I remember reading Leila Ahmed’s book in a course on feminism at university. I didn’t like it much. I didn’t like the teacher either. She was like, ‘Islam is anything people say it is.’ No, Islam has a certain set of things … if you make it whatever then it’s meaningless.
There is a new book by Saba Mahmood that offers a new take on feminism.
I don’t understand why feminists are against hygiene. I mean, it’s fine if you want to take down the power structure, but can’t you smell good doing it?
The above conversation took place at Johara’s family home in Doha, the capitol of Qatar, at a weekly gathering that she organised for her female friends and family members, who represented diverse nationalities and educational backgrounds. Johara wanted the space to be a place for Qatari and non-Qatari women to share their concerns, ideas and thoughts about Qatari society. On this particular evening, Johara instigated a conversation on Western feminism by sharing her experiences with Leila Ahmed’s work, which she was exposed to while doing her Masters in London. Jamila, a Canadian Pakistani working at one of the American branch campuses in Education City, suggests Saba Mahmood’s 2005 book represents Muslim women’s piety more faithfully than Western feminists have done in the past.1 She is unsuccessful in swaying Johara’s opinion about Western feminists, as Johara continues to criticise the appearance of feminists she met in these classes. She takes issue with the way they present themselves, arguing that it was ineffective for their larger mission. This is reflected in her comment, ‘It’s fine if you want to take down the power structure, but can’t you smell good doing it?’
Johara’s concerns regarding the approach of Western feminists represents a larger issue facing Gulf Muslim women: how to reconcile the images and ideas the West has created about the region, with their own realities as well-educated, wealthy and cosmopolitan female citizens of a nascent nation-state. This tension was a recurring theme in conversations with Qatari women I met through my field research on the modernisation of the Qatari education system. As I interacted with Qatari women in their home as well as in institutions of higher education and the workplace, I began to see creative ways in which Qatari women combined forms of capital, such as cultural capital or access to higher education, with ‘kinship capital’ or access to family ties in the space of the home majlis. This is seen in the situation above, where Johara uses her cultural capital, gained through her Master’s degree at a university in London, to demonstrate that she knows the literature on feminism. Instead of fighting patriarchy, she suggests that women could also be effective if they try to fit themselves into the society they want to change by dressing and acting in ways that are socio-culturally acceptable to the family and kinship system. For Johara and similarly well-educated and wealthy Qatari women, working within Qatari society meant accessing multiple sources of capital and working within institutions such as the family and the state. They viewed their families as sources of kinship capital that could then be combined with cultural capital to affirm their roles within the Qatari family and larger society.
In the following analysis of majlis gatherings, I demonstrate how Qatari women use these forms of capital to position themselves as members of the family and the Qatari nation. I begin by outlining the demographic differences between the family and friends majlis gatherings and how I entered the spaces because of the women’s expanding cultural capital and higher education. Then I illustrate the focus on kinship capital in the family majlis gathering, but pinpoint the ways in which cultural capital can come to enhance a women’s role in the family. Next, I move to the friends majlis, where a stronger emphasis is placed on cultural capital, which heightens a desire to reinforce kinship capital, especially where marriage is concerned. Finally, I draw out the similarities in both women’s gatherings, reflecting on the combined use of kinship and cultural capital as a way literally and metaphorically to give women ‘a place to sit’ in both the home and in society. In conclusion, I analyse the effect of combining these sources of capital, which I argue is a significant change in the narrative Qatari women have about themselves as well as a tangible movement in what they are able to do in Qatari society. I discuss why this framework takes us beyond the binaries of public/private to explore the multiplicative effects of different forms of capital as well as space.
The Malleability of the Majlis
I begin by discussing the space of the majlis and the many possibilities it holds as a transitional space between the private Qatari home and the public Qatari state. As a malleable and transitional space, it represents and makes space for the intersection of domestic and public as well as the different forms of capital that hold greater weight in each. The Arabic word majlis comes from the root word jalasa which has to do with the act of sitting. The term majlis is regionally used to refer to gatherings where the male patriarchs of the clan or tribe discuss political and social issues.2 Across the region, these spaces in the home that are designated for socialising and hosting guests are broadly subsumed under the term majlis, but there are regional variations in terminology. In neighbouring Kuwait, the diwân is the preferred term for talking about gatherings focused on political topics, while the mafraj is used to refer to the men’s majlis at the top of the Yemeni tower home. In Qatar, the home majâles, plural of majlis, can be used by both men and women, but is predominantly used by women, as men often prefer to go out to larger and often politically charged majlis gatherings. The variations in terminology and location of the majlis in the Gulf home illustrates the malleable nature of the space as it can account for political as well as social gatherings for family and friends (Kotnick 2005; Stephenson 2011).
