A few seconds after the beep of his phone and a brief reading of the message, Khalel informed me he’d just got married. I asked when? He replied ‘just now.’ Seeing my quizzical face he started to explain. His grandfather was acting as the witness for his wedding contract and the message informed him his grandfather had just signed it. So now following on from the signatures by himself and his fiancée, they were now married. It seemed a roundabout way of doing it but you get used to that sort of thing in Qatar. But that wasn’t just it.
At 12 midday, Khalel asked to be excused from the meeting. I asked why. He said he was going to meet his wife. For the first time? I joked. Yes he replied. He meant it. I shook his hand, told him to have a shave and that I am sure she would be beautiful. He was going on the biggest blind date of his life. He was smiling but nervous. Of course he would be!
His wife had been picked by his family from recommendations but specifically after vetting by his mother. This is the normal course of events. Following the signing of contracts, the husband and wife can meet a few times before the official wedding party. They meet and talk, sat apart on a sofa while their mother watches from the door. How many times and when depends on the family traditions. At one wedding I attended, the bride and groom only met the day before the wedding party.
The wife has the right to refuse the marriage but this can have repercussions. It’s an embarrassment for families but more importantly if the fallout turns ugly, the wife is now deemed divorced, a social stigma that is hard to shake. This unfairness is coming to an end but its taking time. The more fundamentally modern unfairness is the denial of personal choice on both sides. As one Qatari woman exclaimed, ‘its bad became there is no love.’
I knew Khalel was getting married but thought it wasn’t for a few weeks. I asked him about the wedding party and yes that would be in a few weeks in Yemen where it was possible to have a week-long wedding party for a fraction of the cost of Qatar. He was going to pay 5,000r (about 1000 pounds) but after advice from his mother, he decided to spend four times the amount.
Weddings in Qatar cost upwards of 250,000r or 1,000,000r (200k) if you are feeling especially lavish. The prime cost is the jewelry, honeymoon and the hiring of two venues because the men and women celebrate the wedding separately in different hotels usually no more than a few miles apart. The women’s party consists of a sit down dinner of all generations and plenty of desserts. No expense is spared and its the groom who foots the bill.
The men’s party is somewhat simpler. Often held in a large tent, the men shake hands with the grooms and the fathers and uncles followed by a huge food buffet always involving lamb and rice and sometime delicacies such as baby camel. After dinner, the party is over for everyone except those closest to the groom. His friends and family then form a motorcade and take him, horns at the ready to the wife’s hotel where he will take her away. That night they will spend with the wife’s family before they go on honeymoon. After that, the wife’s family’s responsibilities to their daughter and sister are relinquished unless a divorce is granted.
It’s commonly known Muslims men can marry four times but this is a rarity heading for extinction. Most Qatari men only marry once. 20% have two wives but less than 1% have four wives. This trend is pushed by the rising costs of living and simple practicalities. Each wife needs a separate house. Households are exempt from electricity and water bills but only on one house. I’ll go into the housing system another day.
Similar some women do not get married preferring to live at home with their family. Families here take care of their own in general but it is not without its perils. A Qatari TV program, one of those morning shows hosting phone-ins discussing marriage featured a call from a distressed, unmarried woman who was left destitute after her parents died and her brothers refused to take care of her. This is a rarity though.
Marriage of course changes the lives of both participants and naturally more so the women. They become responsible for the household (along with the maids) and are soon to become mothers. The number of children has fallen greatly from their grandparents’ generations but families are still large here. The government is actively encouraging it. Women are given paid time off work and for the first two years, they work one hour less for the same pay to give them an extra hour with the infant. Their role in society, work and education is actively championed by Shieka Moza, the second but only-seen wife of the Emir. He has three but the two have never been seen in public.
However talking to Qataris, I’ve been surprised how much the men admit marriage changes them. I’ve heard numerous stories of how they’ve had to leave their boy racer days behind, stop smoking, get home early, put money aside and generally take responsibility for their families. The social expectations from the family, work, government, religion and culture are suffocating. I can sense also a slightly modernising of views too. Qatar is not Dubai but it does seek to fit in with the modern world.
Qataris and especially Qatari women often ask me about Western weddings and where the traditions from the garter, throwing of the flowers, vows and overall structure comes from. I generally didn’t know and looked them up for them. While Qatari weddings are deeply formal, traditional and separate, they are still celebrations of two people nervously coming together. The inequality is less pronounced than you would believe but it still remains.
This can all be summed up in one sentence. Soud who I worked with for 10 weeks often spoke of the preparations for his sister’s wedding. He would drive her to Saudi Arabia where the dress was being prepared. A few weeks later he gave me an invitation to his cousin’s wedding. I threw on a suit and tie and went to the Ritz Carlton, slightly nervous but genuinely pleased and interested in seeing what happens. I lined with Soud to meet his cousin (along with two Sheiks!), got my photo taken, spoke with the seemingly endless cousins and was surprised with their level of English and diversity of hobbies. Later over dinner I asked about the bride and Soud replied ‘its my sister!’ So rather than being his cousin’s wedding it was in fact his sister’s wedding. His rearranging of the participants reflects the event I attended and that weddings are primarily organised for the men to get married. The woman’s wishes are an afterthought for now.