NU-Qatar: Liberal Arts
Tamador Al Sulaiti

Majlis Al-Hareem

Part of Civil Society?

  • Faculty Advisor

    Jocelyn Mitchell

Published On

December 2015

Originally Published

NURJ Online

Tamador Al Sulaiti | Submitted Photo

Abstract

Majlis al-hareem is an integral institution in the Qatari community, in that it has played a significant role in providing women a vital space for socializing throughout history. While the term al-hareem translates to women, the term majlis refers to a room in every Qatari household, an exclusive, private space specifically used for familial and social gatherings. The purpose of this paper is to investigate whether these social nuclei help us understand female engagement and empowerment in civil society. My research methodology involved ten weeks of ethnographic participant-observations in one particular majlis. I conclude that female civil engagement and empowerment depends on the family; the more outward looking the family, the more potential women have for civil participation than women of inward looking families.

Introduction

Majlis al-hareem is a fundamental constituent of the Qatari society, an unchanging node in the ever-expanding network of the community. The term majaalis literally means a seating area. It is a name given to a room in the house specifically designated for the social gatherings of family and friends, either for regular meetings or for special occasions. More often than not, women of Qatari families would meet regularly to discuss various topics and catch-up on social news. Undoubtedly, these majaalis are important pillars of social life in Qatar. However, do they help us understand female engagement and empowerment in civil society? Majaalis take place within the “protected space” of the home, which is out of the state’s jurisdiction, and so they do not “fall within the usual conception of civil society” (Tétreault 1993, 279). Nevertheless, similar to how the Kuwaiti homes are “not entirely outside of the public space,” the Qatari homes function as civic spaces from where “women go to school, to work, and to participate in other social and political arenas” (Tétreault 1993, 280).

I argue that majaalis al-hareem show a potential of civil participation in occasional instances; however, there are still many obstacles such as patriarchy and generational restrictions that stand in the way of female engagement in civil society. The extent to which a specific majlis is engaged in civil society also depends on family members, whether they are inward looking or outward looking. My evidence does not show that women utilize the majaalis to participate in civil society, but it does show occasional instances in which women call upon themselves to engage in civil society and, hence, empower themselves. Although full empowerment has yet not come from the “calls,” there is potential for growth. I think the reason why women are held back from civil society also depends on the family. If a family is more patriarchal, the women would be more inward looking and restricted. On the other hand, women in less patriarchal families tend to have more freedom of participation, whether economic or civic. I also observe a generational divide within majlis al-hareem, which deters the younger generation from full participation.

I will first present the theoretical framework vital for understanding my thesis and my ethnographic observations to support my claims, and then I will further discuss the patriarchy and the generational divide mentioned above in the analysis section of this paper. I conclude that a majlis’s extent of engagement in civil society depends on the family; if a family has more social capital and are outward looking, the women tend to have more potential for civil participation than women of families who have less social capital and are more inward looking.

Theoretical Framework

In the authoritarian nature of the Qatari state, where “political society is absent,” participation in civil society bears great importance as it can produce change —political, economic or social— “through the incremental effects of civil society sectors” (Krause 2008, 6). Nevertheless, before delving into participation and engagement, one must first understand what is meant by civil society. Wanda Krause (2008, 8) defines civil society as “the realm loosely located between the family and the state, in which individuals participate through structures of independent voluntary associations, networks, or discursive space.”

Majaalis al-hareem may provide Qatari women with the capacity for such “independent associations,” “networks” and “discursive space.” However, such utilization of the majaalis has not yet been studied. On one hand, literature on civil society in the Middle East often exclude women’s action groups as such actions are “theoretically confined to the private sphere and are, thus, deemed irrelevant to studies on the public and political sphere” (Krause 2008, 4). On the other hand, there is the undeniable example in Tétreault’s article when she writes that the diwaniyyas in Kuwait, similar to the majaalis in Qatar, “helped sustain the post-occupation campaign for the extension of political rights to all Kuwaitis, including women” (1993, 277), which shows how the Kuwaiti women utilized such private spheres to facilitate political action through civil society and into the public sphere.

