Love is an Open Door
Flirting & PDA in Qatar (compared to my experiences in the U.S.)
Sexual harassment and assault in Qatar
Dating norms in Qatar (and dating people outside your community)
Same-sex relationships & being transgender in Qatar
Marriage in Qatar (and being unmarried in Qatar)
Sex in Qatar
My experience dating in Qatar
No, Frozen is not my favorite Disney movie, but it is clever in a lot of ways, especially the music. “Love is an Open Door” is one of the songs from the film and, long story short, it’s got a double meaning. Love and romantic relationships mean different things for different people and are valued differently as well; everything from flirting to courtship to marriage often varies across cultures, and even sub-cultures. The differences can be rooted in religion, ethnic traditions, or even just legalities, and with all that in mind, romantic interactions in Qatar were very different than what I was familiar with in the U.S.
Most of the information I gathered about courtship in Qatar I picked up passively from conversations with random Qataris and expats, but I’ve also got some personal stories for you too if you hang around long enough. Either way, I hope this post provides you with a better idea of what to expect—and what not to expect—when it comes to dating, flirting, marrying, and shacking up in Qatar.
So, let’s start where most U.S. romantic relationships start, let’s start at the beginning . . .
Flirting & PDA
This is a nice spot for a date, right? Behold, Aspire Park at sunset.
PDA—or “Public Displays of Affection” for those of you who don’t remember your middle school Code of Conduct book—was not a huge thing in Qatar. To be fair, it’s not a huge thing in the U.S. either, but for different reasons and to different extents. The U.S. is low-key a prudish country in a “suppressed emotions & desires” kind of way, so public displays of affection have never really been our thing (in comparison to Western European countries, for example). To add, Americans generally have a wide personal space bubble and we tend to keep our distance while in public, even with our partners. In my 20 years in Richmond, I’ve seen a lot of doe-eyed college freshmen holding hands & canoodling with their high school sweethearts, and I’ve seen sweet elderly couples locked hand-in-arm walking along cold city streets in December. That’s it.
Qatar, however, provided even less PDA than that. Handholding between romantic couples had only recently become a thing when I arrived in 2018, but even still the only people I saw doing it were young, married Qatari couples or young expat couples. I feel I should also mention that I saw a few Indian men holding hands in public, not necessarily because they were romantic couples, but because that’s a cultural norm in India. I didn’t see anyone tell any hand-holders to stop, regardless of age or gender, but if I had to guess, this sort of G-rated PDA was okay as long as it didn’t look A) Too gropey or B) Too gay (because homophobia and Qatar go hand-in-hand, which I’ll talk about later).
Aside from handholding, the only other PDA I saw were hugs . . . friendly, excitable, “oh it’s so good to see you, it’s been so long!” kind of hugs, not lengthy hugs or amorous hugs between couples. And when it comes to kissing in public, the only thing you’re going to see are those cheek-to-cheek kisses—and occasionally mouth-to-cheek kisses—the kind used as greetings, not romantic actions. Even still, though, I only saw and experienced this with other women . . . a man kissing another woman in public, even a woman he knows—even if it’s just on the cheek—is just not a thing. Couples walking too close together (you know, like that hand-around-my-waist/arm-across shoulder combo) is also not a common sight. However, keep in mind that these minimal PDA norms only apply to super public places, like malls and parks. Other places like clubs, bars, and certain hotels are like PDA safe zones (but even in those places I didn’t see any couples overdoing it).
Flirting seemed very minimal in Qatar, both in terms of how often people flirted and the sorts of flirtatious actions they did. In fact, the limited flirting culture was one of the reasons I liked Qatar, which sounds odd, but let’s be real: It’s no secret that many men in the U.S. tend to blur the line between polite flirting and harassment. That said, if given the option between all or nothing—“all” being flirting with a side of harassment, and “nothing” being nothing—I would choose “nothing” every time. Well, Qatar gave me the closest thing to “nothing” than I had ever imagined.
A lot of men—be they expats or Qatari nationals—were respectful when casually interacting with women and when pursuing them romantically. There weren’t many honeyed words, slights of hand, or demure looks between strangers; people seemed to want to get to know each other at least a little bit before bringing up the prospect of romance (as in to say, there wasn’t an atmosphere of “Hey, you’re hot, let’s go out and hopefully smash” like we tend to have in the U.S.). When it came to that sort of flirting, though, the closest thing I saw came from Western expats or people from non-predominantly Muslim countries, like India or much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Like I said before, though, their flirtations weren’t anything like what I’ve dealt with in the U.S. Here, let me give you an example of one of my U.S. experiences:
Since the 6th grade, I’ve been told by many girls that I’m a huge flirt. I disagree with this to the extreme, and it seems like they’re confusing a naturally flirtatious demeanor with my inclination to not be evil to people. You see, in the name of not being evil, I tend to do things like smile and speak politely, especially while at work, because good customer service was literally in my job description. However, my smiles and professional courtesy tended to convince male students that I was romantically and/or sexually interested in them. This happened most when I was working at VCU; I had male students “reciprocate” the “hey let’s bone” vibes I was apparently putting down, which led to a good handful of annoying and sometimes creepy interactions. In essence, my experience with flirting in the U.S. was primarily composed of misunderstandings, assumptions, one-sided declarations, and young men who thought they could outsmart me with their “excellent” game.
