"Education is a tool to work, to change, to keep us moving and growing," said Marwa.
My classmates and I were in a meeting with students from the University of Qatar. After around of introductions, the students asked us one thing we were most curious about in Qatari culture. I had asked about the major differences between their generation and that of their parents.
"Our parents used to go directly to the labor market," Marwa said."Now we can continue our education-our parents nag us to continue. It is better to face the labor market with a university degree than with a secondary degree. They have higher standards for us."
While her mother was a housewife, it is normal for girls to go to work. Ten years ago, it was not allowed for youth and women in particular to travel, whereas now the Qatari government pays for many students to study abroad. The change was not only coming from above, she argued, but also from within their own families as more and more supported their girls' participation in the public realm.
The influence of society and others is strong in pushing the Qatari youth, and women in particular, into higher education and the workforce.
"Our parents see the difference, ask us to grow more, to not be like the but better."
The Arab Spring also inspired the students to act and voice their opinions, explained Khalid. It made them aware of what's happening in the Middle East.
"I want to go to Tahrir and see things happening," he said. I watch al-Jazeera Mubasher (an Egyptian tv channel) every night to see what's going on. People debate on campus who should win the Egyptian elections."
He thinks, "unfortunately" Morsi, the Islamist candidate, will win. Marwa piped in, saying Morsi was the better candidate.
Despite the differences of opinions, it was clear both students shared the boy's sentiment that "We want to see change happening."
The students echoed the idea there were no problems with Qatari society. "I am happy with the current situation and eager to see what happens next," said Marwa.
Qatari society evolved at a feverish rate, with Doha growing out of the desert in a matter of decades as a largely Bedouin society a more urban, modern, and diverse lifestyle. These changes brought great wealth, education, and healthcare. But not all the changes were good.
For one thing, one of the girls expressed apprehension about teenagers meeting and flirting online without the possibility of parental oversight.
"I am afraid because it's not something I'm used to," Marwa fretted.
There is also the problem of laborers. Now parents are afraid to allow their children to go out to play. The situation is now largely rectified, said one of the girls, because the government mandated the laborers move into camps away from Qataris.
The girls expressed their disappointment about how the world viewed them, many of which are covered.
"We may cover our faces but we don't cover our minds," said Dalia. "We want people to see us for who we are."
I got to meet my new friend Dalia after the event. She asked me about my perception of Qatar thus far, and I told her honestly-it is so different from Saudi. I felt comfortable here and there was a real sense of openness. But she knew, before I mentioned it, what really bothered me about Saudi.
"They treat their women so bad!"
Despite the two countries coming from the same tribes, same families, and same Wahhabi faith, the differences could not be more stark. Here women chose to wear an abaya, at least at a legal level. I don't know enough to judge about social pressure, but I assume it's pretty high. I never felt disrespected by a Qatari man like in Saudi when they would cut in front of me in line or refuse to ride the elevator with me. The girls could play sports-we visited Aspire sports complex, which trains Qataris to be pro athletes and watched women do gymnastics in short shorts and spandex in front of men. No way that would have ever flew in Saudi.
Dalia's point about being perceived for the person and not the appearance was driven home in the car later that day by one of the male SAISers, who tried to say she had to live with people perceiving her a certain way because she chose her appearance and how she presented herself to the world. This started a heated debate when just about everyone tried to get him to realize she just wanted to be judged not on her appearance but on her intellect. Basically, he said she should change if she wanted to be taken seriously. This is the same guy who made the "joke" about women being over empowered.
What about me, I asked. When I worked on the Hill, I was often dismissed for being just a silly, perhaps a bit pretty girl. It was "cute" that I wanted to work in politics, in international affairs, in the Middle East, on defense issues.
I was chatting with a family member once who asked what I did-nursing or teaching. Neither. I said I graduated from GWU with a degree in international relations and worked for Congress. As a secretary? No, as a legislative assistant. Loved watching him eat his words, but the fact remains girls like me have an extremely difficult time being taken seriously.
He answered I should have changed the way I talked, the way I spoke, and the way I presented myself. Seeing as I dressed like a 35 year old boring woman, spoke like everyone else, and acted with an extremely serious demeanor, I'm not sure what else I could have done. I was all business. It was so bad that I didn't own non-work clothes. There is a photo of me at the beach wearing a knee length black skirt. Makes me cringe every time I see it.
I'm a mean pain in the ass, I said. There was no way anyone could have credibly misjudged me as a silly girl.
Everyone laughed because it's true.
NOTE: I did not use real names.