women

Barred from Jazz to Burning in Hell: Women, Qatar and Abayas

InstagramHajjaj.111If you alienate the middle, where the moderates are, all you’ll have left is the extreme. We’ve seen this happening in American politics as the Republicans and Democrats hurl insults at each other like parents at a toddler football game. And it’s happening in contemporary society in Qatar in the way people view or sanction behavior.

Take for example the decision banning of my paperback Love Comes Later in March. People in Doha, D.C. and everywhere in between, keep asking me why. Why was it banned? There are a few speculations based on the feedback my distributor gave me: “Because it’s about Qatar and Qataris.” A novel in English, about Qatar, written by an expat. A book that was researched for 3 years, in which the author attempts to represent Qatari life, as accurately as possible for an outsider, without the objectionable sex, politics or atheism, is still unpalatable.

Love Comes Later pops up among a list of titles that include Teaching Abdulla the Terrorist and If the Sun Doesn’t Kill You, the Washing Machine Will. Or more recently The Best Ever Book of Qatari Jokes: Specially Re-purposed for You Know Who. The description reads: “if you don’t burst out laughing from at least one Qatari joke in this book, there’s something wrong with you. This book has so many Qatari jokes; you won’t know where to start. For example: Why do Qataris wear slip-on shoes? You need an IQ of at least 4 to tie a shoelace.”

Take for another, the story of my friend Fatma. She is a dutiful Qatari daughter; she choose a mainstream major as a university student which is when I first met her. She wrote an essay for the Qatar Narratives anthology which was included in the book that became Qatari Voices. Fatma is not a rebel: “Many girls my age feel that they were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place—a place sealed with traditions and at a time that lies in between. But I could not be happier. I have traditions that keep me secure, definite, and relieved at a time that is full of risky choices.”

Fatma is proud of being Qatari. She wears her hijab “properly” (you can’t see any of her hair, her veil comes to her forehead). She’s so thin, Kate Moss would likely cut Fatma to avoid any chance of competition. But you’d never know because her abayas are not shaped to her body but hang loosely. She also loves jazz.

We exchanged a few messages about going out to Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha, the club at the St. Regis hotel in Qatar.

They don’t let Qatari women in I messaged.

I’ve taken off my abaya and they do she replied.

You did? I asked sounding like a shocked grandmother. Taking off your abaya is something Qatari women do when they want to go incognito. Ironically it’s a way of hiding in plain sight: Qataris scan crowds for other Qataris, skipping over expats. I’ve known other friends who have done this to go out with people their families would disapprove of. In Fatma’s case, she wasn’t hiding from family in public, she was doing the necessary, as mandated by law, in order to do something else she loved: listen to live jazz music with female friends.

The week was long, and the nights short with the baby, so I lost track of the conversation and went to bed early. The next day she told me what happened. And her intention to write about it. “I, a Qatari woman, was banned from an event that celebrated the women of jazz.  The obvious irony aside, I also was embarrassed when the guest relation’s manager politely, but firmly denied my entrance.  What really embarrassed me though was the thought that as a citizen of Qatar, I was banned from enjoying this unique art form…in Qatar!”

The first few days, people rallied to her cause. Other women agreed the rule that no Qatari women are allowed in the club – Qatari men not in national dress are – was unfair and silly. Men supported her for speaking out. All of this conversation was in English, on Facebook, or the original blog that posted her piece, JustHere.qa.

Not everyone appreciated the irony that jazz appreciation, like so many other specialized new activities in Qatar, cannot be enjoyed by half the citizens in the country. As Fatma says: “Nonetheless, I tolerated that no ‘national dress’ rule, donned a colorful hijab, modest shirt and skirt and went for one purpose: to enjoy jazz as it’s meant to be heard – live. Now, it would seem that ‘national dress’ is no longer an issue. Women are the issue. Qatari women.”

Others joined the conversation in full force, her critics posting under nicknames.

