Reform is coming to the country of Qatar, but, on my first trip to the Middle East, my impression was that real change is yet to come for Qatari women.
Upon arriving at Doha International Airport, as a 22-year-old American female coming as part of an ABCNEWS Nightline team to cover the then-imminent Iraq war, I took one glance around the baggage claim and realized that, apart from my fellow journalists, every woman was completely covered in the black abaya. Many women wore a second veil over their faces, revealing only their eyes.
The culture in Qatar is very conservative, second only to that of Saudi Arabia. The men, too, wear traditional dress, clad in long white cotton robes and either red or white head scarves.
Not wanting to inadvertently offend anyone, I tried to read the cultural temperature by befriending an American expatriate I met at the gym in our hotel. This woman had moved to Qatar because her husband worked in the oil business. She said that she does not cover her head, but whenever she goes to a public place such as the mall, she wears long sleeves and pants, making sure that her shoulders are covered and her neckline is high.
Her rule served me well during my month in Doha. I was shocked, however, when reading in the club rules for the hotel that Muslim women are asked not to drink, to be accompanied and to cover themselves.
I have to admit that my first impression was that the women's complete covering of themselves gave testament to an ingrained cultural oppression. While walking down the aisles of the Carrefour, equivalent to an American Wal-Mart, just days after my arrival in Doha, I felt a sinking sadness for the abaya-clad women I saw buying groceries for their families and disposable diapers for their children. Coming from a culture that objectifies the every curve of a female's body, this was the opposite extreme. I could not fathom this reality of having to hide yourself from the outside world.
My impressions were fresh and previous knowledge minimal. During my time in Doha, I had the opportunity to speak with students — both male and female, many of them around my own age — at the University of Qatar. And much of what they said has remained with me upon my return.
No Sadie Hawkins Here
The difference in the men and women's campuses at Qatar University is palpable. The men's campus is constructed as a series of modules, connected with covered passageways between the buildings The campus lacks the energy of a bustling university atmosphere, even during peak class hours. We were able to walk freely on this campus and speak with some students who were leaving a biology class.
When asked about their interactions with Qatari women, one student said that unless for a business purpose, he would not speak with a girl. I think I took him by surprise when I asked what he would think of a Qatari girl who came up to talk to him. Although afraid of offending me at first, he finally replied, "I would think she was a whore."
Marriages are still for the most part arranged, and once his family decided upon a girl for him to marry, a young man would be able to go on arranged dates with her. Until then, however, contact between young men and women is frowned upon, even in groups.