A Feminist Musing on Gender Equality in Qatar
How are women treated in Qatar? A question that’s asked often and doesn’t have one straight answer. A Qatar-based American feminist attempts to answer this.
Whenever I head home for the summer, I look forward to the string of questions I know I will be asked about Qatar. They are the cliché questions most expats and citizens get asked at some point when they travel: Where exactly is Qatar located? How do you pronounce its name? How do you handle the heat? And are you sure you’re safe there?
My favorite question to answer is, how are women treated there? Usually the person is expecting me to rattle off a list of examples of how terrible women have it in the country. That we can’t drive, that Qatari women are always under the thumb of their husbands or fathers, yada, yada, yada. So the shock is nearly palpable when I say, “On the contrary, Qatar is, in many respects, a positive example for women’s empowerment in the Middle East.”
I don’t just say that to ruffle strangers’ feathers. I mean it. Since I arrived in the country two-and-a-half years ago, I have been invigorated by my interactions with Qatari women and often impressed by the nation’s efforts to boost women’s status in the society.
Steps in the right direction
Qatar is doing many things right. The Qatar National Development Strategy 2011-2016 states women’s empowerment as a key developmental objective. It lists many goals for its citizen women, including increasing the number of Qatari women in the workforce, increasing leadership positions for them, and even “reducing the stereotyping of women’s roles and responsibilities.”
The country has been dubbed one of the best places in the world for women to go to university and women outnumber men 6 to 1 in the country’s various tertiary institutions.
I am a journalism lecturer at an American university in Education City. My female students, both Qatari and expat, are ambitious, talented, and insightful. Before coming here, I knew that the international media often portrays Middle Eastern women as oppressed, submissive and voiceless in their societies. I also knew that this portrayal is usually extremely exaggerated and often inaccurate, and that I would end up meeting many Qatari women who are happy, powerful and active in their communities.
Yet I admit, I am frequently blown away by my female students’ fearlessness when covering and confronting highly sensitive social issues that just a decade ago no one would have dared to discuss or report on. They are also willing to demand the time of even the most intimidating male bureaucrats, all for the sake of producing a polished news story. Perhaps no big deal for an American journalist, but for a country like Qatar, where sex segregation is still the norm in many places of employment and education, their tenacity is inspiring.
These same students are also determined to obtain meaningful yet high-powered careers after they graduate. Little wonder then that many of my colleagues believe women will end up becoming the vanguards and leaders of Qatar in the years to come.
The stumbling blocks
But if true equality for women is to be achieved in Qatar, much needs to be done. A patriarchal mindset is still the norm here. When I have reported on women’s issues here in the past and wanted to interview men, I was warned by Qatari colleagues not to use “bad” terms such as feminism and women’s empowerment because the interviewees would think I was advocating taking power away from men.
One issue that particularly hits deep for me is the Qatari cultural taboo that prevents many women from showing their faces in news photos, videos or advertisements, even if they don’t wear a niqab in every day life. Since I teach video and photojournalism, of course it upsets me to hear that most of my Qatari women students will never stop in front of a camera for their professional careers, all because their families think doing so might sully their reputation and lessen the daughter’s marriage prospects. I wrote about this issue recently for Chime For Change and how this taboo prevents so many talented Qatari women from “claiming the limelight that is their due.” At the universities here, I have witnessed Qatari women declining to be photographed even for benign and positive news stories, such as graduation or award announcements.
Many nationals acknowledge that gender inequality is still a major problem in Qatar. JustHere columnist Nasser Al Naama has written about the stubborn men who believe women shouldn’t be allowed to drive, even though women were awarded that right some two decades ago (Qatari women, however, must get their male guardian’s permission to obtain a license). And Nofe Al Suwaidi has decried the fact that Qatari women who marry non-Qatari men still cannot pass on citizenship to their children.
Women at work
In the workforce, Qatari women are at a disadvantage despite the fact they significantly outnumber and outperform their male counterparts at universities. Only 36 percent of Qatari women work compared to 63 percent of Qatari men. Qatari women I’ve interviewed about this say culture and discrimination are partly to blame. Employers, both in the public and private sectors, don’t take Qatari women as seriously as they do the men. They don’t offer them equivalent salaries and benefits or as many professional development and promotion opportunities. One local businesswoman I spoke with wondered whether ministries and employers have even bothered to read the National Development Strategy.
Expat women also face various obstacles. A Wamda.com roundtable discussion on women entrepreneurs in Doha found that many get the short shrift at work, too. Sponsorship laws are problematic because expat women are not allowed to sponsor their husbands unless they work for a government or semi-government organization. Men, however, just have to meet a certain salary requirement to sponsor their wives. But why should a breadwinner’s sex matter in the issuing of family visas? Do officials really believe allowing in female heads-of-households would threaten the country’s social fabric?
Low-income expat women, especially those working as maids and nannies, are most vulnerable, since they have little legal protection to uphold their rights and defend them from abuse.
Nevertheless, despite these issues, change is taking place. The government is attempting to raise awareness about problems traditionally swept under the rug, such as domestic violence, through public campaigns.
Universities in Qatar even offer thought-provoking gender studies courses, such as the Islamic Feminism classes taught by Amal Al-Malki, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Qatar Foundation’s first Qatari faculty member. My university also offers gender-related courses and it’s thrilling to see how these classes are provoking our students to question their assumptions of women’s proper roles and the media’s portrayal of masculinity and femininity. I can only hope this will give young people in the country the courage to challenge their families, friends and societies’ sexist attitudes and double standards for women.
Through my interactions with expat and Qatari women, I know that many, many feel that women’s roles here are rapidly expanding and equality indeed may be achieved in the future. As one Qatar University student told me, “Women should be something in Qatar, and the women are becoming stronger. It’s a very good change.”
Photo Courtesy: Daniel Roy