What Stifles Qatari Women? (Part One)

Qatar is going through a transitional phase that is marked by rapid change, economic prosperity, and introduction to modernity. This era has witnessed an important change in women’s roles in the Qatari society. It has also exposed the challenges that Qatari women face, some of which are common across different Arab countries.

In one of the smallest yet richest countries, women’s issues don’t stem from poverty, war, political upheaval or lack of governmental support of women but mostly culture. The Qatari culture is so entrenched in Islamic teachings still ironically carries remnants of pre-Islamic traditions and customs; the merging of both makes it in most cases hard to distinguish what is what. It is a culture that is made by men and maintained for centuries by men, so there is so little that women can do without stirring a controversy.

The rapid change witnessed in the last decade has not only been cosmetic and evident to the human eye but has affected the culture, the very traditions and code of conducts that have been static for so long. Qatari culture is now forced to embrace aspects of modernity that weren’t acceptable in the past in order to consolidate with the new modern times. Hence a need emerged to balance between tradition and modernity, a slogan that has widely spread and can be seen in several of the revival movements, such as the revival of traditional crafts, words, and some customs. The challenge to balance between both is still ongoing and it’s not realistic to say that it has been achieved yet or will be anytime soon. However, women roles in such changing cultural setting are at the heart of this new challenge.

In a patriarchal culture that is based on shame and honor gender roles are predetermined and accordingly the spaces that are open for women. In a male-dominated society, gender roles are not only a sign of traditions but are also a law of conduct that determines power relations, something that the men thrive to maintain in order to protect and secure the community. Any change in the gender roles can cause disturbance to the harmony of the community. Change is considered ‘harmful’ and thus the government has followed a gradual strategy in modernizing the country whilst providing alternatives to please different sectors, especially the conservatives. The top-down approach implementing political, social and educational reforms directly changing women status has been effective in such a culture, as the odds for women to demand and effect change on their own are minimal.

Traditional fixed gender roles have impacted the roles assigned to women until this day. Women in the past were mainly housewives and confined to the domestic space, some worked from home in weaving and sewing and the few who worked outside the house had to do so out of necessity. Trespassing through public spaces required certain behavioral restrictions on women, ranging from wearing certain attires, covering their female silhouettes in black to ensure minimum visibility, to keeping their voices very low so not to be heard by men. The first career that was traditionally acceptable for women was teaching other women, which started in the confines of their own houses.

In recent times, changes taking place have shuffled gender roles in the society but cultural restraints still determine its acceptability. The changing living demands have forced women to work and help out men, who were previously the sole breadwinners. The government has been promoting women employment by facilitating it and encouraging them and assigning certain jobs and in some cases departments for them, as well as enacting new laws that protect them in the workplace. The most reform that has benefited women is education. It is a known fact that Qatari women are much more motivated to study and continue their education beyond post-secondary level than Qatari men. Universities across Qatar graduate women who are ready to venture into the workplace and prove themselves valuable to the country.

Despite all the changes, the culture is still resistant to move towards accepting women’s participation in the public place as men’s equals. The fields that women can enter are still limited and some jobs aren’t considered socially acceptable. “According to Planning Council data (2005), 53 percent of Qatari women held jobs in education in 2004, while women were totally absent in the construction, trade, and manufacturing sectors, and very few worked in other fields.” (Rand, 2008) More men than women benefit from the generous governmental scholarships for studying abroad, especially for post-graduate studies, because it is unacceptable for women to travel and live alone. Women’s mobility inside and outside Qatar is dependent on their families’ cultural adherence. Their career choices have to be approved by their families. And many families disapprove of sending their women to co-ed schools and universities or work in mixed-gender institutions. Some families impose on women certain traditional attires to study or work in mixed gender environments. The “niqab” or face cover has been very popular in the last decade or so among Qatari working women and has been a topic of controversy. Some of the Qatari intelligentsias have written in local newspapers voicing their disapproval of what they called an “imported” custom that is foreign to their culture. However, the “niqab” can be seen as a direct result of women leaving their private spaces and being exposed to men. It is what anthropologist Hanna Papanek calls “portable seclusion”- giving them the opportunity to participate in the public sphere without crossing any traditional boundaries.

To be continued…

This entry was published in August 2010 as a column in Woman Today, a Qatari based monthly magazine.

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