Women, Culture, and Identity in Qatar – Part 1
Michele La Morte-Shbat interviewed Sherifa Hammam, a 22-year-old Qatari woman and law student attending Swansea University (in Wales) about life in Qatar, a tiny Arab Gulf country (the size of Connecticut), with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Qatar is rich in natural gas and Western-friendly, with campuses affiliated with six prominent American universities (including Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Weill Cornell, and Northwestern, among others) that cater to young Qataris and others in the Gulf region.
This interview centers primarily on the effects of Western culture on this young woman’s life, women’s issues in Qatar, and Sherifa’s thoughts on balancing work and home life in the Arab Gulf. Click here to read Part 2 of this interview.
Okay, Sherifa, what do you want people, especially Westerners and Americans, to know about Qatar and Qataris?
Well, I want them to know that we’re not different, we’re all people. We’re all the same, but we come from different backgrounds and speak a different language, and that’s it. We share many of the same experiences and values. Whenever I go to the U.S. or the U.K., I don’t feel any different.
I’ve been in Qatar a little less than 10 years. Ten years ago you were 12 years old, and now you’re 22 years old. Please tell me, Sherifa, how Qatar has changed over the last 10 years.
It’s developing. Qatar used to be a desert, and now we have many of the top U.S. universities here. We are seeing the idea of women changing; we, as women, have more freedom. Also, there are more businesses, the economy is growing; everything has changed. Now you can see that “Qatarization” is going somewhere. We have Qataris doing something about their country, and we’re moving so quickly.
So, you feel women are really progressing in Qatar, and are more part of the economy and workforce?
Yes, I do, and 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. Like 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.
Tell me about your grandfather. What is he like?
He’s old fashioned. I can’t, for instance, go out without my abaya (long black robe) when my grandfather is around, because 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. Like I drive; I got my license, but my grandfather doesn’t know about it. 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.
Yes, exactly. Wellah (really), bravo. So, your grandfather is, actually, of the era when men wanted to spoil women. See, many in the West, including me, don’t understand this. So, what is viewed as a more conservative outlook is actually about spoiling women, not about keeping them down.
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.
The conservative mentality from long ago.
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 want to be there for my husband, support him, even financially. I don’t only want to support him emotionally; I also want to be there for him, even 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.
Even in the States, it’s not 100% equal. They say it is, but it’s not really.
Yes, logically, it will never be equal. Men always have the privilege.
Yeah, they always have a bit more.
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. And you can see my Dad, a man, as an example, of the new generation. Others, though of my generation, like my brother, I can’t say my brother is of the new generation, because he’s different, he’s a bit Bedouin. Like the “old” mentality. Even though he wasn’t raised that way, the people he actually hangs out with put that in his head.
Interesting. Are there still a lot of Qataris who are Bedouin? I don’t mean to label Bedouin as good or bad, but I’m just wondering how many are still Bedouin versus how many are more forward looking and want more equality?
We still have the Bedouin mentality in Qatar. I’m not saying that we don’t have people like that, we do. Actually, some people still live in tents, and some people who actually live downtown still have the same Bedouin mentality. I’m saying even some people who actually travel a lot, people who have been studying, people who have experienced co-education still have that mentality. Right now they’re trying to introduce the new ideas, the new thoughts of Sheikha Moza. She’s trying to convey that we are equal, we have rights, we need to help society. Woman, actually, should not be sitting behind men, they should be sitting next to men.
How is Qatar the same or different from other Arab countries and other Gulf countries? See, in America we don’t fully understand the differences in culture and outlook. For instance, in Lebanon, a country outside the Arab Gulf, it’s like being in a completely different world from Qatar; it’s like you’re on the moon versus being here.
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 know it’s really the truth. But one thing we need to distinguish between is the Gulf countries, which include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, versus Arab countries outside the Gulf region. Arab Gulf countries all have sort of a baseline commonality in terms of being more conservative; they’re not like Lebanon. How would you characterize the non-Gulf countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan?
They are Arabs, but they’re more flexible, I could say, and they’re more observing of Western ways. Like every year, I think these non-Gulf countries are more open. Qatar has become more open over time, too, but we’d never, ever, lose our identity. I’m not saying the non-Gulf Arab countries have lost their identity, they still have their identity, but they’re more influenced by the West.
How do you feel about that, like about a Lebanon?
I feel it’s coming to us.
Is that okay with you?
I like it, it’s easier for my generation. But I don’t want to lose my identity. It is true that Qatari boys are better informed about the history of life here. They know more about our cultural traditions, and about what we used to do in the past; about “falconing,” about hunting, and such, because they used to go out with their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers, while we (the girls) were at home with our mothers. You know, the things they used to do, I don’t know, I have no clue. I know that my Dad used to follow certain traditions, and that’s it. I was introduced to this type of cultural history when I was a kid, and now I know very little. Even our farm, where we are now, I haven’t been here for 10 years or more. I don’t even recognize the place.
I love how your mother still has the custom of bringing her female guests bakhour (incense) after mealtime, which the guests waft under their clothes and around their faces. And then your mother brings perfume that she dabs on her female guests’ necks and wrists, as well as a spray perfume for her guests to use. Can you tell me the significance of this?
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. Like 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.
This kind of hospitality is similar to the story you told me about you and your husband in Saudi Arabia when your husband helped the Bedouin in the desert with his truck, and the Bedouin said you have to have dinner with us, and you have to pick a camel that we will slaughter and then share a meal together. It’s one of the biggest Arab traditions, this type of hospitality, you know. It’s known among the Arabs.
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