An exploration into the religious and symbolic meanings of gendered spaces in an arab gulf home



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AN EXPLORATION INTO THE RELIGIOUS AND SYMBOLIC MEANINGS OF GENDERED SPACES IN AN ARAB GULF HOME
Rana Sobh, Qatar University
Russell Belk, York University

AN EXPLORATION INTO THE RELIGIOUS AND SYMBOLIC MEANINGS OF GENDERED SPACES IN AN ARAB GULF HOME
Abstract:
Houses are rich symbols representative of culture, self and identity (Marcus 1995). The current research provides a comparative perspective on Arab-Islamic (Qatari) and Western values as encoded in the home and use of spaces within it. Our ethnographic study involved observation and in-depth interviews with twenty four middleclass home-owning Qatari families living in Doha. We found gendered areas as well as visual and non-visual domains of privacy. Furthermore, we found a parallel between the home and the woman’s body as these both relate to the notions of sanctity, purity, and reserve. Both also seem to embody and mediate global and local cultural controversies Qataris are subject to as a result of the increased influence of Western consumption patterns.

EXTENDED ABSTRACT
Houses are rich symbols representative of culture, self and identity (Marcus 1995). The home is conventionally understood as the foundation of the private sphere (Allan and Crow 1989). However, notions of privacy and separate public and private spaces within the home have emerged only within the last few hundred years (Tuan, 1982). While the home provides a more private space to the family compared to the public domain, it does not necessarily secure private spaces for individual family members from each other (Allan and Crow 1989). Such concepts have been extensively studied in the West, but little comparable work has been done in non-Western homes. Definitions of private and public spheres are different in Islam than those in Western paradigms. Privacy in the West refers to people’s rights to non-intrusion and might be linked to the notion of individualism and individual rights to property. However, in the Arab-Islamic world, privacy is very much based on the notion of sanctity and concerns both women and the home (El Guindi, 1999). The current research provides a comparative perspective on Arab-Islamic (Qatari) and Western values as encoded in the home and use of spaces within it.

Qatar and the Gulf States in general offer a context unique for several reasons: 1) Society requires strong adherence to traditional values and social norms, although Western lifestyles and consumption patterns are increasingly adopted and there has been an influx of Western media, 2) There is an omnipresent awareness of Islam and religious values in shaping identities and informing behavior, 3)There is an abundance of financial resources available to locals and a significant growth of financial, educational, and media centers, and 4) There has been a significant dilution of local populations by the expatriates and guest workers who comprise more than 80% of local populations. Consequently, locals increasingly fear the dissolution of their ethnic identity and therefore strive to emphasize their authenticity and ethnic affiliation distinction through wearing ethnic dress, for instance, and striving to preserve traditional lifestyles and symbols as a way of preserving or reviving traditional roots. Such tensions are reflected in many aspects of consumption including clothing (of both men and women), the configuration of houses, and the design and uses of private and public spaces.

Our ethnographic study involved observation and in-depth interviews with twenty four middleclass home-owning Qatari families living in Doha. Our sample involved families across different life stages (e.g., young married without children, families with young children, and families with older children). In addition, the researchers interviewed a Qatari architect, a real estate agent, and a religious scholar. Interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. The interviews discussed meanings of home, favorite areas of the home, situations in which these spaces are used, favorite objects within the home, the meanings of these objects, and usage patterns by other family members, who makes decisions regarding home decorating in each room and how the house was selected or designed. As a stimulant for these interviews we used projective stimuli (e.g., metaphorical descriptions such as “If my home were an animal, it would be…) and visual elicitation (based on photographs of various areas of the home taken, with informant permission). Audio and video recordings of interviews and observations were made and transcribed. The analysis followed the logic of hermeneutic research in that we sought to identify shared cultural meanings underlying expressed meanings by individual consumers (Thompson, Pollio, and Locander 1994).

We found gendered areas within Qatari households with a sharp distinction and formally drawn boundaries between them. In all visited homes, the space designated as private was for the family (husband, wife and children) and close male relatives from the mahrem category (those in a degree of sanguity precluding marriage), as well as female visitors. The public or communal areas were for men and their male visitors – majles (the place for sitting). These have separate entrances for males and females from the main street. Men's quarters emphasize openness to the public domain, while the family or women quarters emphasize enclosure away from the public gaze. The majles—is a space where roots and traditions are revived and where collective and tribal identities are enacted by men. However, the women’s space is more expressive of individual identity and denotes personal status and wealth. Women’s domain can be seen as an embodiment of individual identity, whereas men’s domain can be seen as an embodiment of collective identify.

