The national vision of Qatar 2030 lists “Modernization and preservation of traditions” as the first challenge that the nation faces and needs to achieve to fulfill its aim of becoming “an advanced society capable of sustaining its development and providing a high standard of living for its entire people.” The challenge of balancing between traditions and modernity is certainly not an easy one and has been the subject of many debates and the topic of numerous books since the 1960s following the independence of most Arab countries.
In the new cultural order in Qatar, the blending between modernity and traditions isn’t, as it is usually is, straight forward. Modernity has new rules; however some aspects in the traditional culture are so immune to change. Some of these traditional aspects can be the very ones that still stifle women and obstruct them from achieving leadership positions. While the government is opening up leading positions for both genders, women from the outset looks like they are shying away from assuming such positions. Why?
There exists a gendered perception of leadership that is so entrenched in the traditional culture and still lingers until today. This perception stems from a belief that women are not fit to lead men and consequently the community because of their inherited inferiority to men. Women’s inferiority starts with the creation of all mankind. Eve is believed to be a secondary creation, thus “inferior and subordinate to Adam; and Eve was created simply and solely to be the helpmate to Adam.” (Hassan, Riffat, Made from Adam’s Rib- The Issue of Woman’s Creation). While the whole myth that Eve was created from Adam’s rib is so entrenched in the Islamic tradition, it was never mentioned in the Quran but instead in the Bible. This belief, although without religious foundation, has been the base upon which some Qur’anic verses and prophet’s sayings were interpreted. Following the prophet’s life, which was one of the most enlightening and liberating eras for women, women status had started deteriorating. Women have been forbidden to assume leadership positions and were especially forbidden to become religious leaders or judges- alienating them from the powerful arenas of politics, religion, and the legal system. This recently has changes. Locally, this year has witnessed the appointment of the first woman judge in Qatar. Internationally, Amina Wadud, an American-born convert and Muslim feminist, has led a mixed prayer in 2008.
In a culture that has inherited the belief that leadership positions are off-limit to women, the issue becomes much more complicated especially today when both genders are requested to work side by side to help in modernizing the country. Women have been obtaining high degrees in all areas and are now as qualified or even more than men. Still, women in Qatar are distant from decision making positions and are limited to specific areas like education and family affairs, while women in politics have almost no weight to talk about. In 1998 women were given the right to vote and run in the municipal election. Although women got excited which was reflected in their strong participation in the elections of March 1999, only six women ran and none were able to get enough votes to be elected. The failure of first time runners seems to be a common theme across the Gulf area. Women failed in the elections of 2006 and 2008 in Kuwait and in 2007 in Oman.
What has failed women was not only their inexperience in running their own campaigns, but the culture that stifled them from reaching out to the public, both men and women. The cultural restrictions that affect women’s mobility and interaction with other members of the community have undermined their credibility and thus people’s trust in them. The traditional culture that is prejudiced against women has won back then, but things took a positive turn in 2003 when one female candidate won the second election of the municipal council. She remains the only women in the council until this day.
A survey commissioned by the Supreme Council for Family Affairs and based on a sample of 1015 people, of which 459 are men and 556 are women, states the following reasons to be the main obstacles to women reaching leading positions: customs and traditions 23.7 %, husband’s disapproval 22.9 %, mixing with males 15. 8 %, long hours spent outside the house 15.7 %, and institutions’ lack of interest and trust in hiring women for leading positions 13.5 %. It also shows that 68.3 % of the sample preferred their direct boss to be a man rather than a woman. Moreover, 54.1 % affirms that the main challenge that faces a woman when she reaches a leading position is acceptance. Other challenges are women being uncomfortable working with men, worrying about rumors affecting their reputation because of their mixing with men and being visible in the media, and the fear of being stalked. (Al-Ghanim, Kaltham, Obstacles against Qatari Women Achieving Leading Positions, survey, 2007).
No one can deny that despite such gendered perception and prejudice, strong female role models have emerged assuming leading positions, still in limited realms. Women leadership creates a point of reference in the modern history of Qatari women and present excellent examples for the younger generation. However their efforts can be undermined by being marked as elitists- which can widen the gap between the ordinary Qatari woman and such successful examples making the development and empowerment of women look cosmetic and limited to a certain class or sector. No one yet denies that Qatari women in leadership positions, although limited in number, are helping in breaking stereotypes about Qataris in general. Such women are the perfect images exemplifying the balance between tradition and modernity.
This entry was published in September’s issue of Woman Today, a Qatari based monthly magazine.