Before actively engaging in society and politics, people need civic skills. They also need other important resources, like time, money and other socioeconomic resources gained through educational attainment, income, and occupation (Brady, Verba & Schlozman 1995, 271). “These skills are not only acquired early in life but developed in the nonpolitical institutional settings of adult life” like at the workplace, social gatherings, mosques and churches alike (Brady, Verba & Schlozman 1995, 271). Put simply, civic skills are the ability to feel like one can participate in one’s own society, whether it is by setting up meetings and discussions about social, religious or political topics and issues or sending letters and e-mails to political representatives. In my opinion, this emphasizes the importance of the socioeconomic sphere for women as this sphere helps them hone their civic skills and establish outside networks, which can boost their civic influence and, in turn, their likelihood for participation.

It may be that the more women are actively engaged in the socioeconomic sphere, the more likely they are to use their civic skills in settings such as the majlis, because of social capital theory (Putnam 2000). According to Putnam, “the core idea of the social capital theory is that social networks have value,” where “social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups” (2000, 19). Social capital refers to the individual connections among people and the networks from which trustworthiness and reciprocity arise to create a sense of community (Putnam 2000, 19). There are two ways in which social capital varies: bridging and bonding. While both can have “powerfully positive social effects,” bonding social capital is more “inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups,” while bridging social capital is more “outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages” (Putnam 2000, 22). Majaalis al-hareem, especially familial ones, constitute a more bonding social capital, and because of its exclusiveness, it might not be considered the best arena for practicing civic skills. However, once the women in those families start forming networks and connections in the socioeconomic sphere, like the workplace, they start to adapt a more outward-looking view due to bridging social capital, so I think they would be more likely to act on their discussions in their family majlis.

In the following section, I present ethnographic evidence to support my claims above. Ethnography entails the complete integration of a researcher into a community for a period of time with the aim of recording observations and linking them to a bigger picture. Although some political objectivists argue that making subjective assumptions and observation cannot be considered data to support political theories as every person’s truth is different from another’s, I agree with Wedeen that “ethnography can situate truth claims in a broader context” and “show us how such truth claims operate” (2010, 267). Here, ethnography could provide “privileged access to [politics’] processes, causes and effects” (Tilly 2006, 410) and help the analyst “look for meaning… in political communication” (Wedeen 2010, 257). Political theory allows us to take the “messy” (Wedeen 2010, 256) yet “shrewd” (Tilly 2006, 411) ethnographic observations and organize and interpret them to introduce “novel ways of understanding phenomena of central concern to political science” (Wedeen 2010, 268). As a Qatari female myself, I was able to use my access into the segregated female majaalis of the Qatari society to conduct ethnographic participant-observation in these otherwise private spaces.

Ethnographic Observation

While the term majlis refers to the room in the house designated for the social gatherings of family and friends, either for regular meetings or for special occasions, the term is also used to refer to the actual gathering of people. The family majlis is an inexcusable obligation where everyone is expected to attend every Thursday from 7 to 10 p.m.[1] This is not exclusive to my family as many Qatari families meet regularly with the main purpose of catching up on social news and strengthening existing familial ties. Weekly majaalis often take place at the home of the eldest in a family, who is usually the grandmother, but if the combined number of the regular attendees is more than the grandmother’s majlis can comfortably accommodate, another female relative will host as a matter of convenience and space. The women who attend the majlis are always the regulars: grandmothers and great-aunts, aunts and mothers, cousins and daughters. The majlis starts whenever the first person arrives, which is usually the eldest. Most of the conversations then are small talk about the weather, marriages and so on. The majlis ends when a grandmother starts yawning, which is usually around 10 p.m.

The atmosphere of my family majlis is very casual and informal. In fact, the attendees do not consider those gatherings a majlis per se, due to the formal nature of the term majlis and the informal nature of these weekly gatherings. Instead, many call them jama’at, which means a get-together. The gathering also does not take place in the majlis room, but in the sala, which means living room in the Qatari dialect, because the use of the majlis is left for more formal occasions. The main sala is located in the middle of the house, right in front of the back door, through which most of the guests come in, which again emphasizes the informality. The couches are arranged in a square shape, which allows better conversation flow since everyone is facing each other. In the middle, the tea set is placed on the coffee table. The set consists of the byala or istikana, a cup as small as an espresso cup that is used for red tea or karak (tea with milk), decorated with a bright pink and red pattern, outlined golden on the rims. The set includes the finyal, a smaller cup that bears no handle that is used for the gahwa (coffee), matching the design of the byala and the saucers. The reason for using small cups is so that when the tea is consumed it will remain hot throughout and not get cold when it reaches the last few drops of the tea. It is also a sign of courtesy, which basically tells people that they should stay longer and have their tea one cup at a time. In the main sala, on the first couch on the right-hand side of the room sits the eldest of the group. One the next couch, it is the aunts, arrayed from oldest to youngest. Then, it is the cousins, who cram at the end of the room. This arrangement makes it convenient for arriving guests because when they come in and start greeting the women, the new arrivals have to start on the right-hand side of the room, first greeting the eldest to the youngest, out of respect for the eldest, as they make their way through the room.