The traditional Gulf women’s majlis, as recorded in ethnographies about women in Yemen and Oman, entailed negotiating relationships with kin and displaying wealth, generosity and piety. Carla Makhlouf (1979) and Anne Meneley (1996) illustrate Yemeni women’s social gatherings as occurring parallel to male gatherings and posit that while the women negotiated power in the family, the men negotiated power in the community. Meneley (1996), in particular, has demonstrated the pivotal role women play in maintaining family honour through visits, gift exchanges and marriages that tie families together and substantiate a family’s social status in the community. These actions contributed to the accumulation of what I term ‘kinship capital’. These ethnographic and local narratives have tried to counter the oriental perception of Gulf women as locked away in the harem, a private realm, with little to no influence on the public, or social and political affairs.3
A few studies on Gulf women have discussed the convergence of the public and private in the majlis space and its potential political function in Kuwait and Yemen, a function that is also increasingly being explored by Qatari women (Kotnick 2005; Meneley 1996; Stephenson 2011).4 Kotnick argues that the Western perception of Arab homes as distinctly binary and hierarchical is inaccurate and uses the example of the Yemeni tower home, whose ‘pattern of movement, with its physical crossing of the other gender’s space, results in a symbolic interweaving of the exterior with the interior’ (2005: 481).5 Thus, while the women’s majlis is a forbidden space for men, women are extended greater flexibility of movement in the home and move in and out of the household spaces in ways men cannot. Kotnick argues that men have less space and freedom within the home, suggesting certain limits to patriarchy. The malleability and flexibility in the organisation of homes in the region has been missing from historical depictions of the traditional Arab house, which emphasized the fixed quality of female- and male-only spaces (Bourdieu 1960).
Stephenson outlines the Kuwaiti diwâniyya as operating within three spheres: the domestic, private and public (2011: 187). Stephenson makes this distinction in order to demonstrate the malleability of the space and to illustrate, similar to Kotnick, that women and men cut across the private and public binary more frequently than has been imagined and represented by Western academics. Furthermore, Stephenson observes four different types of diwâniyya gatherings among Kuwaiti women, from the most common to least common: jalsat (general gatherings of family and friends), dars dini (religious lessons held weekly, appealing to the older generation), friends’ diwâniyya (held privately and for socio-political reasons similar to the men’s diwân) and finally the explicitly political diwân (held by prominent and well-known female politicians). Stephenson is interested in the political role of the women’s diwâniyya, suggesting that it could mirror the role of the men’s diwâniyya, particularly during the election season, by informing women about the issues and allowing them forums to discuss the political candidates and their positions. While Kotnick and Stephenson offer a detailed survey of the architecture, history and contemporary use of majlis-like spaces, they do not discuss interactions and conversations that occur within the space of the women’s majlis/diwân and the increasingly important role of women’s education in the Gulf.
Qatari Women’s Cultural and Kinship Capital in the Home Majlis
My ethnographic fieldwork with Qatari women confirms the malleable use of the majlis space, but goes further into detail regarding the conversations that occur in these spaces as well as how women combine various forms of capital to participate in a modern Qatari society. In using the term ‘cultural capital’, I am referencing Bourdieu’s (1977) original definition of the term which emphasizes class privilege in the education system, which then takes on a formal authority and gives the upper classes greater institutional power and privileges. While education is supposed to replace cultural capital, it in actuality enhances the power of the dominant class over others by affirming their superiority in their attainment of higher levels of education (Bourdieu 1977). In addition to Bourdieu’s definition of cultural capital as constitutive of both social class privilege and educational attainment, I am also interested in the ways kinship can be a source of capital. In order to account for the sources of capital women accumulate through their kinship networks, I introduce the term ‘kinship capital’, to function in a very similar way to Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’. Under this term, I place practices, primary among them engaging in kinship networking, gender segregation and veiling, that identify Qatari women as respectable members of the Qatari family. This term captures the continuing significance of the family in Gulf society as a source of women’s social capital, especially in regard to making successful marriage matches as well as passing down Qatari culture and language to a new generation of Qataris. I utilise the term ‘kinship’ instead of ‘social capital’ more generally because the source of capital is tied so closely to women’s relationships with family members, whether they be matriarchs, their spouses or their children.
Family and Friends Majlis Gatherings: Women’s Expanding Social Networks
My research is based on eleven months of fieldwork in Doha, where I attended several women’s majlis gatherings and met with Qatari women in coffee shops and restaurants. During these gatherings, upper-class Qatari women discussed social and personal issues that ranged from work to family and politics. These discussions reflect a critical moment in the burgeoning Qatari nation, where women are seen as potential allies and supporters in what Najmabadi (2005) calls the ‘heteronormative’ state.6 In particular, I analyse two types of majâles: one that primarily supports kin, which I term the ‘family majlis’ and another that consists of an eclectic mix of family, friends and acquaintances, held in the vein of a political salon, which I refer to as a ‘friends majlis’ (Russell 2006).7 I was invited to attend both majlis gatherings because of higher-education connections with Johara and Maryam, my primary interlocutors in these gatherings.
