues for this important search.  “Women only” weddings provide a particularly good opportunity for these family members to “scout out” potential marriage material.  These weddings find scores of unmarried young women glamorously attired in formfitting, low-cut, luxurious gowns, gyrating the night away on raised platforms in the center of overflowing ballrooms to popular Arab music.  If a young lady is lucky, her mother may just receive a call the following day from a wedding participant.  If there is a good vibe between the women this normally leads to the next step in the process: protracted family meetings.

In Qatar and the Gulf nations it is compulsory that families of the bride and groom communicate or meet first, before the prospective bride and groom are introduced, in order to determine the suitability of the union.  These meetings precede the Khutuba, or engagement ritual; the Melcha (Aqed Zawaaj), the marriage agreement/contract; and ultimately the wedding celebration.  The visits between the families provide the time to probe the laundry list of desirable characteristics from the appearance and personalities of the prospective mate’s family, to the career of the father and rest of the family members, to the family’s wealth: The groom’s father is an engineer, for example; this bodes well in the bride’s mother’s eyes.  The bride has a brother working at a prestigious law firm in London; this gives the groom’s father a confident feeling about the match.

Eighteen year-old Sara recounted that her sister’s match followed in this traditional vein.  Sara is a soft-spoken girl with delicate facial features, currently studying graphics and fashion design at Virginia Commonwealth at Education City in Qatar.  “His mother saw my sister at a wedding,” Sara said. “She thought my sister was really beautiful and a good girl, and that they should propose to her for their son.  So, they came to my house, and they told my family, we would like to propose to your sister, to your daughter.  This is how we get to know them and we found out he was a good guy, my brother in-law.” Sara paused briefly, smiling, “He is really a nice guy, and they got married.”

For Sara, having her family in general and her father, in particular, closely involved in the courtship process is crucial. “My Dad really knows me,” Sara stated.  “Like my brother-in- law, when he proposed to my sister, my father made sure he was going to allow my sister to drive and continue her education. That’s why I think my Dad’s opinion is very important.”

Despite the cultural constraints upon her, and her strong views on formal dating, Sherifa believes she will meet her future husband at work.  I asked her if she felt she would need the permission of her father before she married that “special person.”  Taking a sip of bottled water, Sherifa replied, “Maybe 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 like the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Sherifa continued undeterred, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

The process of creating marriage is different for East and West cultures, yet it seems a universal mindset persists for women of this generation who are impacted by global and cultural changes.  Marriage, arranged or otherwise, might just take a backseat to career pursuits and individual growth for an expanding segment of the female Qatari population.  Sara, pursuing a career in graphic arts and fashion design conceded, “Maybe after 10 or 20 years I’ll see myself married and having babies.”  Similarly,eighteen year-old, Mouza, who hopes to own Al-Jazeera (TV News Broadcasting Company) someday, told me she never really thought about finding a future husband. “My biggest concern now is to finish school and get my degree, and then I’ll start thinking about that stuff,” she said.  “I have more important things to think about.”

Related articles

Arabic Lesson # 1: Bread

The focus of this first Arabic lesson will be on bread.  Why bread, you ask?  Because bread is the staple of the Arabic diet, often doubling as an edible utensil.  Many Arab meals start with mezzah, hummus, babaghanoush (or mutabbal), tabbouleh, fattoush, kibbeh, yogurt with garlic and cucumber, and the list goes on; particularly in the Levant (or Bilad ash-Sham), which includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as northern Iraq, and a portion of southern Turkey.  Mezzah dishes are scooped up with Arabic pita bread with nary a silver utensil in view.  Now, westerners like me typically buy our pita bread from local grocery stores like Mega Mart or Carrefour, but Qataris and other Arab nationals often buy their bread from bakeries in town.  A Jordanian friend pointed out one such bakery to us recently, and I decided to go inside to see an Arabic bread bakery “up close and personal,” which will provide the source of inspiration for our first Arabic lesson.