At first glance, it is tempting to see gender segregation in Qatari households as confining women to the home and veil. The public/private paradigm has been commonly used to describe gender segregation in an Arab- Islamic cultural space. However, we found that the privacy of family/women quarters give a woman a sense of freedom and mobility in the domestic space, just as bodily covering gives her a sense of freedom and mobility in the public space. The veil can be seen as a woman’s mobile privacy that she transports with her as she moves from the private to the public sphere. Hurma is an Arabic term that refers at once to a woman or wife, to the sanctity of religious sites, and also to the sanctity of the home. In essence, it is that which is sacred and pure.

The majles has kept the horizontal traditional building architecture, design and furnishing whereas family homes are increasingly adopting a modern vertical structure (two or three storey villas) and use modern interior designs and furnishing. According to Tuan (1974), vertical elements of the landscape symbolize transcendence and evoke a sense of striving, while horizontal ones symbolize the ideal of roots identification and acceptance. The majles thus seem to encompass elements of stability and resistance to change, while women’s space encompasses mobility and represents what is culturally changeable. Having both spaces in each Qatari household helps locals negotiate and reconcile the conflicting demands of modernity and tradition and to mediate the major social and cultural changes the country has been undergoing.

A similar dichotomy is seen in local personal adornment, where women’s garments and grooming are becoming much more modern and expressive while men’s garments have changed little. The black, plain and modest abaya that Qatari women traditionally wear in public is increasingly assuming a modern fashionable appearance, accessorized with jewelry, designer handbags, and high heel shoes (Sobh, Belk, Gressel forthcoming). Whether in the configuration of their domestic spaces or appearance in the public space, women seem to capture the ambivalence and conflicting imperative of traditional norms and the temptations of the modern. Women carry the burden of their nation’s culture and traditional norms but they also seem to carry change and transformation in their society; their challenge is to reconcile the two.

AN EXPLORATION INTO THE RELIGIOUS AND SYMBOLIC MEANINGS OF GENDERED SPACES IN AN ARAB GULF HOME

Houses are rich symbols representative of culture, self and identity (Marcus 1995). Differences in the use and sense of ownership of various spaces within the home by individual family members especially the adult males and females articulate social relations and define gender relationships in a particular society (Altman 1975). The home is conventionally understood as the foundation of the private sphere (Allan and Crow 1989). However, notions of privacy and separate public and private spaces within the home have emerged only within the last few hundred years (Tuan, 1982). Notions of private space are also encoded architecturally (Sommer 1969) and intimacy within the nuclear family is a concept that has grown as the presence of extended families sharing the same home has diminished (Rybczynski 1986).

While the home provides a more private space to the family compared to the public domain, it does not necessarily secure private spaces for individual family members from each other (Allan and Crow 1989). Such concepts have been extensively studied in the West, but little comparable work has been done in non-Western homes. Definitions of private and public spheres are different in Islam than those in Western paradigms. Privacy in the West refers to people’s rights to non-intrusion and might be linked to the notion of individualism and individual rights to property. However, in the Arab-Islamic world, privacy is very much based on the notion of sanctity and concerns both women and the home (El Guindi, 1999). The current research provides a comparative perspective on Middle Eastern (Qatari) and Western values as encoded in the home and use of spaces within it. We found a parallel between the home and the woman’s body as these both relate to the notions of sanctity, purity, and reserve. Both also seem to embody and mediate global and local cultural controversies Qataris are subject to as a result of the increased influence of Western consumption patterns. The domestic sphere seems to bind the past to the present.

We locate our research in the Gulf region and Qatar in particular where dramatic changes are occurring. Qatar and the Gulf States in general offer a context unique for several reasons: 1) Society requires strong adherence to traditional values and social norms, 2) There is an omnipresent awareness of Islam and religious values in shaping identities and informing behavior, 3)There is an abundance of financial resources available to locals and a significant growth of financial, educational, and media centers, and 4) There has been a significant dilution of local populations by the expatriates and guest workers who comprise more than 80% of local populations. This influx of expatriates coupled with an influx of global mass media and other forms of popular culture resulted in the increasing adoption of Western lifestyles and tensions between the desire to embrace the modern and a desire to preserve local identity. Such tensions are reflected in many aspects of consumption including clothing (of both men and women),


DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYISIS

Our ethnographic study involved observation and in-depth interviews with twenty four middleclass home-owning Qatari families living in Doha. Our sample involved families across different life stages (e.g., young married without children, families with young children, and families with older children). In addition, the researchers interviewed a Qatari architect, a real estate agent, and a religious scholar. Interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. The interviews discussed meanings of home, favorite areas of the home, situations in which these spaces are used, favorite objects within the home, the meanings of these objects, and usage patterns by other family members, who makes decisions regarding home decorating in each room and how the house was selected or designed. As a stimulant for these interviews we used projective stimuli (e.g., metaphorical descriptions such as “If my home were an animal, it would be…) and visual elicitation (based on photographs of various areas of the home taken, with informant permission). Audio and video recordings of interviews and observations were made and transcribed. The analysis followed the logic of hermeneutic research in that we sought to identify shared cultural meanings underlying expressed meanings by individual consumers (Thompson, Pollio, and Locander 1994).



HOME SANCTITY, PRIVACY, AND DIFFERENTIATED AREAS IN QATARI DOMESTIC SPACES

Qatari architecture and home design are influenced by characteristics inherent in Islam. For instance, because there is lack of emphasis on external appearance in Islam as compared to inner self, Islamic architecture generally focuses on interior space as opposed to the exterior space or façade. The dominant form of Islamic architecture is inward facing; the facade rarely gives an indication of the structure's richness of inner design. In other words, architecture must be experienced from within. Thus, a Muslim person should be simple in the facade of his home just as in his personal appearance; yet both should rich with faith, wisdom, and beauty inside. This is why in Qatar there is generally little variation between homes’ facades compared to enriching and differentiated interior designs. However, this has been changing recently and the exteriors of new homes in Qatar are becoming more richly designed and differentiated. It is also evident that Qatari people are increasingly becoming extravagant in their appearances compared to a decade earlier (Sobh, Belk, and Gressel forthcoming).



Privacy in Qatari Homes

The Qatari architecture in our study emphasized that the importance of inner spaces in Muslim architecture is also tied to an Islamic focus on privacy. There is much emphasis in Islam on the importance of respecting privacy for both males and females and on the sacredness of the home (Campo 1991). Surrounded by a simple facade, the courtyard which is the house's most private space is kept hidden. The inward design is used in traditional Arab Muslim homes including traditional Qatari homes. Such a courtyard house has high walls or facades and the courtyard or family spaces are in the back of the house, or at least not directly accessible from the front door. This design expresses the need to keep the public sphere from intruding or interfering with the family’s privacy and the inner life. This is visually encoded by the sharp distinction between public and private spaces. Having an inward home structure that excludes and protects the private from the public is not only intended to protect family members’ privacy, but also to protect neighbors’ privacy.

Abdullah (architect): Privacy and religious considerations have always been taken into consideration in Qatari homes. Qatari architecture reflects people's life style and values. Being respectful of Islamic religious values in Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, Iran, and even Turkey has influenced architecture in these countries and regions. The difference lies in the building materials used. The architectural style in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is similar. There're a lot of windows but they are equipped with screens, like a woman with veil. She can see but cannot be seen. Even in Afghanistan, little openings in the face cover are used. The whole body is covered but there are two small openings for the eyes.  

So why are people’s privacy, male or female, and the sacredness of their homes so highly emphasized in Islam? The Westerner’s conception of privacy is coterminous with individualism, whereas the Middle Easterner’s is not. Hurma (best translated to sanctity in English) denotes the concept closest to the notion of privacy in Arab-Islamic culture. What is private in Islam is any personal domain that should be concealed from others and within which individuals have freedom of action. In a spatial/physical sense, the home is par excellence a private space as well as the body or parts of the body that should be concealed in public ‘Awra’.

In Islam, intruding into a person’s private space, trying to gain information about a sin an individual conceals behind a closed door of his/her home is itself considered a sin (Mottahaedeth and Stilt 2003). As such, people are completely free in the private space like home. But as soon as the person enters the public domain he/she constrained by the law prevalent in society with regard to clothing, eating and drinking, sexual behavior, and some forms of social conduct (Kadivar 2003).

The significant need for privacy within Qatari homes is also related to the concept of modesty in Islam. Modesty underpins the Muslim self and particularly the woman’s self and her relation to private and public spaces and regulates gender relationships. Modesty (haya’ in Arabic) is not limited to a person’s dress in public (physical modesty); it is also reflected in speech, conduct and thoughts. Dress requirements have necessitated a unique convenient style whereby women's living quarters are separated from men's quarters so that they do not have to veil while in their homes, even if male guests are present elsewhere in the house.