For the family majlis (see Table 1), I generated the table based on Maryam’s network, who took the initiative to invite non-kin to her family majlis, the primary function of which was to support the family network. The women in this gathering had either completed their bachelor’s or were on their way to doing so, but the vast majority would be expected to marry soon after. As seen in the column regarding work, the majority did not work outside the home and, if they did, it was in gender-segregated fields such as teaching.
|Amina S.||High School||—||Married||Aunt|
|Aisha M.||No Schooling||—||Widow||Grandmother|
In the friends majlis (see Table 2), the women’s relationships were formed through shared educational experiences as well as work relationships, but there were several members who were related to the host, Johara. These women had an overall higher-educational attainment and many were working in private sectors, which were gender-mixed, as well as small business owners. All of the women’s names as well as their work and educational affiliations have been changed in order to protect their identity.
Socio-economically speaking, the women were all part of the middle and upper classes of Qatari society. Maryam and Johara’s fathers both have close relationships with the ruling Al-Thani family that extends back for generations. The Al-Attiya family represents the more conventional expectations of Qatari women, to go from ‘parents to husband’, as one Emirati academic describes it (Findlow 2012). Most Al-Attiya women are expected to go to college, but then get married and raise a family, as working is a sign that the husband cannot provide for the family. This is reflected in Qatar Statistics Authority’s report in 2011 that 33 per cent of Qatari women aged 15 and above are housewives. Another 31 per cent are actively employed, plus another 2.5 per cent who are looking for employment (see Table 3).
Qatari women, similar to women in most Gulf countries, are still overwhelmingly employed in the public sector in fields of education, health care and clerical work. In 2006, only 1 per cent of Qatari high school females wanted to work in the private sector and 75 per cent in the public sector (Stasz et al. 2007). The primary reason women dislike the private sector is because of the mixed-gender environment which challenges conservative religious beliefs in the region (Rutledge et al. 2011). We will see that many of the women in the friends majlis prefer gender-segregated fields, having experienced both environments. In both groups, many women were teachers or were self-employed, reflecting a preference across both gatherings for gender-segregated workspaces.
|Source: Qatar Statistics Authority Labor Force Sample Survey 2011, Table 4|
|Unemployed with previous employment||206||101|
|Seeking work for first time||659||2,071|
In the following analysis of each type of majlis gathering, I demonstrate how Qatari women use multiple forms of capital to position themselves as members of the family, nation and international community. I emphasize the role of non-Qataris, like myself, in the majlis space as well as in the larger Qatari society, because we serve as symbols of Western perceptions of Gulf women and a foil for Qatari women to discuss their emerging roles in Qatari society. There were important distinctions between the two types of majâles, with the family majlis gatherings requiring respect and deference for the older generation and tradition and the friends majlis raising pressing concerns and anxieties about gender and sexuality in Qatari society. Regardless, both types of majâles required Qatari women to combine capital in the forms of cultural and kinship capital.
The Family Majlis and the Centrality of Kinship Capital: ‘To My Grandmother, to Show my Respect’
‘[F]or our women … they see this [education] as a way out if, for example they never get married or they do get married, they have something there. Otherwise … Most of our women they move from parents to husband.’—Fatima, an Emirati academic (Findlow 2012: 122)
The socio-cultural expectation was for Al-Attiya women to get married and begin creating their own family and kin networks. When I first met her, Maryam was engaged to a cousin she remembered playing with as a child, but did not have contact with as an adult. For Maryam, her early marriage (directly after college) could be attributed to her attractive appearance and her reputation, strengthened by her attendance at the weekly majlis gatherings. Even after marriage, she continued to attend her grandmother’s majlis and encourage her sisters and cousins to follow traditional expectations for Qatari women, such as using chauffeurs, getting married and raising kids.
Maryam implied that her grandmother would get upset if she did not see members of the family at the majlis and was particularly fond of her, saying ‘I always try to bring something, a dessert or another dish, to my grandmother’s to show my respect’. Maryam’s grandmother had the reputation of being very pious and hardworking. She wore a batula (a bronze coloured mask) on her face and rarely took off her black abaya, an overdress, which was left open to reveal her patterned house dress. She was for all practical purposes illiterate, able to read the Qur’an but not newspapers or books. Despite her lack of education and cultural capital, Maryam’s grandmother played an important role as the matriarch of the family because it is individuals like her who gather the Qatari family regularly within the space of the family majlis. Within this gender-segregated space, Qatari women model and enact the various sources of kinship capital available to the younger generation. Primary among these are respecting family networks through visits and exchanges, gender segregation, veiling and marriage, which combine to create a strong family name and reputation. In addition to kinship capital, the new generation of educated Qatari women, also had recourse to cultural capital, which they use to support and defend a women’s role in the Qatari kinship network. In the following vignettes, I demonstrate how Maryam and her sisters used their cultural capital to defend Qatari traditions of gender segregation as well as the important role of women in maintaining strong kinship ties.