In Qatar, however, this wasn’t the case. If I smiled at a man, they didn’t assume I was interested in them… they assumed I was being polite.
Being flirted with as a black woman in Qatar: The good stuff
Here we have a happy black woman, smiling and listening to music in the warm glow of her studio . . .
When done right, flirting can make the other person feel good, flattered, and maybe even a little more confident. My time in Morocco in 2017 was the first time I had ever had men flirt with me, but there was a certain air to it, a . . . “I call you ‘pretty’ because I want something from you,” sort of vibe. It didn’t make the compliments any less flattering, but it was the only reference I had when it came to foreign men paying me that sort of attention. That said, Qatar offered something different; a good handful of black men (all from African countries) started engaging with me in ways I’d never experienced before.
Of course, they may have just been nice people, and maybe they were partaking in that an underlying sense of community that all black people in Qatar share, but when two Nigerian men in a grocery store turn their shopping cart around and speed back down the aisle just to slow down and casually say “Jambo” to you with charming smiles shining behind hickory skin, you can’t help but feel like there’s a little more there than just racial solidarity . . . especially when you see them watch you as you walk away.
Being flirted with as a black woman in Qatar: The bad stuff
. . . and here we have an annoyed black woman, tensely cracking her knuckles and challenging the camera because right about now, she is fed up with the dummies the universe decided to put in her path.
There were a few times where I felt a little exoticized as a black woman in Qatar. See, because I wasn’t just a black woman, I was also American, and when people found that out, it added an extra layer to their perception of me. In many parts of the world, being American is synonymous with being white (and being white is synonymous with being privileged). Being black and being a black woman, though, has its own long list of preconceived ideas and when it mixes with my nationality, interactions can get interesting.
For example, I couldn’t help but notice how some people’s tones change when they’d find out I wasn’t from Sub-Saharan Africa as they had assumed, but I was instead from the Land of Opportunity. Suddenly their interest in me would peak, as would their flirtations, and they’d slip in questions about my career, financial status, hometown, and whether or not I was willing to put out. This didn’t happen often, but when it did happen it made me think about the way they treated me before and after learning about my little blue passport.
See, because on one hand, my U.S. citizenship essentially whitewashed me; to these flirtatious strangers, I suddenly had all the privileges of being white without actually being white. This is important because being white in certain parts of the world carries its own amount of stigma. It’s not the same kind of stigma that comes with being black or being dark-skinned, but in a lot of countries—notably countries with a history of European colonization, occupation, or imperialism—bringing a white partner home to meet the fam can still carry an air of disapproval, tenseness, or skepticism. However, because I wasn’t technically white, that potential for that particular kind of distrust didn’t apply to me.
Okay, but what about my blackness? No matter what these men were choosing to see, my blackness would never actually go away (and there’s a long list of things I could talk about when it comes to the way blackness is perceived around the world). Well, that’s the thing: My American-inspired-whiteness replaced the negatives associated with blackness, and my blackness replaced the negatives associated with my newfound whiteness. My existence suddenly became romanticized, and it felt like these men thought they could get the best of both worlds by shacking up with me, a presumably wealthy woman of color, fluent in English and with natural-born citizenship in the U.S. of A.
If you want to read about one specific exoticized encounter I had with a Desi guy at a bar one evening, check out the post Ethnic Discrimination in Qatar. You could also read the post Beauty and Blackness in Qatar and maybe even check out this article from CBS News; it’s full of quotes from people outside of the U.S., answering various questions about what came to mind when they thought of “America” (in 2016).
Sexual harassment & assault
Now that we’ve talked about my personal objectification experience, and while we’re on the general subject of flirting, let me remind people of something, just in case you’ve forgotten or think there’s some grey area somewhere:
No matter how many times someone defends themselves by saying BS lines like “Oh, calm down, I was just flirting”, if you said no—or in any way didn’t say yes—that’s not flirting, that’s harassment or sexual assault (depending on what went down). Listen, Qatar is literally the safest country in the world—which in part means that their sexual harassment and assault cases are statistically few and far between—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ever happen.
A handful of people told me stories about being sexually assaulted in Qatar and there were a few common trends that stood out: They were always expats (both the victim and the assailant), they were always between people who encountered each other on a regular basis, and these stories always stayed within themselves, the family, or the friend group . . . there wasn’t any sort of collective, super public, #MeToo kind of atmosphere about it. Some of these stories took place in private homes while others took place in clubs & bars. Some of them involved expats from the same country, some involved expats from different countries, most involved a male assailant with a female victim, but one involved a white European woman consistently pursuing a black African woman who had made it very clear on multiple occasions she was not only not interested in her, but not attracted to women in general.