So, here comes the Arabic lesson, but before we start, there are a few caveats I need to mention.  There are some good sites on the internet that provide translations from English to Arabic, however, the translations are in formal Arabic like what you hear on Arab newscasts and such.  What I’d like to do with my Arabic lessons is to provide the translation in the vernacular, or everyday language.  I’ve looked into taking classes in Arabic, but found the formal Arabic not to be entirely useful.  So, I’ve turned to my husband, Bishara, a native of Lebanon, and fluent Arab speaker, to help me in my pursuits to learn “conversational” Arabic.  Another thing I should mention; I will be providing the translation phonetically in English, as this has helped me in my study of Arabic.  Also, keep in mind that Arabic script is written from right to left.  (It was strange when I first saw a book written in Arabic, and the front cover was on the back of the book.)  The English phonetics in this lesson, though, will be written from left to right. . .

. . . So, here we go.  To set up the scene I am in a bread bakery talking to the baker about buying some bread.

Outside Doha Bread Bakery

Bread on Conveyor

Bread in Container

Me at Bread Bakery

__________________________________________________________________

Me:  I would like to buy some bread.

ANA BEDDEE ASHTREE KHUBOZ.  .انا بدي اشتري خبز

____________________________________________________________________

Baker:  Okay.

TAIEB.    . طيب

____________________________________________________________________

Me: Is the bread fresh?

HADA ALKHUBUZ TAZEJ?    هدا الخبز طازج؟

____________________________________________________________________

Baker:  Of course, our bread is always fresh from the oven.

TABHAN, KHUBZUNA DAYMAN TAZEJ MEN ALFURUN.

. طبعا, خبزنا دايما طازج من الفرن

___________________________________________________________________

Me: How much does it cost?

KUM HADA?    كم هدا؟

___________________________________________________________________

Baker:  It costs ten riyals per kilogram.

KUL KELOGHRAM YUKALEF ASHARA RYALAAT.

. كل كيلوغرم ييكالف عشرة ريالات

__________________________________________________________________

Me:  Okay, thank you.

TAIEB SHUKRAN.  . طيب شكرا

__________________________________________________________________

Where They Make the Bread

 

Making Dough for Bread

Baked Bread

Bags of Flour

ANNA = I

BEDDE = WANT OR WOULD LIKE

ASHTREE = TO BUY

KHUBOZ = BREAD

TAIEB = OKAY

HADA = THIS

ALKHUBUZ = THE BREAD (“AL” is THE)

TAZEJ = FRESH

TAHBAN = OF COURSE

KHUBZUNA = OUR BREAD

DAYMAN = ALWAYS

ALFURUN = OVEN

KUM = HOW MUCH

KUL = EACH

YUKALEF = COSTS

ASHARA = TEN

SHUKRAN = THANK YOU

Sites for translation from English to Arabic:

http://translate.google.com/ (provides sound recording)

http://www.stars21.com/translator/english_to_arabic.html

A Day in the Life of Young Qatari Women

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. 

Before moving to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from Washington, DC in November 2000, and during my initial brush with life in the Kingdom I was always curious about how Gulf Arab people lived behind the high concrete walls that surrounded their homes.  After living and working in Riyadh for a time I had the good fortune of becoming friends with a number of Saudis, and later Qataris when we moved to Doha in September 2004, and although I became familiar with Arab hospitality and the special bond of friendship, I always wondered about the everyday life of the average Arab family.

My discussions with the five young Qatari women I had the pleasure of interviewing uncovered the mystery only to reveal that the routine of daily life was very similar to how I grew up with some variations.  I was surprised to learn, for example, that as schoolgirls, each of the young women enjoyed corn flakes, Cocoa Puffs, eggs, tea with condensed milk (chai haleeb), and fruits for breakfast.  I had always envisioned a more exotic breakfast.