Commentators on an Arabic site asked how dare a Qatari woman go to a club that serves alcohol and take off her abaya.

She was called “an infidel, atheist, slut, will never get married, should burn in hell, ignorant, outcast who belongs to here on papers only, a shame to her tribe.” She was told she “should leave.” One commentator deduced “this is what studying abroad does to women.”

Fatma completed her degree at the national university that has separate campuses for male and female students.

There are multiple layers of conversation here; about what is acceptable behavior for women, either in written or physical form, whether expat or Qatar.  On both levels we see a society that has many ambivalent attitudes towards women’s place in the  public sphere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Monday Mindfulness: Your Time, Talent, and Treasure

English: Actress Cate Blanchett at the 2011 Sy...

English: Actress Cate Blanchett at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Regardless of whether or you watch the Oscars, you likely watch a movie every now and then.

What Cate Blanchett said in her acceptance speech has been picked up by news outlets around the world.

You could see it as two time winner chastising a male dominated industry: “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences.”

Or a call to the rest of us to prove that “Audiences want to see them [female centric films] and in fact, they earn money.”

Cate reminds us that how we spend our money is perhaps as important as where we spend our time.

What industry would you like to see grow? Spend your time, talent and treasure there.

 

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Wordless Wednesday: Are You Man Enough?

A great idea I discovered this week: men of various ages and races, in communities around the world, gathering together to “walk a mile in her shoes.” These men are walking to raise awareness (and money) to fight domestic violence as well as sexual assault against women. I love this idea because violence against women affects men AND women. Once we mobilize the good guys, as well as gals, we’re using both sides of the equation.

Have you heard of a good idea recently?

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Your CV is Incredible… For an Indian Woman

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Me in my 20′s.

Yes, that was what someone said to me in a direct message on Twitter. The irony is that the sender likely thought he was paying me a compliment (since his bio lists “life coach” among other roles).

Good news is that on my mid 30s birthday, I can’t be bothered to get upset about this backward compliment.

Because unlike in my 20s – when I had all the earnestness of the me of the present – I have a few more wrinkles and pounds. Yet now people take me more seriously.

authorphoto.2014

Me nowadays.

So bring it on age. The best is yet to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wordless Wednesday: Nanny Diaries, Doha Edition 2 with Vicky

It took nearly two months but someone finally trusted me enough to share her story. I’m amazed how many women are scared of repercussions from their employers. Not by the ‘bad’ ones who don’t pay well or are aggressive in their assignment of tasks, but also of the ‘good’ ones who work in fields like education, where one would expect (rightly or wrongly) more kindness to domestic staff.

Hear what this working mother has to say about why she went overseas to work as a nanny/housemaid.

 

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Love: Capitalism’s Best Seller

Cover design by Hamda Al Kuwari and Fatima Al Salat

We hear songs, watch movies, and yes, read books about that most elusive of emotions: love. No matter if your culture practices arranged marriages (Indian/Arab) or not (the west). No matter if your parents are divorced (fell out of love) or not. No matter if you are married (harder to stay in love?) or not. I could tell you how at one point in human history marriage was thought of a business transaction, a way to consolidate wealth within families or across countries. Or that modern society has not eased up on women to have a man (and a baby or two) in order to think we have it all. You’re smart. You know these schemes around the world’s most sought after prize — finding one’s soul mate.

Love is at the core of contemporary culture. Despite your best efforts, there’s no way to avoid it. From Bollywood to Hollywood the themes are the ones passed to us by the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Star crossed lovers; repudiated love; timid love; the plot lines are as familiar as the headlines for celebrity breakups. Were, for example, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes ever in love? Or was it a career furthering scheme drafted in the cold light of day between agents? What will happen to Suri Curise, the tiny fashion maven?

Those are questions for a very different story than the one I wrote inspired by the dreams, wishes, and desires of young people living in Qatar.

Love Comes Later is my second novel, a meditation on how non-western people of this generation will find happiness. I’m excited to say the book is now available for purchase on Amazon.com.

