I remember jumping on the tram in Cairo a few years. It took a few seconds to process the cabin as I caught my breath looking for a seat but in my hurry I’d leapt into the women’s carriage. My eyes opened in astonishment, the women laughed as I hovered near the door waiting for the first stop to change carriages. I was embarrassed. Japan also has its open women only areas but they sadly are for reasons only the Japanese accept.
I face a similar sitution every day at work. I take the lift/elevator up the tower. We wait impatiently. It takes time despite there being 6 lifts to choose from. That inefficiency is inexplicable, however, the other delay is more clearer. The procedure is as follows; when the doors open, you must first check it’s contents before stepping in. Many times there will only be one of the sexes, a number of women in abayas possibly with their face covered or men in their white thobes. Should the lift be single sex, few Qataris of the other sex will step in. It’s a sign of respect but also mandatory. Gender separation remains a cornerstone of the culture in the Gulf.
As a foreigner I find this curious and frustrating. I hate waiting but that’s the least of it. The women from my groups will often invite me to the lift for it is a bit of fun firstly and ultimately I am a foreigner so it doesn’t really matter. For all friendships with the opposite sex are temporary. For Qataris they talk at work but outside of the buildings, social intermingling is reserved for the family only. While men and women may have friends outside the family and will constantly refer to a friend as a cousin, the reality is with such a small population and limitations on social interaction, friends tend to actually be family. It’s like living in any valley village.
Older and married men are more relaxed. Older women don’t tend to exist in the world I see. It is the younger men and women and the shyer, more traditional ones who find these situations difficult. This kind of separation is only really found in a strict interpretation of Islam (or Judaism) leading a deficient of functional social skills, possible ignorance and the tools to deal with the modern world, without falling away from it.
Qataris are stepping forward. On my birthday they all got me a huge cake. The women celebrated with me but only two men stayed in the room. The others smiled and lingered by the door before escaping to the corridor. Ironically Qataris can happily spend time with people of the opposite gender as long as they aren’t Qatari. Men and women can have a coffee with a Westerner or Egyptian though few women would dare. Except within the nuclear family, men and women do not mix in a social context. As I posted before weddings are totally separate affairs. Growing up with two sisters and having plenty of close female friends, I treasure (yes I said that!) their input, advice and contibution to my life. I wouldn’t have got this far without them.
Times are changing in Qatar. The Government is mandating women a role to contribute in the public sphere. The Emir’s mother is a standard bearer for womens’ rights and education though strictly within an Islamic context. The women of Saudi keep pushing for the most basic of rights but inequality through the world remains reinforced through poverty, poor educational options and stricture that remain the biggest barriers to female advancement in the Middle East. Qatar has made serious surface moves. Women work, drive and to a reasonable degree make career choices. But the society remains mandated by culture and religion.
My Qatari friend is getting married in a few months to his cousin. He joked ‘only a few months before he steps into the cage.’ I laughed along but truly thought for his future wife who I may never meet. Her cage is somewhat smaller and in a whole other park.