Qatari House # 1

The homes of Qatari families tend to be considerable in size to accommodate the large numbers of family members, and a support staff that can typically include two maids (one of whom may be a cook) and two drivers.  Two elements that differ between an American home and a Qatari home, are the number of bathrooms – one for each bedroom in Qatar, as well as the presence of a majlis in the Qatari home.  A majlis is a large room with beautifully crafted and brightly colored chairs and sofas along the perimeter of the room, and coffee tables – sometimes with a TV.  In a sedu style majlis, chairs and sofas are replaced with bright red cushions and pillows sometimes placed on the floor.  There may be more than one majlis in the home, which serve as separate gathering places for men and women to discuss the day’s and world events, drink cardamom coffee, mint tea, feast on culinary delights (lamb and rice oftentimes) and sweet pastries.   In general, segregated gatherings of family members occur every weekend with dinner –riz bi haleeb (rice and milk), margoog (doughy bread cooked with soup and vegetables), Egyptian rice, and sometimes, if it’s a big dinner, the family “orders in” from a restaurant.  Dancing by female cousins to the strains of Khaleeji music is not uncommon at these weekend events.

The stereotypical images that many westerners have of great wealth in the Arab Gulf region was reinforced by these young girls when talking about the layout of their homes, and their maids, cooks, and drivers.  These young ladies, however, all consider themselves to be middle class.  Qataris are generally well-off due to the country’s natural gas wealth, but the young women explained that assistance from the government in the form of free land offers, and financial support for health and education related costs also help their families sustain seemingly affluent lifestyles.

Arab Food # 1

The structure of the day in Qatar, and the Arab world at large, particularly the Gulf States, begins with an early morning start on the weekdays, and a several hour break in the middle of the day during which family members gather for a lunch, which is the big meal of the day.  The meal does not normally get underway until all family members, parents and children are present, and rice tends to be the staple.  Saloona (lamb, tomatoes, and onion over rice) and machboos (chicken over yellow rice) are popular dishes for lunch.

According to twenty-two year old Fatma Ibrahim, lunchtime at her grandfather’s house included not only her immediate family, but her extended family, as well.  Fatma, her black opals fixed on mine, said, “Yes, we’d all have lunch together.  My grandfather’s house and grounds were really big and we had our own villa inside, so when it was time for lunch we’d go to my grandfather’s place, which was within the same walls.  We’d all sit together on a big place mat on the floor and have lunch.  My grandfather loves fish, so we had fish.  Fish would be cooked everyday and we’d have lamb and rice, or chicken and rice, it would alternate, but fish was always there.  My parents, me, my brother, as well as my grandparents, my aunts, my cousins, everyone.  We all lived in the same compound.  Every day I saw all of my relatives for lunch.”

Arab Food # 2

Dinner is a lighter meal without the obligation that all family members be present.  Sherifa Hammam disclosed, “We usually have our dinner at six and we sometimes we have nuggets, fries, McDonalds, yeah my favorite, and chicken burgers.”  She continues, “Me and my brother were usually the only ones around for dinner.”

Fatma reinforces this notion of the smaller, more informal dinner, by adding, “Dinner isn’t really a big thing, lunch is usually where we all sit together.  For dinner we had sandwiches, or sometimes we’d order from “take out.”  Dinner would just be me, my brother, and my mother.  My father, after work, he would go to the majlis with the men.  Usually they’d watch widescreen T.V. and football for a few hours.”

Majless # 1

Majlis in Tent Outside Qatari Home

Eighteen year-old Mouza Abdulaziz chimes in, “Women also have their own room, or majlis.  They normally have so many places in the house where they socialize.  In my house there is one majlis outside for the men, and there is another majlis inside for the women and their kids when they come to visit.”  As is the case at Fatma’s house, and many other Qatari households, Mouza relates, “When people visit us, the men sit in the majlis for a few hours watching widescreen TV, smoking sheesha, and having tea or cardamom coffee, or Arabic coffee.”