As a writer I’m not immune to the questions of the commercial love machine. After all romance readers account for a large portion of book sales year round. Romance writers are like country singers; they come out with albums on a yearly basis and their fans make them best sellers. I’m not sure if I’m going to become what’s called a genre writer and stick only to romance from now on. This story, of three protagonists, Abdulla, Hind, and Sangita, came to me as a love triangle.

I can tell you that based on the five books I’ve released this year, the novel is the one everyone gets excited about. Short stories and essays may get a passing look, but a novel still seems to inspire more wonder and likelihood of risk on a new author. This new project will help me further test my hypothesis… or you can share your thoughts on my theory and enlighten me.

If you like your romance more visual than textual, then have a look at the book’s YouTube trailer. As always, writers need readers, so please take a second and let me know what you think!

 

 

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From Dunes to Dior

 

Chennai in India

Chennai in India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

July 2012 will mark seven years that I have lived in Qatar. Seven consecutive years is my record with only three other cities in the world. Doha joins a short list which includes Gainesville, Florida and Raleigh, North Carolina.

My formative years in American suburbia had erased most traces of my parents’ sub-continental pronunciation in my own speech. My “h” was “h”; not the “heche” of my parents.  I was American in sight and sound. However, on the inside, I was still Indian. By looking at me, you couldn’t sense there was a war being waged on the inside. To the outside world, identity was measured by clothing and speech—having an established Western orientation in both cases,  I was regarded as one of the crowd by my white, Southern classmates. On these counts I failed both tests and was eyed with suspicion by the other housewives at my mother’s parties. But blue jeans and flat vowels never hinted at  the inner world of my family or what happened when the front door closed on our home.
Inside life was governed by the same principles that had ruled my mother’s teenage years in Chennai, India. No movies after seven p.m. In fact, no women outside the house after dark, not for football games, parties, or sleepovers.

Like so many of the “American Born Confused Desi generation,” referred amongst ourselves as the ABCD generation, I was a socially emaciated, well-behaved Indian daughter who railed at endless parental restrictions. The split identity meant non-relatives never saw all of me. They only knew “white” me. Meanwhile my immediate family thought they might lose me to the outside world, so they mounted an “it’s better in India” campaign to override my resistance and

North America

North America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

suspicious of inferiority with reasons for our cultural superiority.

“A better maths education,” was one of my father’s favorite refrains as I remained confounded by geometry.

“No child shows an over-dependence on calculators,” he would say throwing up his hands on yet another weekend when I failed to solve one of his problem sets…

Respect for elders – children taking care of their aging parents – more of it in India.

“Marriage as a commitment.”

My mother wouldn’t  say more but implied where a boy and girl learn to love rather than fall into it is taken more seriously in India.

I didn’t ask the obvious question, although it hammered in my brain; If everything is better there, what are we doing here? I didn’t dare. Partly out of fear of my father, but also partly out of fear there would be no answer.

What if the secret behind our semi-nomadic life had no greater answer than my father’s wanderlust? What if a series of pharmacology grants was the single red line on the map leading us from a veterinary program in South India to a series of North American institutions?

I continued to play these two parts simultaneously; intensely outgoing and enthusiastic – “American” – and constantly communicating with my parents – “Indian.” I didn’t find the bridge that spanned the outside/inside gap until later, after college and graduate school, when my own desires for professional fulfillment and monetary rewards led me to move several times. This realization emerged slowly as pieces of a scattered puzzle – from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C. – as I met more of my generation, children of immigrant parents from all over the world, juggling these competing demands. Then, for the second time in my life, globalization entered stage left, having already taken me as a small child with my adventurous father and sheltered mother from Chennai, India onto and all over the North American continent.