I will say, though, that Qatar had significantly less public acts of sexual harassment compared to my experience in Morocco, which was my only point of comparison when it came to being a woman abroad (you can read about it all in What’s the Deal With Boys [When You’re Black]? and Being Black in Morocco). Most notably, though, Qatar offered less incidents than my experiences in the U.S., which meant catcalling, following, and unwanted touching was damn near nonexistent. Even something as “basic” as checking someone out wasn’t as common in Qatar as in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong, people in Qatar may stare at you—especially if you’ve got big breasts, bulging biceps, natural hair, red hair, or are wearing anything haram or borderline haram. However, no one ever gave me a creepy “undressing you with my eyes” kind of stare; instead I got looks of curiosity, perhaps a little judgement, or just that blank look you give something when it stands out in a crowd.
When it comes to my experience, I wasn’t harassed or assaulted in Qatar, not in the slightest, which is more than I can say about my experience in the U.S. Because of this, though, I ultimately felt a lot more comfortable and much safer as a woman in Qatar than in the U.S. (and you can read more about it in the post Being a Woman in Qatar).
A blurry photo of me laughing before my first date in Qatar.
Dating norms in Qatar
During a mini tour of Doha with one of the VCUQ students charged with showing us Richmonders around, I asked if dating was “a thing” in Doha. She laughed—not at my question, but at the idea—and simply responded “No, not really.”
After that answer I couldn’t help but be even more curious about the topic of dating in Qatar. What did she mean, ‘No, not really’? How did people meet people? Get to know one another? What did relationships entail? Age, gender, race, unspoken language—those mysterious social cues I could never quite grasp—how did all those things play a part in romantic interactions, and what interactions were acceptable? What were the social norms, what was expected of people? How did my American understanding of dating compare to the courtship rituals in Qatar? My mind couldn’t help but mull over the infinite possibilities pertaining to this one topic, and when I get hooked on a topic—be it dragons, Disney, Dahomey, or Degas—I plunge into a research rabbit hole.
What’s funny, though, is that I didn’t have to do much research because the answers to some of my questions were presented to me at unexpected moments. I had students tell me about their experiences, that of their siblings and parents, and things they had observed in the 20+ years they’d been in the country. Something many of these students said was that many romantic pair ups were, to an extent, arranged. No, it wasn’t in “hey, you’re gonna marry this stranger” kind of way, it was more like an “Auntie” kind of way, like when someone you know knows someone else who knows someone they think would be perfect for you. Ah, and the Aunties don’t have to be blood relatives, nor do they have to be a generation older than you; it seemed like anyone with a close bond to someone else was always low key keeping them in mind when it came to matchmaking.
To a larger extent, it seemed like this was common among Muslims (as opposed to it just being a “Qatar thing”), and if I had to guess, it’s probably because there’s such an emphasis on family in Islam. However, I still knew Muslims in Qatar who dated in the traditionally Western way we’re more familiar with in the U.S., including hanging at bars or each other’s homes (without supervision). Also, keep in mind that Qatar is home to expats from a hundred different countries, each with different social norms, amounts of Western influence, religions, and values; with so much variety, it was easy to meet people who “dated” in whatever way they felt comfortable with (as long as it wasn’t too publicly haram).
And here are just a few more statements & personal observations about dating in Qatar:
I was told by a Qatari student that the traditional Qatari way of “dating” was more like a lax engagement. Two people are introduced, they spend some (likely supervised) time together to see if they like each other, and if they do, they get engaged. During this engagement period is when they “date” and get to know each other more without as much supervision. If they still like each other, the wedding plans start up, and if they don’t like each other, the engagement is broken off. The way this student described all this was so casual, like a “no harm done” sort of vibe, which was very different than what I was used to in the U.S. (where breaking off an engagement is high-key a big deal and inspires near-endless gossip).
Hilariously, there was one student on my last day of class happily and violently destroying a canvas painting of her ex-boyfriend in the hallway. Walking with my teacher, we suddenly stopped, hearing a loud splintering of wood break through the quiet of a near-empty end-of-semester school building. We looked to our right to see a student forcing her way through a medium sized canvas, foot first. “What are you doing?” the teacher asked. “Destroying this painting of my ex-boyfriend,” she said simply. “Ah. Carry on,” the teacher said, and the echoes of wood breaking and fabric ripping continued. This is one of my favorite memories of VCUQ.
A few Qatari girls asserted that Qatari boys preferred traditional Qatari women over foreigners. In a lot of places, the U.S. included, foreign individuals—especially women—are often deemed more attractive than the locals because of their exoticism. Some students I was with were wondering if that mindset existed in Qatar and that’s when the Qatari students said it was the opposite, that Qatari boys liked traditional Qatari girls. I thought this was interesting, though I’m not exactly sure how what they meant by “traditional”. Was it the way women dressed? The housewife/working woman dynamic? Their desire to having children? Their role as primary caretaker? Their religious piety? Whatever the answer, this was just one collective opinion from one group of girls—a very small sampling of what your “average” Qatari woman thought the “average” Qatari man wanted—but it’s still something interesting to think about.
Compared to the U.S., a lot of people I talked to were very supportive of long-lasting relationships, even when two people had only just started dating. This isn’t to say people in the U.S. weren’t supportive of relationship longevity, but there were a lot of people in the States—especially young people—who were more than comfortable with brief flings, explorations, and situationships. It was interesting to be in Qatar and hear less consideration for those sorts of relationship dynamics and more immediate support for a boyfriend/girlfriend/hopeful-fiancé status.
