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Transcending private, public spheres

Sep 17,2015 - Last updated at Sep 17,2015

The Arab states of the Gulf region remain some of the most novel and fascinating developmental experiences anywhere in the world.

Few advances have occurred in the six Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in the realms of politics and participatory public life, as their social decision-making traditions rely more on quiet in-family, male-dominated consultations than on Western-style public contestation and elections.

So when I spent a week in Qatar this month, lecturing and meeting with students and faculty at Northwestern University’s Doha campus, I sought to spend more time with Qataris to better understand the dynamics of a society that, like others in the GCC, has always guarded its privacy.

Well, two things happened during my stay in Doha last week that drew my attention: Qatar sent 1,000 troops to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and a month-long public exhibition called Her Majlis (Majlis’ha) opened at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University student centre, showcasing the results of a research project organised by Northwestern University in Qatar that brought together faculty and students from several American and Qatari universities there, with Qatar Foundation funding.

I have no doubt that between going to war in Yemen and opening a public exhibition of research on the most private of private places, women’s meeting places at home, “Her Majlis” is far more significant in the long run.

For, this is a small, but novel and significant, step in the transformations towards durable nationhood that we only occasionally witness in conservative Arab societies.

Locals and foreigners have gone to war for thousands of years in the Middle East, but rarely have we seen such examples of a synthesis among American academic research traditions, activist young Qatari students, and a variety of older Qatari women.

The result is an exhibition and three short video documentaries in which Qatari women — sometimes on camera, sometimes without showing their faces — speak openly about their lives, activities, aspirations and the role of their majlis in advancing both their personal goals and the wellbeing of others in their and other societies.

I see few other signs of change, self-confidence, pride and healthy social engagement in Arab Gulf society that are as clear as this example of Qatari women sharing with the public their most guarded personal space.

The exhibition includes a large wall with blank spaces for women to express their sentiments of their majlis experiences. My favourite described a majlis as “a unique and understudied social institution… like a cross between an intellectual salon and a Tupperware party”.

A nationally representative survey of Qatari women’s views that was part of the project showed intriguing combinations of views — such as, 89 per cent seeing election of the Shura council (a proto-parliament) as positive, while 90 per cent see it as a good thing to enforce the wearing of traditional full-body covering clothing for Qatari women.

Also, 92 per cent want children of Qatari women to have Qatari citizenship, regardless of the husband’s nationality.

Is this a clash of Western political values and local traditions, their coexistence, or what exactly?

Well, that is for Qataris to determine, and in this exhibit, the women say they tell their own story and clear up misconceptions about their actual roles and opportunities in society.

The panel discussion of faculty and students at the exhibition opening seamlessly blended perspectives, traditions, personal and professional values from Arab and Western cultures.

No clash of anything here, I thought, just humble men and women from both worlds learning about each other… but actually learning about themselves.

So, Qatar sending 1,000 soldiers to Yemen certainly is newsworthy, but just a moment’s action that will fade from view in the years ahead, leaving our region ready once again, as it has been for millennia, for other battles, by many protagonists.

The “Her Majlis” project, on the other hand, more significantly links two critical realms: the self-confident will of Qatari women to look inward and discuss their private worlds, without apology or exaggeration, and the ability of local and foreign institutions and individuals to work together on social research projects that may have a lasting impact on society.

We need to watch this Arab-Western blending of gender, identity, media technology, personal narratives and political theory, as faculty principal investigator Dr Jocelyn Sage Mitchell called it.

Because more than the occasional war, more than hosting world football or tennis championships, much more than anything else that I have seen happen in Arab Gulf states in recent decades, this dynamic manifests an expanding relationship among the perceptions and actions of individuals across their private spaces and their public realms.

 

That, I once read somewhere in a learned book — maybe from 10th Century Baghdad, maybe from 1960s New York — is what durable state-building and meaningful nationhood are all about.

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Comments

A nation's treatment of foreign guest workers might be a more significant measure of gulf countries relationship with the world; this is an ongoing issues which deserves attention. The exhibition was surely a nice interface, but other issues deserve attention, Rami.

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