One evening, Maryam engaged in a debate with Sara, an American studying Arabic at Qatar University, over the face veil and the rationale for women not driving in Qatar. On the subject of women not driving, Maryam argued that it ‘was for the protection of Qatari women’, asking ‘What happens if a woman’s car breaks and she is alone in the night?’ Sara did not respond to that point, but asked if it was inconvenient for them ‘to not go where they wanted to go’? Maryam responded, ‘I have many drivers to take me places. I prefer being safe with my sisters.’ Maryam used her ability to speak English to engage Sara in a debate and to demonstrate that she had thought through the logic of the situation. For Maryam, using drivers and going places with her sister made her feel safe. She also hints at her relative wealth by noting that ‘I have many drivers to take me places’. By combining access to kinship capital, in which she draws on her sisters for support, as well as an increase in cultural and economic capital, Maryam aligns her family’s values regarding women’s mobility and safety with her independence as an educated Qatari women. She uses Sara’s presence to present a Qatari woman’s ‘choice’ to not drive as rooted in practical as well as familial strategies. She is not alone in wanting security for herself, but acts within the network of the family, which has created a system by which not driving is perceived as convenient, safe and protective of the family. It is important to note that Maryam took the lead in this discussion and used her English language skills, in which she was majoring, to illustrate that she could explain the logic to Sara. In this way, she was activating her access to cultural capital to reinforce the importance of being responsible and respectable in making choices that would affect her kinship capital. In the following conversation, Maryam again encourages Qatari women to combine forms of capital to protect the family, in particular, the younger generations.
Keeping Up with Kin: ‘It Is the Mother’s Duty (Wâjib) to Raise Her Children and Teach Them’
Another discussion that illustrated Maryam’s desire to use education as an additional source of capital ensued when a small group of Maryam’s sisters and cousins began discussing the use of nannies from Southeast Asia to help raise Qatari children. Maryam was adamant that she would raise her own children because ‘Qatari women should not leave their children with nannies’. Maryam’s sister Noura agreed that ‘it is the mother’s duty (wâjib) to raise her children and teach them’. Maryam described the effects of leaving children with nannies, saying ‘when children spend too much time with the nanny, they pick up broken English and Arabic and are ill-mannered’. In this discussion, Maryam distinguishes herself and other Qatari woman as being better educated than their nannies and therefore more capable of educating their children. The recourse to cultural capital makes Qatari women more, not less, responsible for protecting the Qatari family and potentially enhances a Qatari women’s kinship capital.
The conversation also illustrates the women’s perception of themselves as modern and educated, distinct from the labour classes and migrants who came to Qatar to work as nannies and drivers in their households, schools and businesses. The women’s exposure to Western-style education, their travels and their access to wealth positioned them as relatively well off and socially mobile. Maryam, her sisters and family members all wanted to take advantage of their education, wealth and social position to ensure that their children’s socio-economic position in society would be secured. In line with this desire for social positioning was also a clear sense of obligation to family and the kinship network. Maryam wanted her children to not only know English well, but also Arabic. She wanted them to have exposure to Western-style education but also religious and cultural traditions that could only be passed on through the family and kinship capital.
Maryam, after graduating from Qatar University with a degree in English Language and Literature, would go on to pursue a study of French. She did this while supporting her husband by joining him in London as he trained to become a part of the army. She followed her own advice and devoted herself to raising her own children. She wanted to pass on her cultural and kinship capital, both through the culture of family gatherings in the majlis and also through secular and religious education. This combining of different sources of capital illustrates the creativity of Qatari women in their pursuit of modernity. They must understand how to use the cultural capital gained in schools along with the kinship capital gained in the family majlis and kinship network. By doing so, they construct new norms around gender that emphasize women’s education as well as their social and moral responsibility to raise the next generation of Qatari children. In the family majlis, participants were encouraged to follow in the footsteps of the family matriarchs, but they also saw education as a key resource in shaping modern motherhood and kinship networks. In contrast, the women in the friends majlis had to contend with the challenges of increasing cultural capital, which often placed them in precarious situations of reduced kinship capital.
The Friends Majlis: Increasing Cultural Capital while Maintaining Kinship Capital
The marriage market as well as the workplace each produces particular challenges for Qatari women as they become more educated and socio-politically active. They have to combine forms of capital to push into the gender-mixed workforce, while also maintaining their kinship capital by veiling, moving in gender-segregated spaces and maintaining kinship ties. The women I met through a friends majlis navigated these tensions by maintaining strong kinship capital and abiding by some of the same practices as the women in the family majlis that are seen as protecting Qatari women and Qatari families. But unlike the women in the family majlis, the women in the friends majlis were not willing to ‘settle’ for marriages with less educated partners and were eager to recognize their value as marriage partners, employees and citizens in a modern Qatari nation.
