There are a few questions that crop up quite frequently when I tell people I live in the ME. Many of them I in fact asked myself before moving here.
I've included some of these below in the hopes that they may be helpful to women out there considering a move to this part of the world. Or perhaps there are a few people out there who would just like to know.
1. As a woman, do you have to wear an abaya (long black over-garment or cloak commonly worn in Islamic states by women and meant to preserve dignity) when in public.
ANSWER: No. Qatar is quite moderate in terms of dress. I do not have to wear an abaya, nor cover my hair. However, conservative dress is recommended, particularly in the workplace and souqs (markets) and public gathering places. Covered shoulders, knees, loose-fitting clothing, nothing too low-cut or revealing are pretty basic guidelines. Hotel dress-codes are much more relaxed, and women commonly wear sun dresses, mini skirts, shorts and tank tops.
2. Can you drive?
ANSWER: Yes. And thank goodness. It is literally impossible to get anywhere in this country by foot or bicycle. Taxis and private cars are available, but can end up being pricey, and the public transit system is highly inadequate for western women. The buses are usually packed with many men, and not the most reliable. There is no subway system. I have yet to meet an expat wife who does not have a car at her disposal in this country. Even though many women here are stay-at-home, they need easy access to transportation for school runs, kids' activities, grocery shopping, meeting up with friends, shopping, going to the gym, etc.
3. Can women work outside the home?
ANSWER: Absolutely. Provided she has a sponsor who approves it. Qatar operates on a sponsorship program, meaning you can be brought into the country directly by the company or individual hiring you or by a family member. Oftentimes, women come into the country on their husband's sponsorship. As such, their husband will have to sign a letter of no objection which allows them to enter the workforce. In many cases, however, women can expect to sign a contract with the hiring company that will read something like this: "contract prepared for non-company sponsored local hire female employees". As such, the contract will probably include no or reduced housing benefits, no schooling allowance, no annual airfare to home country, and perhaps even a lesser salary than would be afforded to a male counterpart. But there are definitely jobs to be had, and quite well-paying ones as well, provided you have the necessary qualifications and have some type of connection or "in" to at least get your cv noticed.
4. What kind of food is available? Can you get the same items we find in the West?
ANSWER: If you could find it back home, chances are you will find it here. The question is 'when'. My hubby is a big HP sauce fan. I will find it on grocery shelves for months on end, then suddenly I will desperately and unsuccessfully scour the city in search of a single bottle. The dry spell may last for months. This is common for many processed, canned, and bottled western products (granola bars, favorite cereal, sauces, etc.). As a result, we've become notorious food hoarders. We bought a free-standing freezer for the express purpose of storing butterball turkey, English muffins and Lender's bagels. Oddly enough, the one thing that we couldn't get until a year ago (pork), is now in continuous supply. However, one must go to the alcohol distribution centre to purchase it. Which leads to the next question.
5. Is alcohol available in the country?
ANSWER: Yes. But only in certain hotel bars and restaurants, and through a single alcohol distribution centre (for personal consumption) that serves the entire country. To purchase alcohol at the distribution centre, you must first qualify for a liquor permit, which is issued by your sponsor and based on your salary. Minimum earnings are required to qualify for the permit, and the allowable monthly purchase limit is expressed as a percentage of your income.
6. Do you get a chance to socialize with locals?
ANSWER: contact with locals is largely limited to professional interaction. While some expats do develop more close relations and stronger ties with locals, for the most part the cultures remain very distinct. Even if you do develop a relationship, chances are you will not be invited further than one room in their house, and may never meet their spouse or other family members. Qataris have a special room called a majlis built into the front of their home which is where men will congregate. Men and women will not usually interact socially, particularly in more traditional households. I work with several lovely National ladies, and I've had them in my home, but my husband had to leave the house for the afternoon. I've also been invited to some of their homes, but likewise, I met only with the women and children of the house. On several occasions, we have had a male National colleague of my husband's over to the house for dinner, but they did not bring their family.
There are many other questions, but I'll start with these, and leave the others for a future post.
If anyone is reading, let me know your questions about the ME.