Dating people outside your community
Bunnies mingling with turtles at Souq Waqif. If only it was always this easy for humans.
Whew, this is a doozy. Secret dating amongst young people in Qatar was a relatively common occurrence, and the reasons some relationships are kept secret could be layered and varied. First of all, if you're Muslim and dating in the traditional Western sense, there already may be some disapproval from your community. Then you've got things like race, class, and nationality, which are very relevant social parameters in Qatar, and may cause some tension.
That said, let me list down just a little of what I observed when it came to this sort of thing. Keep in mind, tough, that most secret relationships were kept—wait for it—a secret, and thus, there weren't a lot of people willing to openly talk about their relationship status. This is why I've got just a small handful of relationship observations to relay your way.
Let’s be real, there is a stigma everywhere associated with interracial dating. Sometimes the stigma results in aggressive opposition, and sometimes it only results in brief, curious “I don’t see that very often” stares, but there’s always something in the air when two people of two different races couple up. The reaction an interracial couple may get from others really depends on what races they are, where they are in the world, and even what sub-group they’re a part of; I was accustomed to the way the U.S. responds to interracial dating, the way the Southern U.S. responds, and the way the black community responds. I could talk for a long while about the acceptance (and promotion) of interracial relationships within all those communities, but for now all you need to know is that I was accustomed to a particular brand of interracial relationship stigma and Qatar offered something different . . . sort of.
One may think that with Qatar being home to so many people from so many racial backgrounds, interracial relationships could potentially be a widely accepted norm. Well, that wasn’t the case; if anything, interracial relationships seemed to garner more curious stares and dismissal than my experience with them in the U.S. For example, I noticed that interracial relationships weren’t publicly featured anywhere, not on cereal commercials, event ads, or local TV shows (and this is what I meant when I said there was a “dismissal”, a dismissal of the idea that they do or should exist in the community). I know the U.S. has only just begun to casually include interracial relationships in its media within the past few years, but it was odd to be in a place where I didn’t see it featured anywhere despite there being so much different racial variance among its populace.
Ah, but there’s the thing: It’s populace. Even though Qatar hosts people from many different countries, it’s not like the U.S. in that many of our citizens are from different racial backgrounds (the key work here is “citizens”). So, when U.S. citizens want to see themselves and their situations represented & accepted in the media, the U.S. slowly but surely tries to promote that. The only people who are citizens in Qatar, however, are people who are born with Qatari blood—as weird as that feels to say—and the country low-key seems to want its citizens to shack up exclusively with other Qatari citizens. I’m basing this on the law that states a child born of a Qatari woman and a non-Qatari man automatically isn’t a citizen of Qatar, and I can’t help but wonder if this apparent desire to keep the national bloodline pure may be why the media seemed to exclusively feature Arab couples.
Further still, there is a history of racism in the Arab world, especially against black people (because of the whole Arab Slave Trade thing). Qatar wasn’t blaringly racist like some other Arab countries, but like I said, it still wasn’t broadcasting an acceptance of interracial relationships. This is what made the four interracial relationships I did see in Qatar interesting: Three of them were new, one was married, two were on the down-low, all involved black expats, one involved an expat with a Qatari national, and three were in relationships with other expats (either white or Asian).
The reactions to the relationship between the Qatari woman and the black Nigerian man were what struck me the most. I’m not sure what the reaction was on the Qatari side of things, but I do know the reactions some of the black community had. They were . . . mad. Offended. It came across as though they felt betrayed, and they had some choice words about the Qatari woman the Nigerian man was involved with. This was different than the reactions some of the same people had to the relationships between the two black Afro-Arab women and white European men, or the black American woman and the Asian man; their reactions weren’t aggressive, just the “Oh . . . okay,” sort of skepticism that only lasts for the first few months of their relationship. This also feels like a good time to mention that a married interracial couple will probably be presumed as just dating while out in public (because when it comes to the image of a married couple, people still tended to match up couples based on race . . . white marries while, black marries black, Filipino marries Filipino, Arab marries Arab, etc.)
I don’t know the nitty gritty details of this, but I did hear enough side comments to gather that people of certain nationalities dating people of certain other nationalities ranged from mildly uncomfortable to severely no bueno. There was a lot of variation, of course, because there were over 100 different nationalities calling Qatar home, but there were a few things that did seem to stick out. There’s the law I mentioned earlier, about the consequence of Qatari women popping out babies with non-Qatari men, and there seemed to be a teeny bit of tension with Qataris dating Arabs from other countries (possibly because of the blockade, possibly because of cultural differences). There was also a lot of very obvious tension when it came to seemingly anyone dating an Israeli (which has more to do with religion than nationality, but they intertwine nonetheless).
Speaking of Israel, what’s the religious beef? A lot of Muslims in Qatar expressed animosity toward Jews because of their relationship to Israel. The animosity came from a longstanding beef between Israeli and Palestine, which has branched off into a Jews vs. Muslims issue. Here, check out this YouTube video; it’s 13 minutes long, full of photographs, and a clear & direct mildly entertaining narrator.
