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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