Demystifying gendered spaces in Qatari households

Rana Sobh of Qatar University
Perhaps the strongest reflection on the true nature of society is found in the way people live, particularly the design and decoration of their homes. The concept of gender-segregated households in the Middle East presents many considerations along these lines. In many countries the idea has succumbed to modern designs and trends. A strong exception exists in the Gulf, however. Researchers based in Qatar and Canada have recently uncovered the highly sophisticated reasons behind this practice.

“I wanted to know why these gendered spaces still exist in the context where there is a lot of Western influence and a lot of increasing global media experience as well as explore the symbolic meanings ascribed to theses differentiated spaces,” said Dr. Rana Sobh, Professor of Marketing in the College of Business and Economics at Qatar University who conducted a study on the gendered spaces of Arab Gulf Homes.

Working in conjunction with Dr. Russell Belk, Chair in Marketing at the Schulich School of Business, York University, Canada, and with the support of a first-cycle Qatar National Research Fund NPRP grant, Dr. Sobh discovered that stereotypes around gendered spaces—that they serve to isolate or diminish their self-worth and freedom—are actually misconceptions based on a lack of information. Her research findings do much to illuminate the intelligence behind the layout of the Qatari home.

“We identified the significance of privacy and gender segregation as anchors for identity, both national and religious. Maintaining these anchors seems to help Qataris resolve cultural tensions and conflicts to which they feel subjected,” Dr. Sobh said, speaking of two years of study involving over 20 households of varying family structures as well as interviews with an architect and real estate agent based in Qatar. “I found male and female spaces to be relational and complimentary in the Qatari home. Women have full control over the family home, while men have control over the majlis, where they receive their friends.”

An example of a majlis in a Qatari household
The sections of the house—the majlis being the male section and the home being the female section—reflect the current state of tradition mixed with modernity, Dr. Sobh explained. The majlis is a horizontal structure standing only one floor tall, and it contains mostly traditional items like hieroglyphs, antiques and anything pertaining to the past. Additionally, the chairs in the majlis are typically set around the outskirts of the structure, with the backs facing the wall. The Qatari home, on the other hand, is a vertical structure, rising several stories off the ground, which features modern fixtures and furnishing.

“These designs have strong symbolic meanings,” Dr. Sobh said. “The majlis with the horizontal structure means that it is resisting change and is stable. Whereas the home is more about transcendence, change, mobility.

“So unlike what most Westerners believe, women’s space is embracing modernity and really challenging tradition, whereas men’s space is resisting these changes to maintain roots and stability. These two spaces complement each other and help Qataris deal with conflicts between their desire to connect to their roots and their desire to embrace modernity. The fact that they have both desires fulfilled at home puts them at ease somehow. This complementarity helps Qataris celebrate global consumer culture and at the same time resist the charge of Westernization and remain connected to roots.”
Qatari bedroom

An example of a bedroom in a Qatari household
Further, Dr. Sobh’s research, as published in Home Cultures under the title “Privacy and Gendered Spaces in Arab Gulf Homes,” explores the meaning of privacy as something that has different meanings depending on where in the world you are. In the West, privacy allows people to live as they choose, to be as eccentric and individual as they please, Sobh and Belk’s article states. In the Middle East, however, the concept of privacy is strongly rooted in Islamic tradition and is intimately linked with the idea of protecting what is sacred, specifically, protection of women by men. It is a man’s sacred obligation to protect a woman and provide her with privacy to be free and relaxed. Screens in the windows, thus, act as a filter allowing a woman to see out while not being seen.

Having demystified the meanings of gender spaces in Qatar, Dr. Sobh has recently been awarded a second NPRP grant to explore hospitality rituals in Qatar and to what extent these relate with commercially marketed ideas of hospitality.

“The beauty of QNRF and the NPRP funding is that one research project will lead to another, and as long as you have support, you are able to pursue your ideas,” Dr. Sobh said. “QNRF is the best thing that has happened to Qatar, and I believe one day soon, Qatar will become a research hub in some areas because of the programs they have implemented.”

NPRP: 30-6-7-59
Men’s and Women’s Spaces in Qatari Households
LPI Name: Dr. Rana Sobh, Qatar University

NPRP: 09-113-5-014
Rituals and Practices of Hospitality in Qatar
LPI Name: Dr. Rana Sobh, Qatar University
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  • MAY 2015