This time I traveled alone, east, not west, ending up four hours from my birthplace. I landed in the Arabian Gulf, thousands of miles from my upbringing in North America, and in an ironic twist, closer to the extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, than any of my immediate family. Situated in Qatar, I found myself in a region often described as a human rights quagmire for migrant South Asian workers. The questions from my young adult years resurfaced within the minutiae of life in the Gulf. Their return disturbed my temporarily coalesced identity. Familiar, opposing pressures reappeared – the tension between an outside/public life and the inside/private one, the contradiction between physical appearance and personal affiliation – and my newly gathered reflection erupted like a cracked mirror, splintered pieces flying in all directions.

The splinters of being South Asian American in an Arab country and the echoes of my teenage angst are the stories I tell in From Dunes to Dior which will be soon be released as an e-book on Amazon.com. You’ll see some of the contrasts in Qatar in the book trailer.

In the meantime, enjoy one of my other four ebooks – on everything from modern motherhood to how to get started as a writer. The best part is they are ALL free to download until May 16, 2012. Drop me a line (or a review) and let me know what you thought about any or all of them. Happy reading!

 

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The Strong Female (aka Why You Need a Brand)

Last week I hosted my first ever live video chat to talk about self publishing with those who are considering it as an alternative to commercial publishing. I was wracked by nerves, extroverted me who presents at international conferences and have been speaking in public since my high school graduation. The live chat stretched me out of my comfort zone as I keep developing this thing called a writer’s platform. What if nobody shows, I worried. Is the lighting in this room too dim? The live chat came and went (people did show and ask some really good questions) and I realized both how much I had learned about publishing ebooks in the last 8 months as well as how risky it felt to try something new.

Being an author is taking a series of risks; putting your words on paper means that others will read them when you’re not around and draw their own conclusions without the benefit of your expansive comments. For women, the type of self promotion required by indie publishing can often feel uncomfortable, if like me, you were taught that talent shines on its own without having to push oneself forward.

That may be true for some, but for the indie author, male or female, hanging on the fringes of social media waiting to be noticed will have about the same results as sleeping on your manuscript and hoping you wake up to a completed book. You have to put yourself out there. There is no way around it. Even commercially published authors have to go on book tours, meeting with book clubs, talk to media outlets. People can’t read your book if they don’t know about you. And if you’re a writer, not just an author (someone with more than one title in you) then people have to identify with your brand.

Check out my branding trailer (which was another step outside my comfort zone last week). A branding trailer lets you know what an author is about: what kinds of book(s) she writes, what people think about her work. In this one I also have quotes from my reviewers (some people have review trailers as a separate genre). Feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you thought or if you have questions.

 

You can also read this guest post by Sheryl Steines, author of the urban fantasy novel, The Day of First Sun where she talks about the challenges facing not just women writers in promoting themselves but also promoting strong female characters.

The Strong Female

I am always amazed to hear that, in the year 2012, women are still talking about strong female characters. It’s funny that we’re always surprised when one comes along. Even in Hollywood, actresses still can’t find roles to sink their teeth into. As a reader, I look for characters that I can relate to in some way; a character who is more than a damsel in distress but less than an unfeeling, mean, witch. I’m putting it gently, but I’m looking for someone, who when facing a problem, doesn’t necessarily need a man to bail her out–a woman who can take care of herself in spite of her vulnerabilities. Because in reality, women are multi-layered and complex. We don’t fall to one end of an extreme or the other.

When I was younger, I started reading Danielle Steele, but I couldn’t read her for long. Her female characters were far too needy and always put themselves in a position of requiring a savior. Even as a child, I couldn’t help but wonder why these characters always needed a man to improve their lives. Why couldn’t they simply take care of themselves? It seemed as though female characters fell into two camps, and only two. They were either villains, witches, someone to be hated and despised, or they were weak, pathetic, your classic damsels in distress. Why is fiction lacking real women, women who can simply be human and celebrate all that they are?

As I got older, I found myself drawn to shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I saw in Buffy a strong character. Yes, she could kick ass, kill the vampires and fight the demons. She also had a brain, could plan, and could save the world each week. But she wasn’t uni-dimensional. She also has a side that liked clothes, shoes and boys, a side that was feminine, a little vulnerable; a side that, okay, sometimes needed to be saved. She was a complex female character, real and human, a character with whom I could definitely relate.