The friends majlis was arranged by Johara, whom I met through our affiliations at various higher education institutions. Johara intended for it to be akin to a political diwân or salon where friends and colleagues could discuss important issues occurring in Qatari society. It took place in her parent’s home; they were stationed abroad at the time. The gathering consisted of a cosmopolitan and elite group of Qatari women, many of whom were challenging gender roles in Qatari society by being among the first in their generation to open businesses, play sports and work in gender-mixed spaces. Johara herself was a small business owner in addition to working for a private consulting group in Qatar and she often showcased the products, businesses and achievements of her Qatari friends in the majlis. While indulging in varieties of coffee, chocolate, juice, tea and dinner, served by Johara’s family servants, the women covered a variety of themes during the two to three hour gatherings. Dinner was often followed by communal television watching or dancing. Unlike the women in the family majlis, this group was less intent on marriage and family life and they travelled independently, both within the country and internationally for education and work. Regardless, the women in the friends majlis also had to combine cultural and kinship capital in order to achieve success within their kinship groups and in the workplace. In the following conversations, the women discuss how increasing cultural capital makes it difficult for them to navigate marriage and sometimes reduces their kinship capital.
Al-Anoud, Johara’s best friend, received her Master’s Degree from a U.K. university and was working for an oil company, placing her in the 1 per cent of Qatari women who work in the private sector. During a conversation about marriage in the majlis, she reflected that ‘the culture is slow to change. Women are going to school and university now and it is difficult to find Qatari men with similar ambition. Families do not want their daughters to marry outside of the tribe. But things are changing slowly’.8 Al-Anoud mentions that ‘things are changing slowly’ and one of these changes is the willingness on the part of both Qatari men and women to marry outside their tribal groups, as well as outside the ethnic group. Johara’s brother had married a Caucasian American, who now lived in Doha, and sometimes visited the majlis gatherings. While Islamic law does permit both Qatari men and women to marry Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds, Qatari state law restricts Qatari women’s marriage options by not extending citizenship rights to children of Qatari women who marry non-Qatari men. These legal restrictions complicate a more pressing problem for the women in the friends majlis, which is the dearth of Qatari ‘men with similar ambition’. Hasso notes a similar trend in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, where ‘women believe that Emirati men prefer to marry Emirati women who are “less than him educationally, and less than him in experience.” Educated women, by contrast, are unwilling to marry men who are less educated than they are because such men are seen as likely to be restrictive toward a wife (2011: 67).9 Findlow (2012), Marmenout and Lirio (2013) and Peterson (1989) have found similar patterns in their studies of women in the Gulf countries in general.
Despite their lack of prospects, the women in the majlis did several things to ensure that they maintained capital in the marriage market, largely by drawing on sources of kinship capital such as gender segregation and veiling. On the whole the women did not present their pictures on social media and they each wore the sheila, a black silk veil, loosely over their hair, as well as a black abaya, a large overcoat that loosely covered their couture jeans and tops. Meneley (1996), Findlow (2012) and Bristol-Rhys (2010) have each noted the existence of a tacit acceptance of veiling among Gulf women, many of whom see it as a means to enter the public sphere with honour intact. Findlow notes that ‘headscarves and veils were adopted by many otherwise liberal women I met to both disarm and protect, the relative invisibility this affords enabling them to take more risks with what they wear and what they say’ (2012: 125). Findlow’s ‘disarm and protect’ describes how the sheila and abaya both enables women to participate and signals the need for protection when they enter traditionally male-dominated spaces. The need for protection is clear to the women, who encountered Qatari men in the workplace and in social settings who played loose with gender boundaries. The women used each other as sources of social protection and often preferred gender-segregated or independent work in order to avoid these tensions.
For example, at Johara’s consulting firm, Khaled, an older Qatari male who was married, often made comments that she found rude and condescending, such as ‘you’re pretty’ or ‘habibti’, which means sweetheart in Arabic. Maryam, who was Lebanese and Johara’s co-worker, did not face any harassment from the same co-worker. It was clear to Johara and Maryam that he saw her as a ‘potential second wife’ because she was Qatari, from a good family and still single. Johara shared her experiences with a Qatari co-worker in the friends majlis and gave the women ideas about how to deal with Qatari males in the workplace. For example, she would usually rebuff his advances by trying to cut him down professionally. But the situation created uneasiness in the workplace and eventually Johara left this position to work for a female Qatari employer. One of the reasons she left was in order to work with other Qatari women. Alternatively, several of the women in the majlis began their own businesses as a way to have more freedom and to avoid gender-mixed environments.10
Hegland (1998) argues that the shi’a religious majâles in Peshawar Pakistan place women in a ‘power paradox’. As the women use the space to perform religious rituals and generate fervour for religious practices, women’s activism and leadership began challenging gender segregation in the larger society. I see a similar power paradox at play in Qatari society, wherein Qatari women’s increasing cultural capital puts their kinship capital at risk. Where Hegland’s religious majlis may have emboldened women to challenge gender segregation, the Qatari women in the friends majlis used it to explore the changing expectations for women inside the Qatari home and in gender-mixed spaces. The transitional nature of the space allowed women to have one step in the private affairs of the family, but also engage with issues affecting them in the public sphere. This required the women to have sources of kinship capital, which could be in the form of female or male familial support. Williams et al. (2003) found in a study of Emirati women and their relationships with their fathers that ‘fathers not only permit, but actively encourage their daughters to pursue tertiary education and subsequent careers’, but there are ‘implicit understandings that daughters not bring “aib” [shame] upon the family by breaching modesty norms or calling into question the father’s ability to provide for his family’ (2013: 147). Not bringing aib upon the Qatari family was something the women in the friends majlis were attuned to and why their public appearances, behaviours and interactions were something that they connected with kinship capital. As we will see in the following discussion of gender-bending behaviours, the women were critical of Qataris who disregarded the importance of kinship capital and could not understand those who broke with norms around gender and sexuality in Qatari society.
