by Alanoud Alsharekh

This memo was presented part of a workshop organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 13 June 2018, looking at Tribe and State in the Middle East.

Hind al Mutairi recites her poem “Woe to the Tribes” at the 2015 Jeddah International Book Fair.

The issue of assimilation and resistance into and against new cultures is a typical part of city life for urbanized tribal units across the Arabian Gulf States. The desire to embrace a metropolitan lifestyle and reject the rules and contradictions of tribal loyalty is an issue that has resurfaced throughout the evolution of urbanized tribes. Modern GCC citizens of Bedouin descent have tried to resolve this dichotomy with a foot in both worlds, and have identified education and financial independence as vital to achieving this. Women, in particular, are subject to social pressure to conform to a tribal heritage that often costs them more in practical terms than it does men; to understand this, and to judge whether or not tribal values have a place in modern urban social units, we must examine the ways in which traditional tribal values and city life can both clash and complement one another. Is there a place for tribal custom in modern society, or does it need to be tempered to the point of total assimilation to allow tribal members to function in a modern, urbanized social unit?

Hind al Mutairi is a niqab-wearing poetess from a powerful Arabian Gulf tribe. She caused uproar with her poem “Waih al Qabila”, or “Woe to the Tribe”, which she recited to a mixed audience at the 2015 Jeddah International Book Fair. This resulted in her being banned by the then Governor of Mecca, Prince Khalid al Faisal, from participating in other cultural events. The poem is a feminist diatribe against restraints on women within tribal society, and caused many tribal men to demand her prosecution and forced formal apology for speaking ill of tribal customs (“Mnatiq”, 2015), garnering a popular hashtag translating to “Hind al Mutairi Reviles the Tribe”. The poetess responded to this attack in tweets and letters, demonstrating her unrepentant stand against the chokehold of tribal practices on women. She tweeted about her poem in reaction to the forced divorce of a tribal woman – Salma – from her husband of thirteen years and father of her five children as he was of non-tribal background, and thus an unfit match by tribal standards. Other evidence of the difficulty tribal mores can cause women, in particular in a modern urban setting, are plentiful.

Haya al Mughni has pointed out such difficulties are also pervasive in established urban tribes as well as the more recently settled bedouin population. She describes how the merchant class and elite Kuwaitis control women through arranged marriages and through placing a disproportionate amount of responsibility on these women for the preservation of family honour: “those of the elite and the merchant class have been the most eager to preserve the kin relations from which they gain prestige and access to many privileges. Their loyalty to their own class has often superseded their loyalty to members of their own sex”, up to and including issues surrounding their right to marry and bear children if a socio-economically suitable match was not available to them. This is particularly relevant to contemporary tribal women if we consider that in pre-urbanized tribal societies, marriage outside the tribe occurred only out of necessity to forge an alliance, which meant that “as a result, birth into the right family tended to be the only way to become a member of a tribe.” Latifa al Subaie – a Kuwaiti woman from a tribal Bedouin family – articulates (in an October 2017 interview with the author) this conflict as anxiety and a constant pressure to conform to tribal honour which forces young people, and especially women, to be viewed and to view themselves not as individuals but as parts of a more important body. Decisions in this system of strict hierarchy are made for them and not by them.

Conversely, it may be easy in the face of increasing westernization to take a negative attitude towards social customs that have, in some ways, outlived their usefulness, but let us consider how tribal habits can also complement urbanized life. Hussa al Dhaheri from Abu Dhabi feels there is a positive association between women of tribal Bedouin ancestry and ideas of competence and dependability in contrast to the image of what we might call “spoiled urban girls” (in a July 2017 interview with the author). Munira al Kawari, a member of a prominent Qatari tribe, also argues that maintaining tribal customs and units can confer benefits on social groups and neighbourhoods; these can include safekeeping and safeguarding of neighbours, keeping potentially damaging secrets, engaging in communal problem-solving, and being able to seek help from fellow tribal members at any hour of the day or night. It is perhaps doubly important to consider the community ties that arise from tribal mores as beneficial in an age when social media, and the fast pace of life and technology, are causing increasing alienation both within and without community groups.

However, many Qatari tribal women want less tribal rigidity and more mixed neighbourhoods to force tribes to “adapt to different values and be embarrassed with [covering up drug use and other anti-social behaviour within the tribe]”. Some benefits do not wipe out the extreme problems that an overly dogmatic adherence to tribal mores without regard for practicality and health-directed changes may cause. Sara al Haroun finds that “social problems and health risks can increase as a result of having a tribe isolated in a single neighbourhood [through increased] consanguineous marriages, which can sometimes result in birth defects”. Studies have proved “this centuries-old custom of intermarriage has had devastating genetic effects”.

The social evolution of tribal women has also demanded they retain tribal conservatism, sometimes at the expense of more practical customs. Whilst men have retained some markers that hint at a Bedouin descent to some extent, the traditional burqa for women has given way to the more overtly religious niqab in Kuwait. In Qatar and the UAE, the batoola has seen similar changes, falling out of fashion with younger women completely. The clash between gender and assimilation in a tribal context is further complicated by the work of AlNajjar and Allagui, who argue that in the UAE, women’s empowerment is part of the national branding project of the post-oil modern state. Since many of these “branding projects” rely on “invented traditions” that are Bedouin-lite, the struggle between modernity and tradition in terms of gender representation takes place within a prism of retention, invention vs. adaptation, and historical revision. As Page puts it, “the Emirati woman is honored for her femininity, beauty, respect for tradition, and staying ‘in place’. It is stylish to be traditional. Modernity must be tempered by tradition”. The same sentiment applies where selective aspects of modernity are practiced to reproduce the tribal system with a modern sheen.

In conclusion, a close examination of the rights that remain denied to female citizens of these states leads to the supposition that despite supposedly modern advancements, urbanized tribal units with a strict adhesion to tribal values suffer from the negative downsides of tribal culture, in spite of the modern tweaks that are made to such strictures in many cases, as discussed by Amal al Malki, Dean of Hamad bin Khalifa University, in an interview with Al-Jazeera. Women in these states are frequently denied the right to pass on their nationality to their children, or to marry without the consent of a legal guardian as an enforcement of a “tribal” tradition rather than an Islamic one. Although tribal customs have place in city life for those of Bedouin origin, it seems clear that they must coexist with and assimilate into the requirements of modern urban life. Tribal mores evolved for a reason, and do, in some ways, protect the health of communities, however it seems that the cost of retention is higher on women than it is on men.

Alanoud Alsharekh conducts research on socio-political, cultural and security issues in the Arabian Gulf and is the director of the Abolish153 campaign to end honour killing legislation in Kuwait and the GCC. She has published several widely on gender and kinship policies in the GCC, including her books The Gulf Family and Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States. She tweets at @AAlsharekh

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