When everyone arrives, the women of the family gather in the same space for about an hour, during which side conversations start. Conversations remain on more neutral ground like national news and social happenings, like engagements and weddings. Meanwhile, the hostess’s maids go around the guests, starting from the right-hand side of the majlis, serving karak, gahwa and lugaimat (the name means bite-size, and they are pastry balls covered in sugar syrup). After an hour or so, the younger women, my cousins and sisters (ages 15 to 22), leave the majlis and go upstairs to their own majlis for the rest of the evening. In the upstairs majlis, the girls are the ones who serve their own karak and gahwa, and they do it in a more unsystematic way, which the older women of the family would not allow in their presence. The younger majlis is more casual and irregular, while the older one possessed some sort of formality even within the informality of the weekly gatherings. For example, the seating arrangement for the younger majlis is not consistent. Seats are on a first-come-first-serve basis, but that is because this majlis is regarded as completely informal.

Another difference between the younger and the older majlis is the closeness and intimacy. Although the older majlis comprises of close family relatives, there is still a formality to it. The discussions and conversations are not completely unfiltered. They are not as open as Leila Ahmed’s (2012) majaalis, so for example, if a woman brings up a very personal problem, like obstacles in her marriage, it can be considered as improper and distasteful as it is like airing one’s dirty laundry. In younger majaalis, however, women are more frank and open with each other. All problems are brought up, whether personal, academic, religious, and discussed. I am not saying that the older majlis does not have a shared intimacy between its members, because it does, however, the boundaries of propriety are looser with the younger majlis, which gives its participants the ability to talk freely. The group acts like a support mechanism for all those involved in it. It is usually a forum where young women vent, whether it is about school or family. Everyone listens and then provides comfort through either solutions or just simply emotional support. I feel like there is always the sense of safety and belonging in those gatherings, and it is those feelings that allow people to say what they want freely without the fear of being judged. Most of the girls gather regularly and have been doing so ever since they were born, so the bond between them is not just a blood tie, but also a very strong emotional tie that make them more like a sisterhood.

One of the most important and prevalent patterns I have noticed in the majlis is the patriarchal environment, even though it is a female-only gathering. The women in the majlis and their values are greatly influenced by their male counterparts. The older women acknowledge this patriarchy, but it is the younger generation who calls for changes in society as a whole to accept women’s rising role using social media channels such as Twitter. I have also observed that perhaps without their knowledge, even with girls of the younger generation, the patriarch influences their opinions and values. I will illustrate this through an example where one of the topics of discussion in previous weeks had been the topic of marriage and divorce. The younger girls discussed what is expected from women in marriages and how the reason for divorce is probably the woman’s fault. They did not exactly side with the man, but they did think that if a woman does not tell her husband what she is doing and does not wait for his approval then she is setting herself up for problems within the marriage. While some argued that the man has no authority over the woman and she can come and go as she pleases, I found that many sided with the former view of the debate. Only once was the word “compromise” brought up. I think this is interesting especially when looking at the family from which these girls came. Young girls in Qatar are generally known for deviating from the views of their parents, especially when it comes to treatment of women in comparison to the treatment of men within the family. However, in this particular group, the girls have been raised in an extremely patriarchal environment due to their extended family’s views of what a woman can or cannot do. Most of these limitations exist in many families, but in this one, the women do not fight those limitations. The women just accept them. The most they do is complain about this and call for change. However, no action is taken to fulfill these calls, making them void.

