a new kind of ladies' night

“What goes on at ladies night?” This seems like an ordinary question; men are often mystified about those nights the trustworthy and stable women in their lives run out with girlfriends, dressed to the nines, with a shouted “Don’t wait up,” over the shoulder as the door shuts in their face.
            In certain states in the Middle East, it is perpetually ladies night due as non-related women and men are gender segregated. For Muslim women, ladies night means complete freedom, as they discard hijab, the veils that cover their hair in observance of Islamic dictates for female modesty.
            The subject of this particular ladies night inquiry, however, was the ladies only, invite only, evening of a fashion show hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University’s branch campus in Doha. The male faculty and staff were barred from this occasion for the entirety of the show’s annual run. They are all required to leave the building mid-afternoon the day of the show. As of spring 2007 there are no male students at VCUQ, though the first male students are allowed to enroll in fall 2007. They will likely also be left out of the ladies only evening, made even more precious by their inclusion into the school. The questioner, a male faculty member who had taught at VCUQ for three years, looked up at me and I was mystified.
            “Well, not that much, really,” I said. This was true; as in any religiously conservative environment, Hindu, Christian, or Muslim, ladies night takes on a much more sedated atmosphere.
            “We just watch the show… It’s the same show the next night too, right?”
            My friend nods. He seems as frustrated by my inability to supply information, as though I’m holding out some secret, refusing to share it with him because of his maleness.
            “Well, no one has their hair covered.”
            He looks up again.
            “Actually, no one wears abayas.”
            He is suddenly really interested.
This is probably because every mall, restaurant, and classroom in Qatar is filled with abaya clad females and this all you see of Qatari women unless you are related to them. (The designer abaya industry boasts top names including even Christian Dior.) Or unless you are invited to a ladies only gathering.
            In Islam, a woman only has to cover her hair when around non-male relatives. For the student or working Muslim woman who chooses to, this can mean every moment that she is outside her house; or even inside her house if someone other than her father or brother is in the room. Women who “cover” (which usually means covering their hair, but can also extend to their whole face) adopt a variety of styles in how they carry out this practice. The Qatari approach to female “covering” is an abaya a black robe with long sleeves long enough to cover feet also and a shayla, scarf, about two to three yards in length, that warps around hair, ears, and neck, hiding any space down to the collar of the abaya.  This is how ninety-eight percent of Qatari women dress.  
I drove home that night and shook my head at my friend’s slightly dilated pupils. There are no cameras, not even cell phones with cameras, allowed at this or any other gathering where women will be “uncovered.” This ensures everyone can have a good time without worrying photos of her hair, body, or face, will show up on the internet, or even worse, be blue toothed around the country. After all, there are only about 150,000 Qatari nationals. It is a really small country and we all know how we feel about photos of ourselves… so a prohibition on photography might be always be a bad idea.
I thought back to my first Ladies Night fashion show, the previous year, when I had only been in Qatar for about six months. I was shocked at what was underneath those abayas and shaylas. Behind the black of the robes and headscarves were designer labels I’d seen only in magazines or on the red carpet. This was the first night I saw my female students and almost didn’t recognize them because suddenly, instead of looking at a face, I was looking at an entire head, with hair, ears, neck, in short, everything “uncovered.” That night I was electrified and a little embarrassed at my own shock, given all my feminist sensibilities.
            The women were… stunning. And I was staring at everyone and everything like a blind mouse given a promised few hours to see.
            “Mohana, hi.”
            I turned and smiled politely at a beautiful young woman. I had no idea who she was.
            “It’s me. Hala.”
            “Hala! Oh, wow. Look at you. Your hair is beautiful!”
            Was there a more idiotic thing I could have said? Other than blurting, so that’s what you really look like, probably not. Clearly she wasn’t hiding her hair because she needed daily Rogain treatments. She was observant of Islamic tradition; she was “covered” in public like a respectful Qatari female. And she was drop dead gorgeous.
            It went on over the course of the night as student after student approached me to say hello and I was bedazzled by the mascara, bold shades of blue eyeliner, perfectly blow-dried manes, curled, straightened, artfully arranged and satin evening wear. The actual models on the runway were only mildly interesting in comparison to the menagerie of women I knew, students, faculty, staff, who I literally saw in a different light that evening. They were chatty and friendly, eager to know what I was up to with summer only a few weeks away, boisterous. After the show, the murmur of voices rose to a dull roar as everyone piled into the reception area to eat, gossip, and compare jewelry.
            The next day, back at work and in the daily grind, the previous evening seemed like a secret we shared; like I was having a dalliance with many women, all once, because I had seen beauty behind closed doors.
nbsp;   This was all before I learned about the other variations of ladies nights; weddings, as most wedding receptions in Gulf countries are single sex, henna parties, where artists apply the dye in all designs and styles in a festive gathering, and of course, dancing lessons.
            Of course, my friend can’t get into any of these.
            And I like a good friend, rub it in.