Not so many posts from me since I started the blog…..probably because I’ve spent every night this week buried in books about the Arab world and Qatar.
Obviously one of the biggest issues for any Western expat to get their head around is the Islamic religion, and also local dress codes, issues which until recently, I thought were tightly interlinked.
I think I was pretty ignorant in the past about this, and like many Westerners, I saw a direct link between the Islamic faith and the way people dress in Qatar.
Going back a few years, I think my prejudices were even stronger. I remember going out there in 2006 for our friends’ wedding and being shocked to hear how much pride the local women take in their appearance, listening wide-eyed as my friend told me about going for a waxing over there (“They take EVERYTHING off!”) and how much the local women spend on beauty treatments.
Up until that point, I had naively assumed that women who covered themselves in head scarves and the abaya were repressed, miserable beings who probably saw little point in looking after themselves, as nobody ever got to see what they looked like anyway. I assumed that marriages were arranged (and often polygamist) and I couldn’t see any reason in that situation for a woman to make herself attractive.
Thankfully that trip to Qatar opened my eyes to reality a little bit more.
With all the reading I have done this week, I am ashamed at my previous attitudes and I am really looking forward to getting out there and immersing myself in the culture more fully and coming to understand more for myself, rather than just relying on books.
I have been reading up on the Islamic faith, and have learned a lot (even though I did have lots of Muslim friends at school and we studied Islam as part of our religious studies class). The similarities between Christianity and Islam are interesting, and while I personally find it hard to be convinced of a God, I can see that there must be some truth behind the stories recounting the history of the prophets, and whatever you make of these stories, I do respect people’s religions whatever they may be.
I have also had my eyes opened a little more to the way we in the West are manipulated by our own media to see Islam and the Arab nations in a certain light. We often assume that the Western media are completely free and therefore honest and “better”, but the reality is that the media just reflect our own society back at us, sub-consciously telling us what we want to hear, and the stories are told (and heard) through the filter of our own perceptions and prejudices.
I have always been conscious of a certain arrogance in Britain, whereby people assume that some habits or ways of foreigners are “disgusting” or “offensive”; Thankfully I have had a broad enough upbringing to look at the Brits a bit more objectively and realise that sometimes it’s just that another culture has a different way of doing things and that it’s not wrong, just different. I can also see that people from other countries see some of the things we do as disgusting or weird, but we often conveniently forget that!
A good example is the toilet habits of the Brits! I can remember being told in the playground that “people from the Middle East wipe their bum with their left hand when they’ve been to the toilet!” (and it goes without saying that this is not a reflection on reality). And then I went to the Middle East a few years ago and at first found the shower heads fitted next to the toilets pretty strange.
But looking at it from another angle, I can see that some cultures probably find the idea of us Brits just relying on toilet roll to get clean to be completely disgusting, and not having a proper wash down there until the next morning’s shower to be absolutely gross…..
So I am always careful to look at us Brits objectively, but despite this, I have still had my eyes opened a little by some of the things I’ve been reading this week.
So, the modest style of dress over in Qatar is not just about religion. It also dates back to Bedouin traditions, when such clothing was not only highly practical, but also served important functions in society.
I can also see how wearing the abaya can be liberating and even sexy! Imagine not having to worry about the image your clothes will present to the outside world. Being judged solely on what you say and do, rather than what you look like. Wearing sexy clothes underneath, with the intimate knowledge as a couple that they are for your husband’s eyes only.
There is so much pressure on Western women in terms of looks, and we all have days when we’re worrying about our clothing, whether it’s because we go out to a function to find we’ve dressed completely inappropriately, or we’re plagued throughout the event with that nagging feeling that an extra roll of fat has appeared somewhere, or that a bra strap keeps slipping down all the time.
It has been shown that in Western workplaces, a woman’s height and attractiveness will be a better indicator of her career success than her IQ. And we think of ourselves as liberated?!
I’m one of those people who really doesn’t WANT to care about what other people think, and sometimes I do go out looking pretty bloody awful, and I resent being judged for my clothing/looks as it’s not something which is important to me personally. However I do make an effort most of the time, and sometimes it is fun to get dressed up.
I must admit that I would really find incredibly liberating to cover up when going out, but I won’t be adopting the abaya when I live in Qatar!
When women have a choice over whether or not to wear the abaya, it’s a symbol of their liberation, not their supression (as I used to assume), and I can understand why more Muslim women are now choosing to wear it. I can also see that maybe Western women aren’t as liberated as we like to think we are.
The Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix took place today, and how refreshing it was to see the grid girls more covered up than they normally are. And how symbolic their very presence is of the fact that women’s lib still has a bloody long way to go in the West.