However, perhaps the most significant religious beef in Qatar—and the Muslim world as a whole—is Sunni Muslims vs. Shia Muslims. Now this is an incredibly longstanding beef, truly going back thousands of years, and I think it’s also best summed up in a 90-second YouTube video. Essentially, though, it’s a religious debate that sparked a separate denomination of Islam, but this denomination difference runs so deep that I’ve heard some real Romeo & Juliet stories between Sunni and Shia Muslims (except instead of choosing death, these people just move away and find other people to marry that their families do accept). Otherwise, though, I’m not sure what it’s like for people of other religions, denominations, or atheists when it comes to dating in Qatar. If I had to guess, though, I feel like the only people who may have a problem could be atheists (because it really seemed like everyone in Qatar—including expats—believed in some manner of higher power).
Same-sex relationships & being transgender
There are layers to a person, like a fresh rose. People can’t always fit in society’s predetermined boxes.
A same-sex match-up—be it flirting, dating, marriage, or one-night stands—is not going to fly in Qatar. Homosexuality is illegal, which means any actions associated with homosexuality are also illegal, and gay marriages aren’t recognized in the country. Similarly, being transgender is also not accepted in Qatar; there’s not even the slightest attempt to include things like gender neutral bathrooms or alternative checkboxes to “M” or “F”, and the concept of gender & sexuality being a spectrum is just not part of a country-wide conversation like the way it is in the U.S.
However, though the gender & sexuality spectrum isn’t much acknowledged in Qatar, you will always be able to find people who don’t feel that way. Many of them are expatriates, but not all, and the fact they’re living in Qatar means that their thoughts and influence are present in that environment. Also, you can’t forget that there are LGBT+ people in Qatar just like there are everywhere in the world, the only difference is that they may keep their “lifestyle” really on the DL (because to be public about it is to be not only be socially ostracized, but also risk jail time and/or deportation).
In fact, I met one guy who was openly gay, actively seeing someone, and Muslim. When I say “openly” I don’t mean he was walking around town with rainbow suspenders shouting pro-LGBT+ slogans, I mean that if he was asked he would say, “Yes, I’m gay.” That’s a really big for a Desi Muslim living in Qatar (because, like in the U.S., homophobia tends to get wrapped up in cultural and religious beliefs). What I most remember about this guy, though, was that when asked if he was happy, he responded “Yes,” with a wonderfully sincere smile on his face. Even though he admittedly had received a lot of flak from his community, he was happy not to be in the closet and he was happy with his partner.
He was a walking example of pride, strength, perseverance, & the normalization of something considered taboo, and I couldn’t help but imagine his unapologetic existence in the country and his community was playing a larger role in a widespread change of mindset. When it comes to LGBT+ issues in Qatar, change is undeniably not going to happen overnight, but I also know that if enough individuals poke holes in close-minded social norms—all in the name of proving that they are worthy of acknowledgement and the same rights as everyone else—it will create a ripple effect big enough to change everything. Qatar is putting in a lot of work to make their country a beacon of sustainability and a reflection of a beautiful future, and I think that opening up the public conversation about LGBT+ rights would be a worthwhile addition to that utopian vision.
With all the biases, stigmas, and judgements I just talked about, please remember that it’s still on a case-by-case basis. People are individuals, families are unique; there’s no singular blanket statement to be made about any one person, culture, or race. Everything I’ve told you about are just the things I experienced—the things I heard and saw for myself—but they are in no way a reflection of any entire group of people.
Also, I go into more detail about many of these things in the post Ethnic Discrimination in Qatar.
My friends did my makeup and their mom jokingly said I’d get a marriage proposal.
Here’s a big ‘ol list of miscellaneous marriage info I learned about while I was in Qatar:
Some Muslim students explained to me that there are two weddings in Islam, essentially the legal wedding and the party wedding. It sounded like they were differentiating between getting legally married at Sharia Court (or “the courthouse” as we generically say in the U.S.) and later having the big ceremony, the one with all the people, food, and pastel dresses. A lot of people in the U.S. do this too, but a lot of people in the U.S. also merge their fancy ceremony with their legal agreement. I think these peeps in Qatar were trying to explain to me that it’s much more common for couples in Qatar to get legally married before the ceremony.
Qatari culture doesn’t force marriage on anyone (notably the woman). In fact, forced marriage is illegal under Islamic law. Do you remember when I mentioned that the traditional way of “dating” in Qatar is more like an engagement period? And that if the couple really likes each other they’ll get married, and if they don’t, they’ll break the engagement, easy-peasy? Well, that’s all there is to it; if you don’t like the other person, there’s no holy, cultural, or familial doctrine that’s says you two must stay together.
I bring this up because there are a lot of misconceptions about the Middle East, especially in their treatment of women. Well, I didn’t meet any Qatari women—or other Muslim women—who expressed feeling pressured to get hitched. Is marriage important in Qatari culture and Islam as a whole? Yes, because family is important to both. However, it’s not the be-all-end-all; though it may be encouraged, marriage is not expected to be the #1 accomplishment of anyone’s life, especially as of 2019. See, because in the 1970’s Qatar started investing a lot in education, especially women’s education, and now most people view education as a necessary accomplishment before marriage is even part of the conversation.
