Women’s Complex Identities in the Middle East

I initially wrote the following as a submission to the American Islamic Congress’s new blog on women in the Middle East. I’m writing something a little more politically-focused tonight, but I wanted to share this anyway.

I loved living in Doha, Qatar from Spring to May 2010 (my friends said I would have changed my opinion if I had stayed through the summer). In Qatar, I felt constantly challenged to find new ways of perceiving the changing world around me. Nowhere was this more evident than in the history class I facilitated one afternoon in April.

As a student at Carnegie Mellon University visiting our Qatar campus for a semester, I revelled in my small classes and accessible professors. When a favorite history professor asked me to facilitate a discussion on modern Muslim identity in the West, I devised what I thought was a simple activity to help my fellow students–mostly freshman and all non-history majors–connect with the reading.

In the class, I asked each of the five students and the professor to take out a piece of paper and list five groups of which they were a part. My example was:

I am a geek, a gringa, a Californian, an English-Speaker, and a Pagan.

Once they had written their own lists, I then asked them to list the most important five groups of which the person on their left, and then their right, was a part. I wrote my lists as well, struggling to remember details of nationality and language I had picked up in our time together.

Below is a list of all the groups we produced, with marks for each time that group was mentioned:

Complex Identities in the Middle East
Complex Identities in the Middle East

I had expected perhaps 20 group identifications, not nearly 50. With 3 sets of descriptions per person, I had anticipated a tighter convergence of identities, more commonalities between how we saw ourselves and how our classmates saw us. Though I managed to recover and keep the class moving towards our discussion of the multiple meanings of headscarves in France, this chart bounced in the back of my head for the rest of the semester.

It encapsulated the change which my generation is enduring and thriving in and fueling in the Middle East. It is a sprawling and untidy and complicated change; it is very serious and a little fun. But both in this exercise and in my semester in Qatar, I felt the overwhelming interest of everyone in the room was to collaborate, to seek a firmer understanding of the issues, and to move forward.

My class, like all the classes at Carnegie Mellon Qatar, was 2/3 women. My friends in Qatar were born everywhere from Muscat to Illinois to Doha to Azerbaijan, and educated everywhere in between. Most of the students in Doha’s Education City have always been outside of their own cultures,  have crafted their senses of selves while away from home. Even Qatari students who have lived in Doha their whole lives may have a sense of dislocation as the city grows up around (and some might say away from) them.

The students I met had identities which were irreducibly complex, but they carried them lightly. This skill, of being from many places and at home in all, became a goal of mine after living in Qatar. If we could corral these four dozen identities for half a dozen people, and tease each other about who is the boya in the room, I think our generation can be the girders on which lasting change is built.

Even if I’m still scratching my head over the Ninja.

Inspirational Quote:

“I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither…. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.”–Toni Morrison

1 Comment

  1. You have two Geeks listed and Atheist and No Religion both listed as well as some others which may be opposites too.
    Maybe this is a starter for a philosophy class if you were to put an opposite to each original listing. Is there an opposite
    to words like Nerd and Geek in Arabic? I think many Americans could accept this list as a definition of their citizens
    with many more additions.

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