Teaching poetry here in the UAE is not too much different from teaching poetry in the US. Though the class is all young women dressed in black abayas, they have the same questions and comments as young women might have at say, University of Hartford. It just took me a few visits for them to open up.
Yesterday’s morning class was full of questions and conversation. It was an 8am class and at 8am, was only half attended. The male instructor left me alone with the girls while he went to find coffee (typical). I asked the class where everyone was and they giggled and said it was much too early to be expected to learn (again, typical).
Since their dorms are surrounded by barbed wire, I doubt they are sneaking out at night. Plus, even if they did sneak out, there would be no place for them to go. Boys and girls have very little opportunity around here to socialize (if any).
One girl said she didn’t go to sleep until 2am. “Ah, studying hard,” I teased. “Oh no, Miss (they still call me ‘Miss’ here and I thought that was just US slang), no study.” And then they all giggled behind their shaylas. So, even here where they have no access to alcohol or drugs or boys, they find ways to party. Probably innocent partying, but it keeps them up until all hours anyway and makes them late for class.
They ‘trust’ me at this point and with their teacher out of the room, we talked about our relationships with family (most express a deep love for both parents, but particularly for their mothers).
And we talked about their desires for the future. For some of these girls (particularly of lower income or those not from the UAE, where things seem to be evolving more quickly), University is mere ‘finishing school’ and when they graduate, they will be expected to marry (sometimes arranged and with someone related) and have many children. This is slowly changing, but still happens.
As a westerner, I am appalled by the idea of an arranged marriage, but the lack of coed social settings (there is no concept of courtship in Islam, no ‘trying’ each other out) and a tribal mentality invite this custom to exist. I think. Still trying to wrap it all around my brain and research has been contradictory.
When they learned how young I was when I had my son, the conversation sped up. I’m told that many of the girls marry as arranged, but on the other hand are also able to divorce if they can prove the husband has inflicted physical or moral harm upon her (‘prove’ may be the key word here); for example, that he deliberately stayed away from her for 3 months, or has not paid for her upkeep or for the maintenance of their children.
It is all very conflicting, but supposedly on the other hand, a husband can divorce his wife by sending her a message through a cell phone or by sending her a written letter stating that they have been divorced or I also read, a Muslim man can end his marriage by telling his wife, "I divorce you" three times. Hmmmmmm
As for child custody, the UAE grants divorced women the custody of female children until they reach the age of maturity or marry. Male children stay with the mother until they reach the age of 13, then go live with their fathers. Good luck to the Dad's, getting the boy just as he enters teenage-hood!