Women in Qatar were generally encouraged to get an education before they “settle down”, but this wasn’t a strict expectation either. At VCUQ there were a few young, married students, and two of which were very pregnant.
Of course, being married and/or pregnant while in uni happens in the U.S. too, but Qatar seemed to frame it in a different context. In the U.S., when we see a young & pregnant uni student, there’s a bite of negativity in the air, a feeling of pity, an assumption that this was an irresponsible and irrevocable accident on the part of the mother. Then, when we meet a young student who’s married, or even engaged, there’s that immediate surprise, curiosity (that borders nosiness), possibly judgement, and the question of “Oh… how old are you?” (and it’s usually the woman who receives this sort of attention, interestingly). In Qatar, though, these types of students were just . . . students. They weren’t “the pregnant student” or “the married student”, they were just students who just so happened to be pregnant and/or married.
It was a little funny, though, when one of the students needed to reschedule her final exam because it clashed with her due date. The teacher was of course incredibly understanding; birthin’ babies is a good reason to not show up to class.
All of the pregnant women I met at VCUQ were on their way to becoming first-time mothers, and I later learned there were a few young students who already had toddlers. I couldn’t help but compare this to the U.S., the way we consider moms in uni. There’s this odd narrative where people tend to imagine a mother enrolled in school as someone who is older, a woman with multiple kids—possibly a single parent—who has decided to come back and get their education 20 years later despite the hardships of their life to date (typically, and problematically, implying that motherhood was her “hardship”). Though this can be the case with some student mothers, it’s also an oddly specific assumption that I myself also defaulted to for a while. Being in Qatar, however, changed my perspective in the most obvious way possible, reminding me that someone can be a student and a mother at any age and in any circumstance.
All that said, I remember sitting in the waiting room of the school counseling department and skimming a bookshelf full of self-help books. Each shelf was organized based on topic, many of which I wasn’t surprised to see: Anxiety, depression, school stress, meditation, religion, and I think there was even one about dealing with the fact that you, as an arts student, may have just committed yourself to a career as a starving artist. The one shelf that did surprise me, though, was the one full of books about being a spouse and/or mother while being a student. I had never seen books like that casually sitting on any self-help shelves at VCU-Richmond, and I realized it was because having a spouse-and-kids kind of family while being a young student was not very common in the U.S., and thus, the concerns that may come with that situation weren’t catered to.
I was told that Qatari men start musing over the idea of marriage around the age of 25. It’s not that they’re actively trying to hunt down a wife, it’s just that they’re generally and collectively more open to the idea around this time in their lives. I’m not sure what the common age for women was, but I can say that Qatar is no exception to the late marriage “phenomenon” amongst Millennials (and through extension, Gen Z’ers).
In Qatar (and Islam overall, I believe) it’s traditional for the prospective groom to not only get a blessing from not only the prospective bride’s father, but also her immediate family. The groom’s family also has to be in agreement, but their blessing seemed ever so slightly less important than having support from the bride’s family. I was also told that sometimes the groom brings some of his family—usually some male relatives—when he formally asks his bride’s family for their blessing over the marriage.
If a couple doesn’t get their families’ blessing for their marriage, it’s likely they won’t get married, at least not right then. In Islam marriage is less about the individuals, and more about the two families uniting; so, the couple has to either wait for their families to come around and bless the marriage, elope (which could cause some issues), or break up.
It wasn’t uncommon for a woman to not change her surname after marriage, though any children she pops out would take the name of her husband. Traditional Islamic principle actually states that the woman should keep her family name after marriage, but in today’s world people choose to do it—or not do it—for a variety of difference reasons. Here’s an article with lots of GIFs and some quotes from Muslim women on how they feel about keeping or changing their last name after marriage. And here is a brief & straightforward article about traditional Islamic naming practices as it pertains to marriage, just in case you’re curious.
Having bachelor & bachelorette parties was a thing in Qatar amongst affianced people and their crew. Unlike the U.S., though, there would be no manner of gambling, stripping, or penis cakes, and probably not any alcohol. One bachelor party I heard about involved a bunch of bros going out into the desert, starting a bonfire, and eating . . . essentially a sandy barbeque.
It’s common to have gender segregated marriage ceremonies, notably if it’s being held at a mosque. The reception can also be segregated, but to a different degree (some put the opposite genders in their own rooms to celebrate, some just place a partition in one big room, and some may give three options: Men, women, and coed sections). The Muslim wedding reception I went to in Qatar, though, was completely coed. In short, the gender segregation really depends on the families’ personal preference.
It’s legal to marry your cousin, both in Qatar and Islamic law overall. In fact, I learned that the Emir and one of his sister’s married their second cousins, and the Father Emir married two of his first cousins. Before you start judging, though, it’s legal in the U.S. to marry your second cousin, and when it comes to your first cousin, go look up what states allow them to marry. Spoiler alert, Virginia is one of them.