While there are gendered areas within Western households (e.g., Chevalier 2002; Munro and Madigan 1999; Taylor 1999), there is a sharper distinctions and more formally drawn boundaries between men’s and women’s spaces as well as transitional spaces in moving from one gendered area to another within Arab Muslim homes. In all visited homes, the space designated as private was for the family (husband, wife and children) and close male relatives from the mahrem category (those in a degree of sanguity precluding marriage), as well as female visitors. The public or communal areas were for men and their male visitors – majles (the place for sitting). These have separate entrances for males and females from the main street. Men's quarters emphasize openness to the public domain; their entrances are usually close to the street and the windows overlook the street, while the family or women quarters emphasize enclosure away from the public gaze; usually in the back of the house and are further separated from the street by high perimeter walls which visually encode a sharp distinction between private and public spaces. There is no permeability or internal link between these two domains which indicates that gender sociability is controlled and restricted (Farah and Klarqvist 2001).

Non-visual Domains of Privacy

Our findings reveal that the concept of good smell is of great significance in Qatari homes as well as in other countries in the Arab Gulf. Oud – a very expensive type of wooden pieces is frequently burned in scentors to remove home odors, especially before and after receiving guests. The following quote illustrates the importance of smell in Qatari homes and the frequent use of oud to fumigate the house and prevent it from being contaminated with cooking smell as well as the presence of domestic helpers.

Um Hussein: Because the number of dishes is large and there are the cooking smells. Our kitchen, the housemaid’s room and washing room are isolated but are close to us so as to monitor what goes on. To prevent cooking smells from spreading we close the doors and use a ventilator. In addition, we always use incenses. They are nice to smell. Gulf people used them even in the past. I sometimes cook and I feel there is smell in my clothes and so incenses are needed. We also wash clothes every day, but the abaya is not washed every day [Thus it benefits from incense more].

The significance of good smell in Qatari homes is inherent in the requirement of cleanness and purity (taharah) in the Islamic faith, both physical and spiritual. A good smell is associated with cleanness, angels, purity, good deeds and thus God’s blessing and benediction. In contrast, bad smell is associated with what is dirty, the evil, bad deeds, and God’s curse. A pleasant smelling person is considered pure and ready to enter a mosque, while someone who smells of food or other unpleasant odors is impure and contaminated.

Participants made statements associating perfuming and home fumigating with worshipping: “God will bless a man who washes himself, uses the best perfumes and dresses nicely, especially on Friday” (Saleh). “A smelly and dirty place will be vulnerable to devils and a scented place will be inviting to angels” (Rawdha).

Good smell is also an integral part of Arab hospitality rituals. Guests are traditionally welcomed for up to three days without question, but neither they nor the house should be contaminated by each others’ presence. Not only the bedroom, but the entire house is sacred. The threshold of the door where the guest enters is a liminal space within which rites of transition (Gennep 1960) and rites of incorporation (Kanafani 1993) take place. In this case rites of transition (removing shoes, eating, and drinking coffee) transform what was profane into something sacred, with the threshold being the transitional space. The guest remains a stranger, even if they are a close relative or a friend, until they are incorporated into the host’s home and thereby decontaminated and sacralized. In addition to fumigating the home before guests’ arrival and departure, a special flask (mrash) is sometimes used for perfuming guests after eating and before leaving the house. Most visited homes, had a tray of scents and expensive perfumes used to create pleasant smelling spaces and people and to denote status and prestige of the hostess. Guests make ample use of these perfumes, placing certain scents on certain parts of the body. As Aubaile-Sallenave (2006) notes, these odors than become a part of the guests sacred “armor” as he or she goes out into the profane world.

The centrality of good smell in Qatari homes can as such be related to the strong value placed on privacy and home sanctity in Muslim home, as discussed earlier. There is a marked attempt to keep the smells of homes and guests from contaminating one another. Given the dry desert heritage of Bedouin predecessors in Qatar, Qataris use not only physical separation in rooms of the house, but various olfactory barriers and perfume and incense purifications rather than ablution rites to maintain purity. In a culture where water is at a premium, the use of perfume and incense is an important ritual. The separation of the exterior kitchen (and often the driver’s and maid’s quarters) from the home is another attempt to maintain the purity of the Qatari home.