Majless # 2

Majlis at “Bait Ali” (Jordan)

Fridays are a particularly important day in Qatar, and the larger Arab world, for religious reasons and, in Qatar, as the first day of the weekend.  Fridays are similar to Sundays in the western world.  Fridays in Qatar serve as a special day for families to assemble.  Sherifa maintains, “It’s 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 continues, “Sometimes we have fish, hammour, prepared traditionally with rice and sugar, which we call ‘baranyoish.’  This is the main dish we eat on Friday’s.”  Sara Abdulghani related that she and her extended family eat “rice, kabobs, and toubouli,” and sometimes machboos and saloona at her grandparents house on Fridays.

Qatari House # 2

According to Fatma, “On Fridays’ we would have a gathering at my grandmother’s house, on my mother’s side.  We would go in the afternoon around five, and it would last the whole day, sometimes we’d sleep over, starting on Thursday, and then stay until Friday.  We’d just sit around and talk, the kids would play, and then at around 8:00 PM we had dinner.  My grandmother, my aunts, my uncles, and the kids would all be there.  Everyone would have to get up early on Friday, because the men would have to get ready to go to the Friday prayers.  So we’d usually get up early and there are always special shows on Friday on the television, like Kuwaiti plays.  They are really popular, and we watch them all the time.”

Sherifa said her family sat “on the floor, on the carpet,” the traditional way, for their large Friday lunches.  Mouza indicated lunches at her home were different, asserting, “Since our house is more western, we’d sit at the table but sometimes my Dad would feel like sitting on the floor, remembering the ‘old days.’  We usually didn’t like it because we have to go down and then there’s the process of getting up again.”  Mouza added, “Unless there is a big, giant dinner at home, in which case there would be special rugs for the floor.  It happens a lot.  It depends, like if you want to invite your whole family and there are not enough chairs or tables to sit at, so we would just sit on the floor.  We put the things on the rug and everyone is there and can see each other, so it’s better.”

Sedu Picture

Majlis in Wadi Rum (Jordan)

I mentioned to the girls that when I was in Jordan in 1996 with my husband visiting his relatives, we ate mansef (lamb over rice with yogurt sauce) the traditional way, with our right hand.  I was curious if the girls’ families ate their large Friday and other meals with their hands.  Sherifa affirmed, “The male members of the family, they eat with their hands.  The girls, only sometimes we eat with our hands.”  Sara explained, “If I’m concerned about my nails I use a fork, but if I don’t care, I just eat with my hands.”  Mouza put forward a similar sentiment remarking, “Well, I’m a person who is addicted to hand sanitizer, so I try my best not to get my hands dirty, but some people do eat with their hands, like they eat the rice and all with their hands.  It’s normal to see.”  Mouza added that young people these days usually use their hands for fast food.  Fatma said that her family used to eat on the ground, but rendered, “It’s more modernized now.  We eat at a table with forks and knives, unless it’s a big, big banquet and we’re eating from a communal tray.”

Qatar House # 3

I asked Sherifa if during family gatherings she had to wear an abaye or something conservative.  Sherifa responded, “Yes, only my shayla (scarf), and I have something ready to cover with, because I have my male cousins, and I have to cover around my male cousins, because you know, in my culture, you’re not allowed to be uncovered unless it’s your father, or brother, or your husband.”  Sherifa added, “But even if I’m covering I will still hang out with our cousins, so it’s the same, I’m still able to visit with them.  If you’re in puberty it’s “haraam” (forbidden) not to cover.  Because, you know, now you are an adult.  Like, you become a woman, so we have to cover ourselves.”

Friday lunches at the homes of grandparents represent the deep level of affection and admiration felt by those in the Gulf region for the older population.  According to Fatma these feelings are steeped in the religion and culture of the Arab world.  Fatma indicated, “We’re very respectful of our elders, and we’d never offend them or say anything wrong.  We are always proper in dealing with them.  It’s almost a formal relationship.  Like there are lines that you cannot cross – we always make way for them, and if they don’t have a seat, just give them your seat.  Even if you don’t know them, like if you are in the hospital, or some other place, we are very respectful of older people, in general.”  Another example of the rich and distinctive culture of the Gulf Arab region!

“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.”

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. 

______________________________________________________ 

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. 

__________________________________________________________________

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.