It is legal for Muslim men to have multiple wives (but only up to four). Both the Father Emir of Qatar and the Emir, for example, have three wives (with 24 and 12 children respectively). However, having multiple wives is falling out of popularity. There are a few reasons for this ranging from feminist movements, to certain Muslim countries banning polygamy, to the simple fact that having multiple spouses (and likely multiple children) is expensive. Most Muslims not of the royal family tend to keep a singular spouse, and some marriage contracts even give the wife the option to ban polygamy in the marriage.
Divorce is fine to do in Qatar and Islam overall; there’s no icky-sticky or sexist hoops to jump through when a couple is ready to split up, they just have to go to the court and get it done. The wife usually moves back in with her family, and the husband… well, I don’t know where he goes. However, after a divorce the ex-husband is sometimes required to financially support his wife if she can’t take care of herself. A divorce can also result in some custody arrangements that, in my opinion, are sexist.
There’s also the practice of repeating “Talaq” three times in a row—essentially declaring “I divorce you!”—and having that constitute as a divorce. I saw this in a movie once and thought it was a joke or an exaggeration, but nope! Turns out it’s actually a part of traditional Islamic law (note, though, that the verbal divorce can be retracted if it was said in the heat of the moment, and if the wife essentially accepts her husband’s apology). I don’t know how often this really happens, but I thought it was interesting to hear about, nonetheless.
Flying solo like this rose?
Here’s another list for yah about being unmarried in Qatar
I thought I’d mention it because in every culture there’s something associated with not being married, especially if you’re a woman. Here’s what I learned about being unmarried in Qatar:
If you’re not married, you’re single (even if you have a boyfriend, girlfriend, or fiancé). The U.S. technically adheres to this consideration too, as you may have noticed when filling out government paperwork, but that’s about as far as it goes. Socially and culturally, the U.S. acknowledges your significant other as your partner, even if you’re unmarried. In Qatar, though, this isn’t the case; unmarried is unmarried.
This is really significant in Qatar because some situations require a couple to be married in order to live together, like when renting a hotel room or sharing an apartment. However, some hotels and landlords in Qatar don’t care too much about that.
I was told that if someone sees a man with a woman out in public, they tend to assume they are friends, family, spouses, or maybe coworkers. There was apparently no in-between.
It was common for unmarried people, especially women, to live with their parents up until marriage. Being an older, unmarried adult living with your family didn’t carry the same “failure” stigma as it often does in Western culture. This is probably because family carries a higher level of importance in Islamic culture than in Western culture.
This was just sitting in my camera roll and I really couldn’t help myself. C’mon, laugh like a 12-year-old with me.
Qatar is a very traditional Muslim country when it comes to sex, so do I really need to go into much detail about what’s right & wrong? Alright, well, maybe I will for good measure:
Sex Ed (or “Family Life” as Henrico County Public Schools so vaguely called it) is not a part of any school curriculum in Qatar.
When it came to learning about sex & the human body—both the technical and emotional stuff—the education provided by my school and home life was damn near nonexistent, and thus, severely uninformative (as well as sexist and ineffective . . . Fun Fact: Pregnancy and STDs are better prevented by teaching people how to put a condom on, not simply telling them to not have sex. Mind blown). By the time I reached my 20’s, though, I was able to just Google answers to my questions. There were medical sites, forums, top ten lists, diagrams, and—of course—pornography couldn’t help but slide in there too. However, in Qatar a lot of websites are blocked and many Muslim families still don’t really talk about sex stuff. I’m not sure to what extent Qatar blocks the sorts of websites I listed when it comes to sex & body talk, but I do know that Qatar makes a point to block as much porn as possible. I didn’t find this out through experience, but a few expats made a point to tell me that specific tidbit about censorship, like it was part of my “Welcome to Qatar” knowledge basket.
If I had to guess, though, people probably find out information from doctors, friends, the media, and sometimes still family. Doctors are required to dish out medical knowledge, especially gynecologists and urologists, and not all families in Qatar are hush-hush about the topic of sex. You should also remember that Qatar is about 90% expatriate; all these people from all over the world come with their own knowledge, personal experiences, values, and opinions, and they do get shared (just not broadcasted publicly). Then there’s the media, which can’t help but introduce people to the sex-and-body topics one way or another (be it movies, TV, or pornography . . . as much as Qatar tries, it’s impossible to fully squash something that’s essentially 12,000 years old. Porn always finds a way.)
I was told that a woman’s menstrual cycle was considered unclean in Islam—and cleanliness is important because it’s tied into absolution—which meant that women aren’t allowed to pray during their periods. However, they are allowed to eat during Ramadan while bleeding; here’s an interesting article about a woman’s experience with her menstrual cycle during Ramadan, and another about one woman’s feeling of awkwardness when it comes to bleeding during Ramadan. I also learned that sex during menstruation is traditionally forbidden in Islam under the argument that it’s uncomfortable for the woman.
However, it’s not like everyone in Qatar needed to put a ring on it to get busy. As mentioned earlier, Qatar is 90% expatriate, and with that comes a variety of different thoughts & opinions when it comes to sex out of wedlock. And even though Qatar is overwhelmingly Muslim, those people are all individuals; everyone has their own relationship with God and many people understood you could be both religiously devout and sexually liberated. Ah, and just in case you’re confusing “sexually liberated” with “nymphomania”, here’s a nice & easy to digest article defining sexual liberation as being about self-awareness and choice.