The Home: A Place for Freedom and Control for women

Our findings reveal that women dominate the family quarters in different ways. First, the wife or the female in charge in the household decides whom to allow in the home and whom not allow. For instance men from the non-mahrem category are generally not allowed. The husband and other male family members (sons) are expected to respect their mother and sisters’ privacy and usually leave the home when they have female visitors. Having control of whom to allow and when to allow them gives women a sense of control over their domestic space and a sense of freedom within it. A home free from non-mahrem males is physically and symbolically liberating for women. Not only do they not have to bear the inconvenience of covering, but they can also show their ostentatious outfits, hair styles, jewelry and beauty to female guests to ‘provoke their envy’ and make statements about their status, taste and affinity for fashion.

Mariam: My home is my kingdom. It's not big and others may consider it small. I wanted a small house with a good plan, reasonable size, easy to control. The important thing is to own my freedom, because we had been fed up with closed places. In many houses in Qatar, the swimming pool is indoors, i.e. without freedom. Ours is outdoors [i.e., not visible to neighbors], yet I enjoy both freedom and privacy in it.

 Um Hussein: At home I feel in control and free. My favorite place to sit and spend time with my family is the family sitting room.  It's comfortable from it I can monitor everything taking place within the house, children, husband and housemaids. I can call anyone from there. I can see and hear everyone from my place. I always sit at a strategic position by the window to monitor who comes in and who goes out during the day. 

The home thus appears to be an uncontrolled space for self expression as opposed to the more controlled public space. Women can move freely between rooms and different areas in the home. While people in all cultures experience, which is not necessarily to say enjoy, more privacy and freedom in their domestic environment, for Qatari women the freedom they experience in their homes is above and beyond the general sense of individual privacy that Westerners may enjoy in the domestic spaces. It is related to the convenience of gender privacy that reduces or eliminates the need for bodily covering and modest self-presentation and conduct that is required of them in public.

Abdullah: Qatari women control their households. This makes up for their lack of control outside. Yet, with a veil a woman can wear any make-up and type of dress underneath which also gives her a sense of freedom outside her home. The veil is like a mobile privacy for women.

As emphasized by this Qatari architect, a woman’s dominance of the domestic space diminishes as she moves out of her domestic space to enter the male dominated public sphere. Her sense of control and freedom within the public space is restricted. Nevertheless, women covering with the abaya, shayla, and sometimes a face cover in public creates a personal sense of privacy that a woman carries along with her as she moves into the public sphere. In many public domains like public schools, universities, banks, and hospitals, gender segregation is institutionalized to various degrees to accommodate women need for gender privacy. For instance, Qatar National University has different buildings for female and male students and public hospitals have different entrances for men and women and gender-differentiated waiting areas. Such attempts to control gender relationships in public through institutionalizing gender differentiated areas are an attempt by local governments to reach a compromise between ensuring respect of traditions and women’s need for empowerment.

The religious scholar in our study explained how gender segregation in the home and public in the Gulf region is more of a local cultural practice than a religious requirement:

Mutassim: Islam defines privacy between man and man, man and woman, woman and woman through the concept of Awra—body parts that can’t be exposed or shown to others. This relationship is an important issue in Islam, which prohibits its encroachment. Islam does not impose full separation between men and women, as it is sometimes the case now. In fact, this is governed by cultural heritage, which is different in Egypt than in Syria or Lebanon, for instance. Shariaa does not impose full separation. On the contrary, during the Prophet's life, women took part in military expeditions and men and women ate together. Traditions are influential.  Islam does not impose a specific space for a woman inside the home. Neither Christianity or Judaism does so. There is nothing in Islam that suggests that women and non mahrems or visitors can’t sit and talk together. As I noted earlier, in the prophet Muhammad’s era, women and men used to pray together and eat together. There was not the kind of separation we see nowadays in the Gulf society. As long as the woman observes Muslim dress code and manners, she can interact with men. Actually this is the purpose of the Muslim dress code for men and women. It aims to de-sexualize and prevents seduction so that they can interact (work, talk, study etc. together) without the possible drawbacks of such interaction.

Nevertheless, the more traditional of our informants would never socialize together as two couples, for example. Only same sex gatherings took place within their homes. Although this obviously makes it difficult for young people to meet a potential husband or wife, the practice of arranged marriages and the off chance of a surreptitious meeting at a mall, co-educational university, or place of employment do provide opportunities to find partners.