The TV was turned to the music channel where a khaliji (Gulf) male was singing, and a brief discussion ensued about his mole and whether it was attractive or unattractive. The conversation quickly shifted to the topic of gay Qatari men, something that came up often. Johara described how easily identifiable the men were because ‘They wear sun reflecting jackets and leather. These guys have nicer hair and skin than I do. There is one guy that is so pale; so we call him ‘see through guy’. Laila, Johara’s younger sister, adds, ‘My friend is Qatari, but he isn’t gay – he just has a lot of friends who are girls. I feel bad for them because it is not their fault’. Johara responds, ‘Where are these kid’s parents? How do they let their kids leave the house dressed like a circus? Kuwaiti’s are different – the guys are metro really into style and fashion but not effeminate’. Al-Anoud adds, ‘They can’t be so public here so they go to London and Lebanon’. ‘It’s disturbing,’ says Noura, ‘such extreme behaviour for boys and girls’, to which Johara adds, ‘Some girls shave so they can grow facial hair. White people aren’t so blatant about it. I have a gay teacher, but he won’t admit he is gay … these guys flaunt it’.11
Soon, the topic of discussion shifted to Carrefour, the large grocery store that was jam packed on weekends, but the women would return to the theme of gender-bending behaviour in Qatar again during the evening. There was a comparative perspective in the discussions, with the women drawing on their knowledge of other countries and cultures, such as Kuwait, Lebanon and the U.K., to understand what they were observing in Qatar. As Al-Anoud mentions, the men can’t be public in Qatar, so they go to ‘London and Lebanon’ and Johara compares the effeminate Qatari men to the metro-sexual Kuwaitis. What is offensive to the women is the blatant disregard for public appearances within Qatar, appearances which the women see as reflecting poorly back on their families. When Johara asks, ‘Where are these kid’s parents?’ she is recognising the link between children’s public appearances and their family’s reputation, which can be questioned if an individual behaves badly in public.
Similar to the conversation on Western feminism, this discussion engages the women’s experiences across cultures, making it clear that they know these practices are culturally relative. But their issue is with the ‘extreme’ flaunting of these behaviours in Qatari society. This is clearly expressed when Johara says, ‘I have a gay teacher, but he won’t admit he is gay … these guys flaunt it.’ For Johara, it is not the practice itself that is problematic, but its public performance. The women can’t understand why Qataris would choose to behave in ways that bring public shame and ridicule upon themselves and their families. Another way to understand the tension around gender and sexuality is to return to the problem of marriage for many of these women, who are already finding it difficult to find ‘men with similar ambition’. The rise in homosexuality in Qatar is a further setback for these women, who in addition to not wanting to marry low, hear stories of women married to someone who is a closet homosexual or sexually promiscuous.
Especially for male flexible citizens, the increasingly libertine cultural and consumerist landscape of neoliberal Dubai tends to be appealing and emancipatory. Females, however, expressed more reservations, and in doing so, seemed to implicitly valorize a more communal vision of Dubai. This is not to say, however, that female flexible citizens were nostalgic for or romanticized a previous age. Rather, they often creatively aligned neoliberal notions of individual merit, education, and aspiration with quasi-traditional notions of familial responsibility, communal belonging, and moderation.(2011: 186; emphasis added)
Kanna’s description of women’s apprehension can be seen in the Qatari women’s majlis conversations on marriage and sexuality. Qatari women did ‘valorize a more communal vision’ in which their ‘individual merit, education, and aspiration’ might be aligned ‘with quasi-traditional notions of familial responsibility, communal belonging, and moderation’ (ibid.). In their concerns about the increasing visibility of unorthodox gender behaviours (such as men wearing leather and flashy clothing and women growing beards), Qatari women were also reflecting on larger tensions in the Qatari nation-state. How could Qatar be a modern nation, if it could not have a harmonious family system, in which men and women worked together and within the boundaries of acceptable practices related to gender and sexuality?
Afsaneh Najmabadi’s (2005) analysis of gender norms in pre-modern Iran is useful for understanding how nationalism can exacerbate concerns about gender and sexuality. Qatari women’s reluctance to accept these norms may be a product of heteronormativity, which Najmabadi argues is tied to the production of the nation through images of strong male citizens protecting a weak, sexualised female counterpart.12 In aligning themselves with a patriotic and patriarchal nation, Qatari women must shun behaviours that challenge the state’s legitimacy and legal sanctioning of gender and sexuality. While Najmabadi looks at the level of national discourse, the perspective of majlis conversations between Qatari women reveals the complex web of relations that women are negotiating as female citizens of an emerging nation. Gender-bending behaviour reinforced for Qatari women the importance of kinship capital and how public performances of unacceptable gender performance and sexuality could lead to not only legal repercussions under the state but, more importantly, a reduction in kinship capital.