Here’s a story for yah: My first night in Doha, I was sitting in a parked van with the other exchange students, waiting for a building to be unlocked. Parked beside us was an SUV and one of the exchange students noted, in the dead quiet of night, “There really is a lot of movement going on in that van.” We couldn’t help but laugh; in the van were two students who really looked like they were fooling around. I can’t say for certain if they were; after all, it was nighttime, and the van’s tinted windows naturally made any activity hard to discern (which was probably what they were going for). Whatever went down, though, these students were later kind enough to help me translate an invitation and find my way to a wedding reception at 1am!
You can still find things like condoms and lube on grocery store & pharmacy shelves; Qatar didn’t make those goods difficult to access, and they provided a variety of options. I didn’t see any single packs of condoms for sale, like the kind you spot at gas stations beside the Chapstick; in fact, I didn’t see any condoms in gas stations period. However, being forced to buy a 10 pack of condoms instead of a 50-cent single really isn’t a “problem” per say. Also, don’t expect contraceptives like condoms or dental dams to be passed out freely in the way they are on the VCU-Richmond campus.
Sex toys, however, are a different story. Those things are not sold in Qatar and if you get caught bringing them in, TSA may confiscate it. Even something like a commemorative dildo-shaped keychain from Athens is a no-go when it comes to stuff you’re allowed to bring into the country.
Similar to the way VCU-Richmond hands out free contraceptives (in a variety of locations and through a variety of programs), they also offer free screenings for certain STDs. As far as I know, Qatar does not (at least not in Education City).
Sex shops, strip clubs, titty bars, late night porn screenings, legally obtained private performances—whatever form of adult entertainment you’re imagining—will not be found or advertised in Qatar.
Here’s a story for you
My traditional courtship rituals require everything featured in the photograph above.
I started dating a guy while I was studying abroad
What I learned during the pre-departure session
At the study abroad pre-departure session in Richmond, we received the rundown when it came to forming romantic relationships with people while abroad. They were primarily talking to the women in the group, giving us the basic tips about how to not get kidnapped and reminding us to use safe-sex practices. They also pointed out that relationship norms in the U.S. probably weren’t the same as relationship norms abroad. Dating, flirting, sex, marriage—romantic relationships are bound to have slightly different (or vastly different) definitions and expectations in other cultures. This means that someone pursuing a relationship abroad not only has to ask the basic relationship questions (like “Are we exclusive?” or “What are our intimacy expectations?”), but also the safety while abroad questions (“Should I go to their place or mine?”, “Do I tell them why I’m in the country?”, “Do I give them my real name?”) and the cultural awareness questions (“Is dating more like an engagement?”, “Is casual sex a taboo?”). Heck, you even have to ask the practical questions, like “How accessible are contraceptives?” or “How expensive is a doctor’s appointment?” My point is that there’s a lot to think about, especially if you’re a woman travelling abroad who decides to pursue some manner of romantic relationship; not every overseas romance can be as cute as Leap Year, as dramatic as Casablanca, or as mildly steamy as How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
What I experienced in Doha
I and the guy I started dating in Qatar were more or less set up by mutual friends. Our friend invited him to Desi Night, VCUQ’s annual event celebrating Desi culture, under the premise that she wanted to hang out with him. That wasn’t necessarily a lie for they did indeed speak to one another, but she herself had her own date to get to, so she left, leaving the two of us sitting on a giant majlis amongst a huge crowd of students, faculty, alumni, and families. This wasn’t meant to be a date, it was just a way to introduce us to one another; in fact, he had no idea he’d be meeting me, and I honestly hadn’t thought he’d show up in the first place.
However, he did show up and we did indeed meet; we talked all night, he asked me if I wanted to get dinner the next day, we exchanged phone numbers, and that’s how it all started. We spent time with each other nearly every day for two weeks, then didn’t see each other for two more weeks (because we were in separate countries), and finally met back up for our first month-a-versary date the day he landed back in Qatar. Three weeks later we were in Istanbul together, and four days later he was at my graduation ceremony. We did a lot in a little bit of time and we even kept up a long-distance relationship after I returned home to the States; my grandmother says it’s like a fairytale,
The funniest thing about this situation
From the onset of my arrival, I had a huge crush on a different guy. I pursued him—a social feat I am still right proud of—but my interest in him either flew over his head or his silent rejections flew over my head. Either way, we didn’t end up together, and that was okay, I realized. He was my friend, and I liked him as my friend; I recognized that I was way more in love with the idea of him than truly interested in him as a romantic partner. I accepted it. Then, a week later I met the guy I started dating. Maybe it is like a fairytale . . . kind of eerie, though.
I think it’s so interesting that everything about this topic—what I learned and what I experienced—contributed not only the cultural immersion aspects of my study abroad experience, but also my growth as person. My newfound awareness of myself and others wound up improving my wellbeing in some unexpected ways that will probably stay with me for life.