While the home provides women in the family with gender privacy, bedrooms and parents’ bedroom in particular, seem to be women’s special safe heaven. The perception of the bedroom as the most private and exclusive place for the adult couple in the home is not exclusive to the Qatari culture (e.g., Chevalier 1999; Spain 1992). However, in Qatari homes, bedrooms and especially parents’ bedrooms were found to be an especially sacred retreat for women. While some of the interviewees allowed the female researcher to see their bedrooms, many did not allow photos as they did for the rest of the house. Evidently the bedroom as an extension of self is an equally sensitive area as the body.

Maids usually have restricted access and some of participants prefer to clean their own bedrooms in order to prevent their room from being contaminated by their domestic helpers’ presence. The bedroom for these women is not just a place to sleep, but a place to be themselves. Most of the female participants said that their bedroom is their most private space in the home and within it lie their favorite possessions and most sacred corner. This sacredness is by no means solely because of the intimate relationship between the husband and wife that takes place in it.

Um Hussein: Bedrooms are never entered by strangers, sometimes not even by relatives. Visitors for the first time may be shown the house but bedrooms are private places inside the house and may not be entered by anybody.

While bedrooms usually have a view of the courtyard or street, it is strictly one way—using mirrored window glass and in some cases mesherabia (filigree panels on windows) means that the woman can look out, but others may not see in. There is often a television, phone, and computer, so there is an indirect connection to the world outside. The woman’s bedroom is the largest in the house and furnished to her taste, generally with chairs, sofas, a large bed, mirrors, lamps, and decorative flourishes. Many had large walk-in clothes closets, attached spa bathrooms, dressing rooms, makeup tables, and sometimes exercise equipment and a fireplace (decorative only, given the warm climate). There may be family photos, religious objects, and paintings. Oriental rugs and carpets are common on the floor. Inasmuch as women are excluded from many of the local mosques, it is not just metaphorically a sacred space, but also literally the place where the woman prays and worships.

Mariam: I feel completely free and comfortable in my bedroom. When I'm not with my children, I prefer to be in my bedroom. I do my hair and nails, pray and recite the Quran there.  

Um Hind: When I want to relax and have privacy and be on my own, I stay in my bedroom. My bedroom has a TV, a walk-in wardrobe, bathroom and Jacuzzi. I pray, reflect and recite the Quran in this private place.  

For these women their bedroom is a place where they can enact their most inner selves and perform spirituality. It is where they pray and recite Quran. As these participants suggest, the bedroom is not only for prayer, but also for reflection, for consolidating the self.

The Home as a Place for Expression

Besides being a place for freedom and control for women, the domestic space in Qatar is also used to make statements about taste and status. This is particularly the case in the design and furnishing of the female guest room, although such home features as elevators, swimming pools, and elaborate men’s majleses also serve this purpose.

Interviewer: If someone entered your house, what would be his/her impression about it?   

Mariam: He/she would think we have a high style, and that while other people don't usually care for details, we do. Other people may pay the same amount but they don't get a fine home like this. It's a matter of how you utilize the budget… I'm proud of my home, mainly because I designed it.

Even the quality of oud and other incenses used to perfume the home and guests make a difference. The outcome of a visit is usually evaluated based on the smell carried by the visitor and detected by others outside the host or hostess’s home. The nicer the smell the higher the prestige of the absent hostess whose prestige and reputation are thereby extended (Kanafani 1983). Some participants noted that they would know the social class of the home owner from its oud smells as there are different types of oud scents and combinations that can be quite variable in price. This is different from western homes where only material objects (i.e. furnishing and design) convey meanings, denote status, and generate aesthetic experience. This may derive from the traditional Arab environment of desert with little water for use in cleaning and purification rituals, as has been common in the West (Shove 2003; Smith 2007). For men the home also appears to be a source of pride and fulfillment. It is a place of peace and safety for the family that the husband is expected to provide materially. Providing a home and being in charge financially are considered to be a husband’s duty in Islam. It is related to the concept of kiwama--being in charge and responsible for the wife or women in the family. A woman, even if she has an income, has no obligation to spend it on the home or family.

Interviewer: If your home were an animal. Which animal would it be?  

Jamal: I'm fascinated with marine life.  The whale is big, graceful and my home gives such [an] impression.  

 Abu Khalid: Though we don't like animals, a horse may represent it. It's strong and proud.