The strong female character isn’t a caricature or stereotype. She’s not a total wimp like Snow White, and she’s not a total monster like the evil queen. She falls somewhere in the middle. She’s reactive, emotional, human, sexual, confident and sometimes unsure of herself.

When I originally wrote my character Annie Pearce in The Day of First Sun, I wrote her as a no-nonsense person, strong and smart, the girl who could survive on her own. But she didn’t feel genuine. As the story unfolded and changed, I rewrote her, gave her friends and family with whom she could interact. I gave her feelings, gave her stress. I let the other characters take charge once in awhile and offer some support. I melded two halves into one woman–a strong woman, who can take care of herself and ask for help when necessary. We’re not perfect, so why should our characters be? Instead, why can’t we make them simply authentic?

Charlize Theron made a really compelling comment regarding her character in the movie Young Adult. She said, “Women are usually either really good prostitutes or really good mothers. Maybe women are finally getting the chance to play more honest characters,” Theron said. “We usually don’t get to play bad hookers or bad mothers — or anything in between.”

Maybe it’s time to be a little more real and a little more honest.

 

As part of this special promotional extravaganza sponsored by Novel Publicity, the price of the Day of First Sun eBook edition is just 99 cents this week. What’s more, by purchasing this fantastic book at an incredibly low price, you can enter to win many awesome prizes. The prizes include $450 in Amazon gift cards, a Kindle Fire, and 5 autographed copies of the book.

All the info you need to win one of these amazing prizes is RIGHT HERE. Remember, winning is as easy as clicking a button or leaving a blog comment–easy to enter; easy to win!

To win the prizes:

  1. Purchase your copy of The Day of First Sun for just 99 cents
  2. Fill-out the simple form on Novel Publicity
  3. Visit today’s featured social media event

Help my blog win:

The tour blogger who receives the most votes in the traffic-breaker poll will win a $100 gift card. When you visit Novel Publicity’s site to fill-out the contest entry form, don’t forget to VOTE FOR ME.

About the book: A vampire, a rogue wizard and an army of soulless zombies are par for the course for Annie Pearce and Bobby “Cham” Chamsky of the Wizard’s Guard. But when the non-magical princess, Amelie of Amborix, is murdered by magical means, a deeper plot unfolds. Get it on Amazon.

About the author: Behind the wheel of her ’66 Mustang Convertible, Sheryl is a constant surprise, using her sense of humor and relatable style make her books something everyone can enjoy. Visit Sheryl on her website, Twitter, Facebook, or GoodReads.

 

 

 

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Counter Cultures Eventually Go Mainstream: “Boyas” in Qatar

I’m a default random thoughts type because I’m a writer. No matter the people, country, or time period, the role of a writer remains the same: to notice, reflect or ponder the meaning behind the everyday. This past weekend I went to two events on back to back evenings where I saw something which was interesting in and of itself – a counter youth culture amongst young women in Qatar – made slightly dramatic by the reactions others had to them.

Damn She's Tall by Moggs Oceanlane

In  fishbowl like Doha, where the entire population hovers near 2 million and the nationals number 250,o00, you notice those who are different.  I’ve talked a lot about how I stand out as a western educated South Asian American woman in a sea of nannies, cooks, and maids. Depending on who is in a room when I walk into a meeting, there can be everything from mild surprise to indifference, or even hostility. The boyas, or girls whose dress is masculine, evoke similar reactions at all the female parties. (That was redundant to those who have lived in the GCC for a while: parties are gender segregated.)

