Counter Cultures Eventually Go Mainstream: "Boyas" in Qatar

I’m a default random thoughts type because I’m a writer. No matter the people, country, or time period, the role of a writer remains the same: to notice, reflect or ponder the meaning behind the everyday. This past weekend I went to two events on back to back evenings where I saw something which was interesting in and of itself – a counter youth culture amongst young women in Qatar – made slightly dramatic by the reactions others had to them.

Damn She's Tall by Moggs Oceanlane

In  fishbowl like Doha, where the entire population hovers near 2 million and the nationals number 250,o00, you notice those who are different.  I’ve talked a lot about how I stand out as a western educated South Asian American woman in a sea of nannies, cooks, and maids. Depending on who is in a room when I walk into a meeting, there can be everything from mild surprise to indifference, or even hostility. The boyas, or girls whose dress is masculine, evoke similar reactions at all the female parties. (That was redundant to those who have lived in the GCC for a while: parties are gender segregated.)

Going to a wedding is no small thing: I had to find a dress, go to a salon to do my hair, pick out shoes, (“Wear pewter color, ma’am,” the girl sales girl told me, impressing me with her vocabulary. I did as I was told) select jewelry and then apply make up. It’s the western equivalent of a prom, with a bride who comes in at midnight. And all of this for an all female audience. People from the West often exclaim “What’s the point?” when they learn there aren’t men around. And this is an interesting reaction: after all, do we only look good for others? Is there no need for approval from other women? So many things about the assumptions of cult of beauty are challenged in an all female environment (though the cattiness and judgement can still remain. Someone whispered “I hate her, she’s so skinny” as another girl walked by). A standard practice is to change your display picture on your phone to show friends (usually only all girls because of the prohibitions of hijab) your glammed up self. “Hot!” A few people messaged me back when I sent photos of the end result (which they requested).

Has a New Evening Gown by Juan Manuel

When I got to the wedding, that of all the female family and friends who knew the either the bride or the groom, there were more exclamations, this time from my students. Because  while I am well heeled according to some people’s definitions of female faculty, in the land of designer brands, I’m probably only just

serviceable in two inch heels. On a day I’d rather exercise and be on time to class than put on eye liner, it never fails that someone says: “You look tired.”

In the Oscar like garden of floor length dresses that women wear to weddings, some of the boyas were wearing pants, button down shirts, and even a vest or two. The effect was that they not only stood out, as perhaps my being one of a handful of foreigners did (and the only Indian invited as a guest, while there were many Filipino maids standing in attendance on their older patrons) but they demanded attention by sheer dint of their professed masculinity.

Amongst the yards, and yards of teased, curled, and sprayed hair (mine being no exception) not to mention hundreds of dollars of extensions, the boyas had cropped hair, close to their chin and ears. In some cases they came in with girls, ultra feminine, either as escorts or friends, there was no way to be sure.  Some say that having another girl, a masculine boya, is a substitute for the value added by a male admirer – which in this gender segregated society would be construed negatively. (In either case their sexuality is not really the point of these ruminations: the expression of a public, counter persona  in a communal society is.)

The next night at a fundraiser, a friend said: “I’ve never been with so many in one room.”

The boyas were out in full force, about four or five in a group of eight or so: one girl wearing cut off shorts and biker-style jacket amidst Chanel and couture party dresses. This time they seemed less like standouts and more like a gang or cult. There were clear expectations of dress (masculine, boxy, pants, no dresses) hair (if not short, then styled up in mohawk like ridges) and they hung in tight clusters, really only talking to the people they had come in with. Yet everyone was talking about them. Rather than seem disturbed by this obvious fact, the boyas seemed to enjoy it. They walked into the room as confident as anyone else and has a good a time as the rest of us, judging by their smiles, laughter, comings and goings.

This reminded me a bit of the research I did for my Hip Hop book. Before the days of Footloose and Pepsi commercials break dancing was thought of as street culture; beat bopping and rapping didn’t always make people into millionaires and a pimp’s life often had as many problems as his hoes. When the record industry realized there were multimillion to be made from hip hop, the fringe culture of youth on the streets went from the inner cities into the cars of white boys in the suburbs and then across the oceans onto posters on the walls of teenage rooms around the world. The margin became the center.

That’s not the scale of what we’re seeing yet with the boyas. And given the social and religious strictures, we may not. But that’s not really the point, at least for those who are using this identity at the present moment. For now they seem to be happy as the thorns among the roses.

 

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