The paradox of Qatari women: Majority representation in tertiary education; minimal representation in labour market
My youngest sister came home one day with a peculiar expression on her face. She seemed unsettled; she had heard a heated debate on one of the reputable local radio stations. The topic was about women driving in Qatar, and that the majority of callers were Qatari men who were generally against it. Call upon call, they tried to offer what they thought was irrefutable evidence on why they believe a woman shouldn’t drive, from religious reasons to scientific ones—none of which can be validated.
She was most upset by what one impassioned caller told the host: “Qatari women are jewels, our prized possessions, so why should they drive!” She then said, in a dismal voice, “when I heard him say that, I was upset, not merely because he rejects women driving, but that he reduced me to an object.” Indeed, by trying to praise women, he instead objectified them by drawing this comparison.
While there are more Qatari women than men enrolled in/graduating from universities, in the workforce, the representation of Qatari women is woefully low.
Nearly two decades after women have been allowed the right to drive, many Qataris are still challenging it. This is the mindset that is espoused by men that don’t allow female members of their family to drive, work in mixed or study in co-ed environments or even allow them to make their own decisions, justifying their actions under the pretext of religion. Of course all moral dos and don’ts are applied mainly to women.
While there are a multitude of factors, it is my belief that these deeply entrenched double standards that contribute to Qatar’s distinctive paradox. While there are more Qatari women than men enrolled in/graduating from universities, in the workforce, the representation of Qatari women is woefully low.
President of Qatar University Dr Sheikha Abdullah Al Missned in a 2010 paper titled ‘The Dearth of Qatari Men in Higher Education: Reasons and Implications’, spoke about the huge gender discrepancy at universities.
“In fact, the gender ratio is so skewed that at Qatar University the 2008/2009 student body was 76% female. Incidentally, this trend of female domination at the university level has been going on since the inception of the University, although the ratio was slightly less skewed at 38% men and 62% women in 1973/1974. Even in terms of higher education scholarships, which include support for study at the Education City universities or abroad, the trend shows an increase in women who receive scholarships compared to men. In 2008/2009, 290 women enrolled compared to 170 men.”
Qatar might be in the enviable position of being the best country in the world for women to go to university, but the advantage stops there. Despite the high education levels, only 35% of female nationals are in the workforce. The average in developed nations is well over 50%.
The teachings of Islam granted women far greater rights than our culture is willing to accept.
Furthermore, there is virtually no female representation in critical fields such as politics, where there is just one woman in parliament. Qatari women continue to flock to ‘softer’ career options in health, education and administrative/clerical roles. Culture, tradition and religion are used as excuses to maintain this status quo.
Ironically, the teachings of Islam granted women far greater rights than our culture is willing to accept. Instead, we continue to embed bias against women’s constructive role in society. One only has to look at the Prophets (PBUH) wife Aisha who is a great role model of a Muslim woman.
“‘A’ishah serves as the best role model for women’s activism in Islam for she never was held back from full participation in any aspect of Islamic life even after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). During his life she accompanied the Prophet even to the battle fields to perform essential duties.”
The Quran says: “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward God in Whom ye claim (your rights) of one another, and toward the wombs (that bear you)” (Quran 4:1).
Increasing Qatari women’s participation in the labour force is critical for the success of the National Vision 2030. In fact, the National Development Strategy 2011-2016 aims to increase their participation to 42% by 2016.
This is not going to be an easy task, if we do not pause and question our patriarchal and misogynistic attitude towards our womenfolk.
How can our country prosper and move forward, when many of society’s most able members are held back?[Pic Courtesy: UNCTAD]