Another discussion that consistently comes up in the younger majlis is the topic of whether or not to participate in the labor force. From my standpoint, the group was split into two: those who want education to further their job prospects and have a career, and those who do not care for jobs and only want the education, but not necessarily what follows. Of the eleven attendees of the younger majlis, three sided with pro-working, four with anti-working and four abstained. I think this is one of the biggest discussions when it comes to women in Qatar, especially since their labor force participation, although increasing, is not enough to satisfy Qatar’s rapidly growing economy. The Qatari state wants to transition from an oil-based market to a knowledge-based one, and they are doing so through billion-dollar investments into educational enterprises such as Qatar Foundation. However, what does it mean when most of those receiving free higher education are females and those females refuse to work after graduation? The country is not getting the returns on its investments. One side of the debate asked why should a woman work when there will always be someone providing for her financially, be it her father or husband. For some, the most important thing for women to get is an education, however, graduation does not have to be followed by work. Some said they would not want to work after graduation as it may present problems within the marriage since they would not be always available to perform their job as housewives. It might be of significance to note that the women of the older majlis, their mothers, are all housewives, save one person. In fact, the children of the only working woman in the majlis were the ones who argued that a working woman has the capabilities to assert herself as a responsible and respectable woman in society while also being a good wife to her husband and mother to her children. Additionally, I have observed that this working woman is very active in the socioeconomic sphere as she set up a campaign for a better educational system, including organizing a forum in the school in which she works, where mothers and teachers could discuss prevailing issues.

Analysis

As seen in observations above, there were instances that had potential to show how the majlis was utilized for participation in civil society, like how the younger girls called upon themselves to change the gendered restrictions placed on them by their family and society. However, such calls did not come to fruition and so they cannot be considered an act of civic engagement. I think the reason behind this is due to the generational restrictions that I have observed. Qatari women of the younger generation, currently in their late teens or mid-twenties, have higher educational attainment than their older counterparts, creating a gap in the thought processes of women. It also creates a physical divide, where the younger majlis is separate from the older majlis. It may be that “the foundations laid in the last two decades in women’s education, employment and civil rights may be reflected in the next generation” (Bahry & Marr 2005, 117), which I have seen in my observations. However, Qatari society remains traditional and conservative, and the previous generation does not give the next generation the freedom for such strides. These generational restrictions also resonated in my colleague’s ethnographic summary when she describes how she got “unpleasant looks” from an older woman when she defended a particular belief she held. This discouragement from the older generation made the younger girls cautious of their words around older women “as if they knew there was no winning this discussion and there was no point in even trying” (Al-Thani 2014).

According to Krause, three actions can be observed within civil society groups: “the values of trust, tolerance, cooperation … are fostered,” “individuals attempt to empower themselves through identifying notions” and “individuals pursue their interests, [and] engage others in contesting discourse” (2008, 8-9). I have witnessed all such actions in the majlis observed above, yet the scope of these actions remains in the private sphere. I attribute this to patriarchy, where the reimagined history of the Arab Gulf constrained the movements of women while their “presence in the public sphere [was] conceptualized as non-existent; their place was always in the home” (Sonbol 2012, 7-8). It may be that by participation in the labor force, females can boost their political influence “at a social level, by bringing women together in the workplace and allowing them to form political networks,” giving them an amplified role in the economy “which causes political leaders to pay more attention to their interests” (Ross 2012, 112-13). As I observed, the working woman who was actively engaged in the socioeconomic sphere was the one who used her civic skills to engage in civil society. Nevertheless, in some families, like the one observed above, the patriarchs do not allow for women to work, thereby circumscribing their movements within civil society, and causing them to be more inward looking. Even though the females in the family acknowledge these gendered restrictions, they do not act in defiance because they do not necessarily view the men’s opinions as wrong.

Conclusion

Majaalis al-hareem show a potential for civil participation in occasional instances, however, there are still many obstacles that stand in the way of female engagement in civil society, including patriarchy and generational restrictions. So far, my evidence does not show that the majlis is utilized for female empowerment in civil society; however, it does show some obstacles that stand in the way of the majlis’s integration into the realm of civil society. Younger women show more potential for engagement, yet they have the most restrictions placed upon them, especially by older women. It is a sign of disrespect when younger women disobey their elders, which places youths in a tough position. The extent to which a specific majlis is engaged in civil society also depends on the family, whether they are inward looking or outward looking. Patriarchal families hold back their women from participating in the labor force, which means that they cannot form connections and networks vital for social capital, and according to Putnam, “civic engagement and social capital entail mutual obligation and responsibility for action” (2000, 21).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tamador Al Sulaiti

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The opportunity for this research was funded by a grant (UREP 15-035-5-013) from the Qatar National Research Fund (a member of Qatar Foundation). The author wishes to thank the faculty mentors for the ethnographic research class, Dr. Jocelyn Sage Mitchell and Dr. Tanya Kane, as well as her student colleagues for insight into various majaalis al-hareem in Qatar. She also wishes to thank her family for contributing to the research.

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