Not only home design, but also furnishings were cited as points of pride. Furniture from Italy, fine oriental carpets, and original artwork were among the objects cited as being “unique.” Likewise lush elaborate landscaping in the inner courtyard of one home made it hard to appreciate that it was located in an arid country of sand and deserts.

The Men’s Majles: A place for Pride and Honor

The men’s majles is a communal male space where the husband and other male family members, receive and entertain their male guests. It is a space that binds Qataris to their past and expresses cultural authenticity. It is the most prominent site for enacting Arab hospitality and a source of pride and honor that brings praise and supports the family or tribe reputation and prestige.

Saleh: In [the] majlses I meet my friends and old classmates and cousins. [The] Majles is a place of prestige and a place of heritage. It has traditions surrounding it. It’s large (6x10 meters) to accommodate as a large number of guests as possible. Not only is the size and magnificence of the majles important, it also brings honor and status to the host if many guests come, especially if they are prominent. Its significance is reflected in the type of treatment and generosity found in it, as well as implied cultural heritage. It’s also reflected in the age of people present there [with older men being higher in status].

People often have their meals on the floor and don’t use chairs in the majles. Coffee has major importance in a majles. It’s essential for hospitality. Guests are welcomed with incenses and Oud, Coffee is prepared from green grains following special rituals.

 Objects and traditions from the Bedouin past are also an important part of the display in Qatari Majleses. We found that Qatari male favorite objects tend to be objects that represent a proud and prosperous heritage linked to the past and the traditions that are revered in the Arab Gulf region (e.g., heirloom swords, coffee pots, grandfather’s photos) and these objects tend to be on prominent display for other men to see in the majles.

Jassim: We have started to long for the past. You observe a lot of the old features in [the] Almannai [a prominent family with two majleses we visited] Majles: Old style doors and windows, rawashin [special places] where [they] display coffee pots, weapons, etc..

Some would bring their falcons to the majleses they visit. When a falconer comes to majles with his falcon(s) he wants to demonstrate his skills in falconry. He also comes armed with his guns and daggers. Old swords and guns are currently used for decoration, together with other things used in the past such as the pump used in coffee-making. People used to express their pride in being a member of a specific tribe, family or district. [The] Majles in the Qatari and Gulf societies means honor. It’s everything….In the past tribal issues were discussed: politics, economics, etc.

Although the majles is an exclusive space for men, it could be occasionally used for a big women gathering. As such, the most public area in the domestic sphere can be temporarily converted to a women private sphere. This space mutability is inherent to the characteristic feature of the Islamic construction of space. For instance, a public space like a street can be temporarily altered into a private sacred space by occupying it for prayer by men or women (El Guindi 1999). The home could also be converted to a public space for women with the entrance of a man from the non- mahrem category.



Embracing the Modern and Longing for the Traditional

Despite a cultural pride in Qatar’s Bedouins and the Bedouin heritage of many Qataris, there is no doubt that contemporary conveniences are embraced as well. Land Rovers have replaced camels, homes and majleses have air conditioning and big screen televisions, and foods are prepared in kitchens equipped with all the latest conveniences. For these things are marks of status as much as links to past traditions and heritage are. The real estate agent in our study explained how the modern and the traditional co-exist: 

Agent: Now people like to have a beautiful garden, swimming-pool, Jacuzzi, marble, excellent decoration and central air-conditioning as well as an external majles and a separate space for a tent. People like to sit on the floor in the tent where they feel comfortable, while [the] majles is usually used for formal receptions. The tent is especially used in Ramadan. People prefer the tent during winter, listening to the sound of rain. Tents are air-conditioned now. It’s a psychological need rooted n Qatari customs. To Qataris, tents may still be more beautiful than palaces! Even with the largest and finest majles, the tent is considered necessary. The tent is mainly for men. It is usually set up in the open space close to the house or within the house enclosure and is supplied with electricity.  … Some families set up tents in the desert and some set up their tents close to the sea. People like to go to the desert and if it rains wild plants grow and people enjoy the scenery.  

