Women’s bodies are their property. If they want them to appear in advertisements, or as fictional movie characters, that’s their business. Don’t look at unauthorized photos of anyone, male or female. Whether Kate Middleton or Jennifer Lawrence: looking at leaked photos supports so many ideas antithetical to how you want your mother/sister/wife/daughter/friend/self treated.
Last week I wrote about the criticism a group of Qatari youth received for traveling to Brazil. To be more precise, traveling to Brazil, in a mixed group of men and women, where the females were photographed without veils or wearing traditional dress. On Wednesday I invited us to ruminate on who defined Islam: the masses or the individual?
This week, the company that was sponsoring the trip, Vodafone Qatar, has pulled their support of the trip and by association, the group. Yes, you read that right. A corporate entity, who sent young people to a remote village in the Amazon, where they are currently in basic conditions and far away from their families, disavowed the project midstream.
What’s more important is the psychic effect this has on the participants, particularly the female members of the group. In a traditional, tribal society like Qatar, a person’s reputation is a stand-in for him or her. While the participants were being abandoned abroad, the girls’ families at home were being chastised in a Friday sermon at the mosque; their parents’ actions were being questioned on social media.
The countries in the Arabian Gulf have long walked a fine line between their traditional values and a space at the global table. Westerns may not realize that consumption – iPods, Cadillac, and Coke – do not alleviate conservatism. In fact, for most consumers in the GCC, consumption is an economic activity that does not effect their personal choices (expect perhaps in the case of the BDS movement against Israel). People may stay up all night watching episodes of the sex filled scenes of popular HBO shows but in public they behave appropriately.
A long held practice has been that what happens outside of Qatar is the prerogative of the traveler and his/her family. You would find the bathrooms occupied on flights descending into Qatar as women went to robe themselves in preparation for the Doha International Airport. What the criticism and abandonment of the #qatarfirsts campaign has shown, however, is in a world with social media, this limited space of freedom may no longer be the case. Qatari women’s (and men) right to choose how they conduct themselves while abroad may now be at end.
This is a #qatarfirst but perhaps not in the way the original organizers intended. The first time cyber bullying has gone unchecked. The first time women were publicly shamed for a private choice. Given the plans for the country’s rapid development, and the oft repeated, now synonymous with modernity, the 2022 World Cup.
Let it not be the first time we in the community allow a group to dictate the actions of individuals.
Here’s what you can do:
Reach Vodafone Qatar and tell them their action has been ill advised.
Reach Vodafone’s global office in the UK and let them know their brand is behaving irresponsibly locally.
Use the hashtag #isupportqatarfirsts or #istandwithqatarfirsts on social media to let the team know they are have our support.
Picture this: young Arab women from a small state traveling to the Amazon to help build a school. And in the first trip update, people commenting that they are behaving unislamically. That’s what happened this week when a short video of a group of 7 young Qataris was posted on Facebook with some of the ladies not in headscarves.
A sobering reminder that what women wear (or do) is still not entirely up to them.
If 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.
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.
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?
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.
So bring it on age. The best is yet to come.
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.
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!