A peak under the Abaya

As a part of a volunteer program between the US base and the embassy, I was able to participate in an exchange program with Qatar University. A group of women met weekly at the university to practice conversational English. The program was helpful for both the students and the military women as it gave an unguarded ability to have a conversation with people from such a drastically different culture.

For my first visit I was instructed to enter on the women’s side of the library. Qatar University is a traditional school where classes are separated by sex, down to the library where male and female floors were designated (and included long robed female guards, although I am sure chaperone would probably be a more appropriate word). Riquyana, our main student, met us for coffee and escorted us up to the ‘American corner’ of the women’s side of the library.

There I met several other ladies attending the college and learned of their subjects of study as well as university life. All students still live at home while attending the university. Many of them have a driver that drops them off for classes (although my favorite girl that I met, Hen, was Sudanese and drove herself around). Additionally, the ladies came from all nationalities, but all spoke Arabic fluently (despite all classes being in English and modeled after an American curriculum).

Riquyana was from Pakistan, wore an abaya and was studying political science. Her sister, also wore an abaya and was one of the first students studying a new subject to the university, Public Health. Hen was Sudanese studying international relations; she had volunteered extensively with the UN and often worked internationally advocating for womens rights. She dressed just as I would expect any normal western 20-something-year old to wear with no head dressing, mainly jeans and a t-shirt. Jazzi was born Qatari studying political science and probably the most liberal, young Qatari women I had met. Although she wore an abaya she often left it open when walking in public with us, only feigning some conservative cover up when passing local men.

The rules Jazzi had to follow compared to the other non-qatari women was fascinating. She could not be seen in public smoking shisha (hookah), or at any establishment that served alcohol (although she herself did not drink). Dating meant something totally different entirely. If a gentleman was interested in dating her, he had to ask her family for permission first. Upon agreement, the couple had a year of dating to decide if they wanted to marry one another. If either at any point decided they were not favorable, it was easy to break the potential union off. I have to say, in our current error of casual dating (and sex) this formal courtship seemed a bit refreshing to me; dating in the US has certainly swayed far from its original intent of gauging potential for marriage..

Jazzi had dated a prince previously, and had a position at one the ministries in the government waiting for her once she graduated. Being Qatari, it was easy to see the subtle differences on her wealthy life compared to the other ladies she was friends with.

Yet, although Hen of upper middle class Sudanese decent, would probably not marry a prince or have a high-brow job waiting for her when she was complete with her studies, she had a lot better gig than the rest of the girls. She was completely secular, could come meet us out at one of the western hotels for a drink or show us her favorite shisha spot. Her other close friends were outspoken journalists, very critical of the lack of free speech found in the state of Qatar. If I didn’t know it, I would have thought they were all American university students (and indeed looked at the states as an ideal place of freedom).

Other than these two extremes, the girls had a lot in common with young women from around the world. They were on facebook, had twitter, Instagram, and snapchat. Jazzi even had pictures on her Instagram of her hair down and showing, which she didn’t seem to think was violating any of her conservative customs. They were all bubbly, boy crazy and fun, with the whole world in front of them and encouragement of society to reach out and grab it. 

What did I learn about Arabic women after drinking coffee with them, sharing dinner and being invited back to their homes?

They are a diverse, intelligent, have varying belief systems and lifestyles depending on their heritage and are a lot more liberal and ‘with’ modern society than the clothing they choose to wear in public. The western world tends to see the Middle East, especially when it pertains to women’s rights, as one monotheistic culture when in fact it is one large melting pot of traditions and Islamic nuisances. Next time you see a women fully garbed in a traditional abaya, ask yourself, how much do I really know about her?

 

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An OCN for the Day

= Other Country Nationals (formally known as TCNs or Third country nationals – other country nationals was deemed more PC).

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Picture: OCN worker in Iraq courtesy of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_country_national

OCNs are the backbone of the workforce in Qatar, and for much of the wealthy Middle East (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc.). Qatari’s do not fight in their own military, drive their own cars, do their own laundry or cook their own food. They have an infinite stream of people (mostly men) pouring into the country looking for opportunities to make living (all of which is sent back to support their families in varies developing nations in the orient).
This workforce is not limited to the country of Qatar, it also exists on nearly every military installation in the Middle East. Varying in scope, Al Udeid (a large Air Force base in Qatar) has one of the largest populations of contracted outside workers. With the sheer size of military operations, the government contracts out a significant portion of its support services as it cannot sustain regular ops of that magnitude for things like food, construction, cleaning, MWR and other basic services.
Many have heard of the controversial deaths incurred while building the massive stadiums for the upcoming World Cup games. In fact the Qatari government has made marked improvements to help improve the conditions of the workers sweating in unbearable heat on top of sky scrappers. Even with some of these improvements, however, treatment of workers in Qatar that are either non-western or non-Arab are still sub-par at best.
Qatari law dictates that in order for a company to sponsor you over to Qatar to work, they must also provide housing. This is not a bad deal except that those same rules do not provide standards for housing conditions. Nearly all the OCN workers live in large compounds with 4 or more to a room (dubbed ‘man camps’ by the US military). They work at least 6 days a week (many of the workers I spoke with work a month before getting 1 day off) and make a minuscule amount of money, summing somewhere around $300 a month depending on the job.
Probably the most shocking practice is the confiscation of passports by the contract owner. The company gives generic reasons for doing this, but I cannot think of any other reason than power over their work pool. By doing this, they control when (if) they can leave the country. They also control contract hoping for better wages. While I use the word ‘worker’ to describe many of these laborers the translation in Arabic is closer to servant or slave. In restaurants you will also see signs that bar these same people from entering, which is clear and even expected, discrimination (not that they could afford to eat out or have a drink in a western hotel). This practice is known, has been written about and still remained largely unchanged despite protests from the international community.
Yet the stream of workers continues to flow. Many of the workers I met on the base were highly educated in their home country including lawyers and doctors. Regardless of their education, they still made more money working in the Middle East than they did practicing their trade in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines.

Unlike the US there is also no path to citizenship. You could be born in Qatar, have lived in Qatar for 30 years and established your entire life in the country, but you will still never be Qatari. You will also not enjoy the same rights, privileges and social status of a Qatari. You will be treated differently depending on what nation you are originally from (UK/US seem to be at the top of the tier with Nepal, Sri Lanka & Filipino being some of the lowest). You could speak fluent Arabic, be Muslim and wear an abaya – but it is does not matter. To be Qatari means you descend from a certain bloodline that can be traced back a few hundred years.

I had the pleasure of meeting a few University students who originally were from Sudan. Although they grew up in Doha, went to Qatar university and spoke fluent Arabic they did not consider themselves Qatari and were in fact very critical of the country and the native born Qataris. They reinforced the believe that immigrant workers are in fact the only thing propping up the wealthy country.

Learning the conditions that these people lived and worked in completely shocked me, especially when I learned it didn’t matter if they were contracted by the US government or the Qatari government. There is a  clear divide between the extreme rich and poor. The two groups of people live and work in two totally different worlds with the differences being so starkly obvious: one with Dior sunglasses, red bottom shoes and a land cruiser with driver – and the other – soiled work suits in mass buses with no air conditioning (provided by their employer only to bus their workers to and from work). There were so many workers hitchhiking on the side of the roads trying to get to A to B or running walking across the five lane highway system.

The western world is not without its issues, however, this kind of extreme exclusivity to wealth is still hard for me to accept as ‘simply part of the culture’. When it is so institutionalized as it is in both overseas military operations and in Middle Eastern countries, and you have a limited amount of time and resources, how do you change it?