Women, Culture, and Identity in Qatar – Part 2
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 1 of this interview.
How has your experience been at Swansea University in Wales? Tell me some of the highlights. It’s a Western University, you’re away from home. How is all of that?
It’s tough. I’m going to say, though, I really grew up there.
How so? When you say you grew up there, what does that mean?
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, you know, 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. Like 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.
You know the American dream? I had the American Dream. I wanted to go to the U.S. I wanted to visit New York, Washington, D.C., everywhere. I just wanted to study there. And it’s been my dream since forever. And then my Dad told me, I can’t just send you there by yourself, you’re a girl. And I can’t bear the idea of leaving you there; somebody needs to be with you. And if you could wait two years for your brother it would be fine. And I was like, “No, I’m not going to waste two years of my life to wait for my brother.” I don’t know what he was thinking, and he was wrong. And my Dad said, “Okay, well, if you go to the United Kingdom it’s closer and you have relatives there, and it’s your only option.”
So, I kind of liked the deal, and I knew there were good schools, too, in the United Kingdom. So that’s what I did. I applied everywhere, and I got into Swansea. Don’t ask me why Swansea University. You know, these are things that just happen. You don’t know how. I went and visited the university, and I felt comfortable and like “I am supposed to be there.” So, I went to London in the summer of 2008. I stayed a week in Swansea and a week in London. I liked it, and I told my Dad, I think this is it. I think this is the university I’m supposed to be studying at.
So, you’re studying law at Swansea. What did your family think about you going to a Western university? You had said that it was very important that you had relatives living there.
Yeah, my Dad was very supportive.
What about your Mom?
She was afraid and less supportive than my Dad. She was a bit in denial, and she was like, “Don’t go.” She was, you know – mothers are overprotective. I thought my Dad would be the overprotective one, but apparently it was my mother. Most likely because my Dad went to college in the U.S.
So, what are your plans for the future, and why?
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. Like a part-time job. In the morning I’ll actually practice law, and go back and work at Qtel (Qatar phone company) in the afternoon, because I’m sponsored by Qtel so 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.
How has your broader outlook changed having been part of a Western university? I’m sure these experiences must have changed or broadened your perspective, just like me coming here to the Middle East changed and broadened my perspective. You know, I had a certain image, I thought it would be much more conservative and I wouldn’t really be able to do what I wanted to do, but to be honest with you, I’ve been able to do anything I wanted to do and I’ve learned so much about myself; it’s made me grow. So, I’m wondering how has your perspective and your outlook changed, because of being at Swansea?
I would say I learned to respect people more. Because…that’s a big question. I mean I want to tell you about this stupid, what I think is a stupid mentality. Some Arab people think if you’re not Arab, you’re not the same as them, you’re different. They will never open up to you, and they will never accept you. And me, in turn, it used to be hard for me, as well, in the “old” times. I am an outgoing person, though, so I don’t have issues with making friends. And I like learning, and I like meeting new people. But when it comes to my Qatari friends, one of my best friends, to be honest, is worried about meeting Americans and Westerners, because she thinks they will think she’s different. But the thing is, I know some people who think I’m weird and different.
Thank goodness you are, because you’re you. I find you to be very genuine. Anyway, we’re all a bit weird, aren’t we?
I know that not all people accept me back in the United Kingdom. Even in the U.S. when I visited Oklahama as part of my university program, I know some people who were saying, “Who’s she?” “Where is she from?” And like 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 of the people I know in the UK cannot curse in front of me. I curse; seriously, I feel comfortable doing so. 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?
So, how do you feel when this happens? Because I know what you’re saying, there are some Arab people, too, who will never fully accept me or embrace me, who will never put me in their close circle.
You can’t judge people; you can’t judge a person unless you know that person. I have this thing: you can’t judge me unless you’re God. Every time I have a misunderstanding with people, I’m like, okay, if you don’t like the idea you can say whatever you want, but you can’t judge me unless you’re God.
I agree with you there. Are you being encouraged to get married and settle down, and, if so, how do you feel about that?
I’m not comfortable.
Are you being encouraged by Mama and Baba?
My Mom 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 anyone, I’m not even trying to find someone. 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.
How do you think you’re going to meet that 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. So, I’ve never thought of it, to be honest. Like, my Mom used to do all the thinking for me. She wants me to have children, and I’m not really anxious. Actually, I’m so young, it’s too soon for me to think about it.
How do you think other girls your age feel? Do they feel similarly, or do some want to get married right away?
No, believe it or not, most of my class in high school, who graduated with me, I could say are married right now.
Interesting, because I’m like you. Even in the States, you know, quite a few people when they went to college, after a couple of years were thinking about marriage, but I didn’t really ever think about it. So, I can understand what you mean. So, you’re really an individual; that’s great. I like that. Do you think young men might be intimidated by your impressive educational pursuits and career objectives?
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.
How many children would you like to have? I know that people in the Arab Gulf like to have large families.
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. Because, you know, in the old times it was like just keep, keep, keep having children. I say, No, I have to think how am I 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, I need to be there for them. They need to have my time. Time management is a big issue, and in my type of work 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.
How are you, when you get married and have children, going to balance your work life and your private life, your family life?
I thought I might be a lecturer. Maybe when I get my Ph.D. I will give lectures, like three times a week, so I have more time for the family. I’m planning to have my own like legal practice just to give advice, like family-wise and maybe criminal-wise.
But that wouldn’t be full-time, would it, because I know in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf region here, family is so important. So, you’re not going to be a full-time lawyer, you’ll be part-time, but you’ll still contribute and be influential in some way.
Yeah, true, I’m really looking towards being a lecturer. I think I have my own way, I like conveying messages to people. I want them to feel like I’ve been in both worlds. I’ve seen both worlds. And I could set a good example. I’ve been in the U.S., I’ve been in the U.K., and I’ve been here, and believe it, or not, it’s all the same.
It is. When you get down to it, we’re all flesh and blood.
Because what really matters is the heart.
You know, I’ve been a lot of places in the world and it’s: do you have a good heart, or not. That’s the main thing. You already told me you wanted to go to school in the U.S., at one point, but now you’re not thinking about that, because your father said it is so far away and you would need to be with a relative.
I went there with my father for a short time as part of my university program, and it would be hard to go back. Yes, if I want to go back to the U.S. I would need to be with my sister or a friend. My sister, she’s planning that maybe we could go together to do our Masters.
Okay, so you may still go sometime. Is that still like a dream, that you would really like to go back to the U.S. with your sister?
Yeah, but I feel more comfortable in the U.K. now.
Why is that? Because you’re used to it?
Yeah, used to it. I’ve been there (the U.K.) for close to four years, and I feel more comfortable now. It’s like, I’m not going to say my second home, but it feels like home sometimes.
Do you feel that some people in the U.K. don’t accept you when you’re wearing your headscarf, or that’s not an issue?
In London, it’s not an issue, because it’s called “London Arab.” We even have a section in London that is actually all Arab.
Okay, Sherifa, what final thoughts would you like to share, especially about Qatari culture vs. American/Western culture?
Actually, I feel it’s fascinating to exchange cultural ideas and learn more about each other, and know that we are one people. We’re all determined, going for something. I don’t really see the difference.
More by Michele La Morte-Shbat:
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