Majlis discussions about marriage, the workplace and gender-bending behaviour place Qatari women in a position of aligning their increasing cultural capital with their understanding of prominent sources of kinship capital. The women were aware of their reduced prospects in the marriage market as well as the challenges of working in gender-mixed settings, so they emphasized the multiple ways in which they had kinship capital, especially in relation to those who publicly reduced their kinship capital through gender-bending behaviours. By wearing the sheila and abaya, avoiding mixing with men in the workplace and avoiding gender-bending behaviour, the women ensured that their cultural and kinship capital were intact.
In the final section, I explore how women in the friends majlis and the family majlis were interested in expanding their access to both sources of capital and how the majlis allows them a unique space to combine both.
Qatari Women Finding a Place to Sit: Why Cultural and Kinship Capital Matter
I began this article with a short excerpt of a discussion in Johara’s majlis that highlighted the disparities between Johara’s perception of Western feminism and her personal understanding of how to operate as a woman in Qatari society. In the course of this article, I have shared other instances in which Qatari women expanded on their notions of women’s roles in the Qatari home and in public spaces in the transitional space of the home majlis. As seen throughout majlis discussions, Qatari women value their new-found cultural capital, while also maintaining the need to attend to sources of kinship capital. The majlis, because of its malleable and transitional character, serves as a site for bridging both sources of capital. Furthermore, by introducing non-kin into the majlis space, like Sara and me, Qatari women illustrate their desire to understand their new social roles by connecting with the experiences of countries and cultures outside of Qatar. Although wildly divergent at times, the Qatari women in the family majlis and the friends majlis were in agreement over the importance of maintaining ties to the kinship network, through gatherings such as those held in the home majlis. I also posit that these networks and women’s practices of gender segregation and veiling contribute to Qatari women’s accumulation of kinship capital.
One of the elements missing from previous research on Gulf women in the contemporary period is how access to higher education has changed women’s lives in the home. This is surprising since one of the most consistent elements in recent works on Gulf women as well as my own work is the rise in women’s education, which has allowed many of us to build rapport and do research with Gulf women (Bristol-Rhys 2010; Findlow 2012; Hasso 2011). The significance of cultural capital should not be overlooked in discussions about women in Gulf society, since women are increasingly outnumbering men in college graduation. As descriptions of majlis conversations indicate, cultural capital is utilised by women in different ways in the Qatari home as well as in public spaces.
As we saw in the family majlis gatherings, the women used cultural capital to enhance their kinship capital within the family. The changing nature of the city, with increasing urbanisation and population growth, meant that the women had to enter previously gender-segregated spaces such as malls, schools or even their own homes under the umbrella of the protective kinship network. The women accomplished this by using drivers, relying on their large kinship network for solidarity as well as engaging spaces such as the family majlis for new generations of Qataris to learn the importance of family and kinship capital. To the women in the family majlis, cultural capital could serve to enhance their roles within the kinship structure, granting them greater rights and responsibilities as wives and mothers.
The women in Johara’s majlis, who were predominantly from a friendship network of similarly educated and working women, were also concerned about their kinship capital, as their cultural capital increased through higher education and work in the private sector. The majlis gatherings gave them a space to discuss how to utilise both sources of capital and to secure their position in the home as well as in public spaces. The increase in cultural capital often meant a decline in marriage prospects and kinship capital. The women wanted to maintain their kinship capital in the face of this challenge and did so by veiling in gender-mixed spaces, socialising in gender-segregated spaces and avoiding gender-bending behaviour. In their conversations about gender-bending behaviour in Qatar, the women criticised individuals who were experimenting with their gender and sexuality because this diminished kinship capital. While maintaining kinship capital, the women eagerly embraced new sources of cultural capital through higher education, wealth and travel abroad.
The conversations taking place within the home majlis, whether with friends or family, indicate a shift in women’s interactions within the family as well as in public spaces. The home majlis allows women to explore transitions within the Qatari family as well as find a ‘place to sit’ that is not couched in Western notions of individualism or feminism, but in communal gathering places such as the home majlis. Findlow also finds that Gulf women, although cautious about the term ‘feminism’, are focused on equality that has ‘both individual and collective dimensions’, which she describes as ‘integrative third wave’ feminism. She argues that ‘gulf women want to speak for themselves’ (2012: 128). In the transitional space of the majlis, Qatari women not only ‘speak for themselves’ but they explore what their speech represents about themselves, the Qatari family and society.
While home majlis interactions signal greater malleability of both the space and women’s sources of capital, it is still unclear whether Qatari women will take the issues that face women and the Qatari family into a politically charged public majlis. Future research should compare the conversations and themes that appear in different types of majlis gatherings, whether they are religious, political or social. From an analysis of the conversations in the home majlis, it appears that Qatari women support family-centric policies and operating within the existing framework of gender-segregated spaces in schools, the workplace and other public sites. Future research might delve into the rise of gender-segregated work environments and how they can facilitate women’s entryway into the workplace, as well as the drawbacks of such practices.
