Katherine Butler: Women between two worlds - temptation and tradition

Britney may not be much of a feminist role model, but she represents change
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The Independent Online

In the cool of the evening in the Gulf, as the sun goes down, Qataris head for the Corniche. A charming four-mile stretch of seafront, lined with palm trees, it has the feel of the Cote d'Azur. There are mats for prayer. But in a city where alcohol is officially frowned on, and there is little by way of public entertainment, Doha's Corniche is a good place to hang out and socialise.

In the cool of the evening in the Gulf, as the sun goes down, Qataris head for the Corniche. A charming four-mile stretch of seafront, lined with palm trees, it has the feel of the Cote d'Azur. There are mats for prayer. But in a city where alcohol is officially frowned on, and there is little by way of public entertainment, Doha's Corniche is a good place to hang out and socialise.

I went to the Corniche to take a break, last week, from a conference on democracy. That this undemocratic Gulf state, ruled by an emir, should host such an event was unusual. Women are your secret weapon, one academic told (the mostly male) delegates from all over the Middle East: they work better, make better democrats, and everyone benefits.

Out on the Corniche some of these women were moving along the front, clad from head to toe in all-enveloping black shrouds and face-covering veils; they looked like giant crows. But their trainers peeped out; their arms were going; they were power-walking.

Suddenly a voice called out, "Good evening". It came from one of the figures in black. To my surprise, she initiated a conversation with the kind of does-my-bum-look-big-in-this remark that bonds women the world over. "I am too fat", she offered. "Nonsense," I said, and we walked together, as her niece - still young enough for jeans and T-shirt in public - tagged along. Suddenly, her mobile phone interrupted. "That's my mother. Come, come."

Over tea, Noura, 25, introduced her mother, aunt, cousins, sisters, best friends. All were covered in black, only eyes and hennaed hands on view. Amina, Noura's feisty cousin, also in her mid-20s, told me of her typical day, which included a few hours of work in a library, and up to three hours on the internet, instant messaging and online-dating before bed.

Drinking tea involved an elaborate performance of lifting the veil. Nevertheless we got through several rounds. Eventually they stood up and beckoned me to follow. Now I was officially included, we moved along in dribs and drabs, meeting more women acquaintances, and losing others. Mobile phones chirped constantly. Every new arrival would lift the veil from her face, then quickly cover up.

Men drove by in their cars, music blaring. The girls gave a withering look. "Your boyfriends?" A volcano of raucous laughter. "Qatari men are no good." We discussed the pros and cons of "Gulf make-up" - eyeshadow and mascara in the thickest possible layers. Our group ended up in a park, where we sat on the grass for more tea and chatter. Handbags were the only way I could keep track of who was who.

Qataris are among the richest people in the world, thanks to their possession of the planet's largest single natural gas reserve. Women can spend their lives shopping in the gold souks for Syrian jewellery or artificial flowers, in malls that are open till 1am. Luxury cars and SUVs line the road parallel to the Corniche. Armies of Bangladeshis and Filipinos provide nannies, maids, drivers. In Noura's family, the women never cook.

The emir, Sheikh Hamad bin-Khalifah Al Thani is a maverick in Middle Eastern terms. The man who created al-Jazeera, he is a key US ally, and gave women the vote (for what it's worth) five years ago. Women are being encouraged into universities and the job market. Unlike Saudi Arabia, they can drive, and there is no law which says they must be covered from head to toe. But the social taboos are strong and most still cling to full veils and few drive.

Yet, out on the Corniche, the younger women are between two worlds. They seem not to want openly to rebel against family and tradition, but they have more temptation than any previous generation to do so. They are better educated than their mothers, and they are hungry to learn.

They accept the face veil. But they complain about summer when temperatures can reach 50C. The souks, although full of black abayas, also have shops selling satin lingerie that would not be out of place in Ann Summers.

Wajiha al-Huwayder, a Saudi Arabian feminist, recently accused women in the Arab world of getting used to "laziness ... relying on someone else, and waiting for the men to bring loot and gifts". Women in the Gulf states, she said, were not interested in change because that would require them to start making demands.

The women I met were bustling with energy. If they ever channel it into real demands, whether for seats in the for-now, powerless parliaments or to rail against the strictures that keep them figuratively and physically veiled, they could be a formidable force.

They already have the education. Noura is a trained nurse, her sister Sara, a spirited 20-year-old, wants to teach sport. "I like very much, very much, Britney," she confided. "And Shakira." Britney may not be much of a feminist role model, but she represents change.

These women have a sisterhood women in the West would envy. As I left them, they were still sitting, talking on the Corniche, but they were also tuning in a small radio to hear the world news on the Arabic service of the BBC.

k.butler@independent.co.uk

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