As noted by the real estate agent, tensions between the traditional and modern are evident in the configuration of homes and objects within them. Opulent two or three storey villas are replacing traditional, one story inward facing Qatari homes. Yet, many Qatari homes have an external Bedouin tent in their front yard usually used by male family members and their guests as part of a proud connection to prior roots. Although traditional furnishings like floor seating is increasingly being replaced by modern furniture in Qatari homes, some Qatari families still have a traditional space or corner in their homes with floor seating where family members sit and eat meals. Many Qatari families also have permanent tents in the desert where they go and spend the weekend away from the modern urban lifestyle in Doha. These and other examples show how Qataris embrace Western goods and symbols of modernity and at the same time use traditional goods and symbols as a way of preserving or reviving traditional roots. This process of creolization (Hannerez 1992) of blending the local with the global results in a new synthesis of consumption patterns with an increasing incorporation of modern, Western lifestyles and goods into traditional ways of life (Ger and Belk, 1996).

A part of the status of a family also comes from their membership in a prominent tribe. Although belonging to a prominent family can also still convey status in the West, in Qatari society family and clan reputations are more dependent on the moral reputations of family members. This is more similar to Asian notions of face than it is with Western concepts of new and old wealth. Conspicuous consumption, however is increasingly important in the Gulf as Qataris as well as Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Kuwaitis, and Omanis turn the inward focus of traditional housing more outward and as subtle signs of wealth (e.g., designer abayas, luxury watches, sunglasses, and purses, and expensive automobiles and SUVs become commonplace, even among teenagers. This part of Qatari culture is inflected by the combination of increased wealth and greater presence of global forces.

DISCUSSION

At first glance it is tempting to see the simultaneous longing for the traditional in Qataris’ preferences for traditional hospitality rituals, dress, tribal affiliation, high exterior walls around homes, and at least a room or corner with floor seating, as a reaction to the threat of too much foreign influence too quickly. There is some truth to this, but it is important to appreciate that it is given added emphasis by the status of Qataris as minorities in their own country. Coupled with a pan-Islamic embrace of overt Islamism in an era of various perceived and actual hostility to Muslims since September 11, 2001, there is a strong desire to assert a uniquely Muslim and Arab identity in Qatar and other Gulf States.

It is also tempting to see gender segregation in Qatari households as confining women to the home and veil. The public/private paradigm has been commonly used to describe gender segregation in an Arab- Islamic cultural space. However, we found that the privacy of family/women quarters give a woman a sense of freedom and mobility in the domestic space, just as bodily covering gives her a sense of freedom and mobility in the public space. The veil can be seen as a woman’s mobile privacy that she transports with her as she moves from the private to the public sphere. Hurma is an Arabic term that refers at once to a woman or wife, to the sanctity of religious sites, and also to the sanctity of the home. In essence, it is that which is sacred and pure.

Without attempting to in any way suggest that Qatar is at an earlier stage of “development,” it is also well to remember that similar degrees of gender segregation found in Qatari domestic spaces could be found in some Western spaces as recently as a century ago. Some even find that women’s seclusion is more rooted in Western European traditions reflecting a “bourgeois conception of society” (Sciama 1993: 110). And as in the Gulf today, the ability to maintain gender segregation in the Western home was itself a demonstration of wealth and status.

The majles—is a space where roots and traditions are revived and where collective and tribal identities are enacted by men. However, the women’s space is more expressive of individual identity and denotes personal status and wealth. Women’s domain can be seen as an embodiment of individual identity, mobility and change, whereas men’s domain can be seen as an embodiment of collective identify, stability and perseverance of roots. The majles has kept the horizontal traditional building architecture, design and furnishing whereas family homes are increasingly adopting a modern vertical structure (two or three storey villas) and use modern interior designs and furnishing. According to Tuan (1974), vertical elements of the landscape symbolize transcendence and evoke a sense of striving, while horizontal ones symbolize the ideal of roots identification and acceptance. The majles thus encompasses elements of stability and resistance to change, while women’s space encompasses mobility and represents what is culturally changeable. Having both spaces in each Qatari household helps locals negotiate and reconcile the conflicting demands of modernity and tradition and to mediate the major social and cultural changes the country has been undergoing.

A similar dichotomy is seen in local personal adornment, where women’s garments and grooming are becoming much more expressive while men’s garments have changed little. The black, plain and modest abaya that Qatari women traditionally wear in public is increasingly assuming a modern fashionable appearance, accessorized with jewelry, designer handbags, and high heel shoes (Sobh, Belk, Gressel forthcoming). Whether in the configuration of their domestic spaces or appearance in the public space, women seem to capture the ambivalence and conflicting imperative of traditional norms and the temptations of the modern. Women carry the burden of their nation’s culture and traditional norms but they also seem to carry change and transformation in their society; their challenge is to reconcile the two.


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