Going to a wedding is no small thing: I had to find a dress, go to a salon to do my hair, pick out shoes, (“Wear pewter color, ma’am,” the girl sales girl told me, impressing me with her vocabulary. I did as I was told) select jewelry and then apply make up. It’s the western equivalent of a prom, with a bride who comes in at midnight. And all of this for an all female audience. People from the West often exclaim “What’s the point?” when they learn there aren’t men around. And this is an interesting reaction: after all, do we only look good for others? Is there no need for approval from other women? So many things about the assumptions of cult of beauty are challenged in an all female environment (though the cattiness and judgement can still remain. Someone whispered “I hate her, she’s so skinny” as another girl walked by). A standard practice is to change your display picture on your phone to show friends (usually only all girls because of the prohibitions of hijab) your glammed up self. “Hot!” A few people messaged me back when I sent photos of the end result (which they requested).

Has a New Evening Gown by Juan Manuel

When I got to the wedding, that of all the female family and friends who knew the either the bride or the groom, there were more exclamations, this time from my students. Because  while I am well heeled according to some people’s definitions of female faculty, in the land of designer brands, I’m probably only just

serviceable in two inch heels. On a day I’d rather exercise and be on time to class than put on eye liner, it never fails that someone says: “You look tired.”

In the Oscar like garden of floor length dresses that women wear to weddings, some of the boyas were wearing pants, button down shirts, and even a vest or two. The effect was that they not only stood out, as perhaps my being one of a handful of foreigners did (and the only Indian invited as a guest, while there were many Filipino maids standing in attendance on their older patrons) but they demanded attention by sheer dint of their professed masculinity.

Amongst the yards, and yards of teased, curled, and sprayed hair (mine being no exception) not to mention hundreds of dollars of extensions, the boyas had cropped hair, close to their chin and ears. In some cases they came in with girls, ultra feminine, either as escorts or friends, there was no way to be sure.  Some say that having another girl, a masculine boya, is a substitute for the value added by a male admirer – which in this gender segregated society would be construed negatively. (In either case their sexuality is not really the point of these ruminations: the expression of a public, counter persona  in a communal society is.)

The next night at a fundraiser, a friend said: “I’ve never been with so many in one room.”

The boyas were out in full force, about four or five in a group of eight or so: one girl wearing cut off shorts and biker-style jacket amidst Chanel and couture party dresses. This time they seemed less like standouts and more like a gang or cult. There were clear expectations of dress (masculine, boxy, pants, no dresses) hair (if not short, then styled up in mohawk like ridges) and they hung in tight clusters, really only talking to the people they had come in with. Yet everyone was talking about them. Rather than seem disturbed by this obvious fact, the boyas seemed to enjoy it. They walked into the room as confident as anyone else and has a good a time as the rest of us, judging by their smiles, laughter, comings and goings.

This reminded me a bit of the research I did for my Hip Hop book. Before the days of Footloose and Pepsi commercials break dancing was thought of as street culture; beat bopping and rapping didn’t always make people into millionaires and a pimp’s life often had as many problems as his hoes. When the record industry realized there were multimillion to be made from hip hop, the fringe culture of youth on the streets went from the inner cities into the cars of white boys in the suburbs and then across the oceans onto posters on the walls of teenage rooms around the world. The margin became the center.

That’s not the scale of what we’re seeing yet with the boyas. And given the social and religious strictures, we may not. But that’s not really the point, at least for those who are using this identity at the present moment. For now they seem to be happy as the thorns among the roses.

 

A Life Lived Five Years at a Time

Me, 2008, that's a doctoral 'hood'.

January 2012 marks my return to a place I prepared for academically but never mentally: teaching university students. I went from undergrad straight into graduate school and then on to finish a PhD. Along the way I lost sight of what I really wanted because of the grumpy academics that lined the walls of the English departments I studied in. Their officiousness (and multiple marriages) were not desirable qualities.

If I had been honest with my twentysomething self, I would have also known that my academic persona didn’t jell with the person I thought myself to be. I was in a small circle of friends who married immediately out of college and began the business of setting up their own households. I had no such prospects in sight: only scholarships for more degrees.

“I’m never going to use this degree,” I said. “I’m getting it because I’m young, not married, and I can do it now.” Continue reading

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