In conclusion, I propose that Qatari women’s lives are not so different from those of women the world over. With rising levels of higher education and cultural capital, women find themselves faced with questions of how to bridge the domestic and public spheres. As seen within the space of the home majlis, Qatari women are discussing the possible ways they can combine cultural and kinship capital to enhance their power in the different roles they play. They are also aware of the many possibilities for gender role performance that exist in Qatar as well as in cultures and countries across the world and are evaluating them through a specific socio-cultural context. Qatari women are navigating modernity by working within the major social institutions in their lives. In doing so, they are signalling their desire to not only ‘speak for themselves’ but also to represent the interests of the Qatari family and the Qatari state.
I would like to thank Marcia Inhorn, Younus Mirza, Aline Lo, Alexis Hart, Xialoing Shi, Neha Vora, Frances Hasso and Elizabeth Bucknell for looking over various drafts of this article. In particular, I would like to thank Younus Mirza and Marcia Inhorn for encouraging me to publish my work and giving me the confidence to do so. Georgetown University in Qatar and Qatar University generously provided funding for part of my field research and an academic home away from home in Qatar.
Mahmood (2005) contends that Muslim women, in their active enactment of piety, are agentive and should be understood through a feminist lens on their own terms.
In Iran, the term majlis refers to the parliament and in Qatar and surrounding nations, majlis ash-shurâ refers to the appointed consultative assembly that advises the Emir.
The words harem and harim/hareem all extend from the root letters ha-ra-meem and refer to ‘sacred’ or ‘forbidden’ spaces of the home that only women and children are allowed to enter.
Akin to the diwân in Kuwait, the majlis in Qatar is becoming of interest to researchers and local Qataris as a space for challenging discussion and exchange. In 2009, Matthew Holmes-Dallimore and Maja Kinnemark oversaw an exhibit titled ‘The Concept of Al-Majlis: An Exploration of both Traditional and Contemporary Qatari Majlis’, with students from the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. The students received a grant from Qatar Foundation’s Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP) to study the role of the majlis in Qatari society. An article published regarding the exhibit mentions that ‘seventy-seven percent of Qataris gather in a majlis at least once a week and 45 percent every day’ (‘Majlis remains a key part of Qatari life’). Another article published in 2011 discusses the efforts of two young Qataris with Masters degrees, a man and woman, who are trying to use the home majlis to discuss social issues. There is also a research project funded by the Qatar National Research Fund and conducted by Northwestern University Qatar professors Jocelyn Mitchell, Christina Paschyn and Kristin Pike to study women’s social engagement in what they call the majlis al-hareem in Qatar.
In her architectural study of Yemeni tower homes, Kotnick (2005) distinguishes three gathering spaces: the diwân reserved for special occasions, the majlis reserved for women’s gatherings and the mafraj, the male gathering space at the top of the home. Kotnick argues that men do not dominate the interior spaces, as their gathering space, the mafraj, is the smallest in the home. Men must also ask permission before entering the home and any of the women’s spaces.
Afsaneh Najmabadi’s 2005 analysis of gender norms in pre-modern Iran argues that the ‘heteronormative’ nation is produced through images of strong male citizens protecting a weak, sexualised female counterpart.
Holmes-Eber (2003) study of networks and social change among educated upper- and middle-class women in Tunisia argues that women’s networks have expanded to incorporate ‘friendship networks’, distinguishing this network from the kinship networks that women are born or married into.
Al-Anoud’s concerns are increasingly becoming a larger societal concern as statistics show Qatari women far outnumbering men in the 15–24 age group, as well as the 25–34 demographic in bachelor’s degrees (Qatar Statistics Authority 2011).
Hasso (2011) explores concerns around marriage in the Emirates, which has similar demographic challenges in regard to women’s higher levels of education in comparison to men. Hasso details a rise in men and women turning to alternative styles of marriage, such as the misyar (‘ambulant’ marriage in which a husband visits another woman at her home, but returns to his wife) and urfi (a common law marriage) to fulfil their sexual needs in culturally sanctioned ways.
In addition to the issue of working with non-kin, women also faced intense pressure to stop working after the birth of the first child, not because they disliked working, but because of social and national expectations for women to have big families (Marmenout and Lirio 2013: 153).
On another evening, the women discussed a fight on Qatar University’s campus between women in which ‘all the girls who dressed like boys were taken away by the police’.
Al-Qassimi (2011) and Al Mubayei (2010) study the increasing visibility of lesbian and gay genders in the Gulf countries. Al-Qassimi focuses on the online support communities that are cropping up for people who identify as gay or lesbian and the attempts of Islamic scholars to regulate these online spaces. Al Mubayei’s dissertation explores emo and boyat (girls who dress like boys) subcultures in a Kuwaiti high school, as well the state’s policies and programmes that are targeting these behaviours and individuals.
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