The Butterfly Effect: Qatar

One woman reflects on the meaning of religious dress in the country of Qatar.

The butterfly effect is a metaphor for the concept that small, seemingly insignificant events — like the fluttering of a butterfly's wings — can produce tremendous and unanticipated consequences. In this blog, Zainab Salbi, the founder of the humanitarian group Women for Women International, explores the often untapped and underappreciated capacity of women around the world to cause major and lasting change for good.

Read Zainab's previous blog post here.

Even though I grew up in the Middle East and traveled to different parts of the world during my childhood, I had not been in a Middle Eastern country other than my home country, Iraq, until I moved to the U.S. This week, my travels took me to a new Middle Eastern country that I have never visited before: Qatar.

Before my visit to Qatar, I knew little about the country. I knew that it has built its economy in an impressive way without the plentiful oil resources that its neighbors have. I also knew that the Sheikh of Qatar had a very impressive wife who is known for being pro-women's rights and has gotten international recognition of her philanthropic work. Finally, I knew that Qatar was hosting the World Economic Forum meeting (since that's the reason I was in Qatar) to discuss various aspect of the Global Redesign Initiative launched as the result of the financial crisis.

What I found in Qatar left me reflecting on the role of religion, women, and the public space. The country, which has a small population of about 1.4 million people (including a large number of migrant workers — according to the State Department, foreigners with temporary residence status make up about three-fourths of the population, and foreign workers comprise as much as 85% of the total population and make up about 90% of the total labor force), is a hybrid between tradition and modernity. Everything in Qatar shows this fusion. For instance, modern buildings and hotels are occupied by traditionally clothed men (wearing all-white garments) and traditionally clothed women (wearing all-black garments and covering their hair). The main female figure, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, is not only known for her fashion, activism, and philanthropic work, but she is also referred to as the Sheikh's consort and not wife (because there are other wives in the picture). One particularly interesting episode that can illustrate this modern/traditional contrast occurred as I was in the ladies' room in the middle of the conference. The conference was talking about the future of the world, and a young woman (who was not covering her hair), entered the restroom and did her ablution by washing her hands, her face, her mouth, the top of her hair, and her feet to prepare herself for one of the five prayers required by Islam.

This contrast between modernity and tradition, between the old and the new, is part of a discussion that often confuses those in the West, yet it is taken so casually by those in the Middle East and other parts of the world. But that bridge of discussion has not been fully built in the West, which often leads to faux pas (in the best-case scenario) or political confusion and cultural tensions (in the worst-case scenario). As someone who considers herself a bridge between the two worlds (since I lived the first 20 years of my life in Iraq and the second 20 in the U.S.), I find this contrast intriguing, emotional, and political in a part of the world that is trying to find its place and in an era that feels like religion is so close to the hearts of so many people in the Middle East and yet seen as the new enemy of the Western world.

It is incredibly emotional for me to see the young woman doing her ablution in the middle of a conference full of people from all over the world taking place in a very fancy hotel. The idea of taking time off every day and washing oneself with prayers for cleansing and purity is beautiful. It would never occur to me that her scarf or lack of abaya (the black robe that covers her from shoulder to feet) or her knee-high skirt means that she is fundamentalist or secularist. It is easy to find women of both attires taking the time to do their prayers every single day. And it is equally easy to see women wearing headscarves and not necessary practicing all tenants of religion. It is equally easy to see women with very traditional headscarves being best friends with women who are wearing short skirts in the latest fashion. In a way, both are coexisting in the Middle East with political pressure pushing the meaning of women's attire back and forth, with constant tension, as Muslim youth try to find their space in the era of Facebook and Twitter, in a season where political Islam has survived as the only available framework for expression on social, political, and economic issues facing Middle Eastern countries.

In the coming blogs, I will be writing about various interviews I did in the last couple of months with women who wear the headscarf and are using it for various purposes, incentives, and meanings. I may not know many things, but I do know that nothing about physical appearance is what it appears to be in the Middle East. And I also know that this is a part of the world that is trying to redefine itself and determine where it fits in this modern world; perhaps in many ways it is struggling in the process. To know more about women in the Muslim world, I highly recommend reading Isobel Coleman's new book, Paradise Beneath her Feet.