When I moved to Qatar to become the marketing director for Carnegie Mellon's branch campus, I remember thinking I'd be a beacon on the road to empowerment for the young women of the Persian Gulf. Most of the women I met had been brought up in sex-segregated households and educated in sex-segregated schools. Prior to joining our co-educational campus, the only members of the opposite sex they'd encountered were relatives. I found their various attitudes about marriage quite jarring. Dating As A Modern Muslim Woman
"I'm getting married," one student told me. The look on her face told me she wasn't all the excited. She was just about to graduate from Virginia Commonwealth (VCU), the only all-female university that was part of our campus. I wondered if she might be a lesbian. I kind of hated myself for wondering, but it seemed fairly plausible.
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This is the pat view of women in a harem, of women who might be one of several wives, and—in this case—of women who went to the only all-female school on campus. According to my colleague at VCU however, the latter stereotype was not unfounded. But of course I couldn't ask something so personal, so I went for the roundabout route. After wishing a lengthy mabrook, congratulations, to her and her family, I finally asked, "do you find him attractive?"
"I don't know him that well," she said, tilting her head. "Even though he's my cousin. My mother picked him."
Ouch. How to respond to that one without getting too personal?
"Ah, are you worried about children?"
She looked at me and smiled. "That is for God to decide. But I was hoping to go to grad school. Insha'allah I will."
At the time I was going through a divorce from a man I loved dearly, who had recently woken up and decided he didn't "feel like being married anymore." Whatever feelings of moral superiority I had about coming from a culture that allowed me to choose my own mate vanished for a moment. The smile was not disingenuous or mean; she was absolutely unconcerned about marrying a blood relative. The people of Qatar knew the risks, but the attitude was that they were following God's will. I envied her trust in God and her family. I Went From Muslim To Jewish For Love
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Marriage in Qatar is not just about two individuals, but uniting the forces of two families. This provides a safety net I can scarcely imagine. Almost anyone I can think of has at some point felt the fear that one day he or she will be cast out on the street, having somehow lost the ability to earn a viable income. This simply isn't a factor in the thinking in Qatar. This gives them a solid base for maneuvering, too. Muslim Women Go To Extremes To Re-Establish Virginity
The heroine of this story did end up going to grad school and did not end up betrothed to that cousin. She now has a healthy daughter and another baby on the way, although her actual husband is another cousin. It's not my culture and I'm not going to adopt it, but co-opting the attitude can't hurt. No matter how many choices I can make, I'm never going to get everything I want. To have faith in the fact that I'll get everything I need—that's the goal.