By: Maria Jakobsen
The constant debate in the western media, about suppression of women in the Middle East cast a shadow over the fact that women in many countries have gained more opportunities in order to participate in the society. Throughout the past decade Qatari female students have outnumbered Qatari male students and many of the women are also participating in professions, which earlier were reserved exclusively for men. The increased opportunities for women in Qatar come as a result of the country’s efforts to improve women’s participation in education and labour market. On the other hand, international and national statistics and surveys show that females meet more obstacles when entering the labour market than men. This contributes to a situation where number of national female employees is considerable lower that the employment rate for men.
In order to understand the reasons behind the statistical data that is presented, there seems to be a need for further studies and better knowledge. The thesis of my Master degree in Arabic is an attempt to collect, handle and present information that may increase understanding on this area. One can describe the improvements in the educational system in Qatar as an “educational revolution” and my project will look at the social effects of this radical change. To limit the scope of the project I have concentrated on the women’s participation in the labour market. Simplified this may be expressed: How has the “educational revolution” in Qatar affected women and their entry into the work force?
On June 27, 1995, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani formally became the ruler of Qatar. Under the Emir’s leadership clear visions have been developed to transform Qatar into a more democratic and reform-friendly society. Since HH, the Emir became the country’s ruler; he has made it clear that he supports the creation of democratic institutions. The Emir issued on June 2004 the permanent constitution, which also provides a solid foundation in order to support women, to improve their human rights status and role in the society.
Under the slogan “Education for a new era to cope with the country’s comprehensive and sustained development” Qatar, under the directives of HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a comprehensive development initiative was launched in 2004. The most visible driving force in this process has been the wife of the Emir, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Misned, who is serving as the chairperson of Qatar Foundation and for the Education City. At Education City HH Sheikha Mozah have developed projects to make Qatar a centre of higher education in the Middle East. Further she argues, “The core of Qatar’s vision is an aspiration for Qatar to realize its full potential in the global marked with an educated people who have the skills and confidence to be competitive around the world”. The contributions of HH Sheikha Mozah seem to be well received among Qatari women. Therefore, the common saying, وراء كل رجل عظيم امرأة” ”, meaning “behind every great man there is a woman” will in Qatar, according to national releases, be “وراء كل امرأة قطرية ناجحة سمو الشيخة موزة” meaning “behind every successful Qatari woman there is Her Highness Sheikha Mozah”.
Qatar’s aim for an improved educational system has given positive results for female participation in education. Statistics from Qatar University shows that 77% of the total numbers of students are females. The ratio of female participation is high in the college of Arts & Science as well as in the colleges of Business & Economics, Engineering and Law. Statistics do also show that women are doing very well in these fields.
There seems so be great interest in the national and regional media, Arabic-written as well as English-written, regarding Qatari women’s achievements. The Egyptian magazine for women هي (meaning “her”) devoted in the October 2009 issue a comprehensive article about Sheikha al-Jufairi, first Qatari women ever to win a seat in the Central Municipal Council. The Qatari Magazine التجارة و الأعمال, (meaning “Commerce and Employment”) in one of their latest issue, presented Mona Fadel, a Qatari woman who has a strong desire to establish Business Women Association in Qatar. The portrait of Mona Fadel, who won the award for “Business Woman of the Year”, gives an impression of a strong Qatari woman, far away from the picture of the Middle Eastern woman generally presented in western media. Further, one can mention that Dr. Sheikha al-Misned was appointed President of Qatar University in 2003, Her Excellency Sheikha Ahmed Al-Mahmoud was appointed Minister of Education in 2003 and Her Excellency Sheikha Hessa bint Hamad al-Thani was appointed Vice President of the Supreme Council of Family Affairs. These women are, among others, in many ways pioneers in the women’s “movement” in Qatar. When reading press releases and Arabic magazines one might get the impression that there are few obstacle for Qatari women. According to national and international statistics and surveys that is not the case, and the obstacles will differ based on a series of factors. Good role models are therefore important for young Qatari women taking education and planning a professional career.
As mentioned above, female participation in education is overwhelming. On the other hand, statistics from national and international surveys shows that the number of female employees is low. The World Economic Forum’s GAP-report concludes that the gap between genders in Qatar is widening and that Qatar is ranked 125 out of 134 countries (where number one is the best and 134 are the worst when it comes to gap between genders). Qatar, as well as other Middle Eastern countries, performs far below the global average in this report. Even though there have been minimal improvements in reducing the gap between genders, according to this report, it mentions that it is notable that in Kuwait, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar, the tertiary education enrolment rates of women are higher than those of men. Further it says that these economies have invested large amounts of resources in increasing women’s educational level and will now need to integrate these women into the economy.
There might be several reasons when seeking answers to the question regarding the low number of Qatari female employees. Different theses on this matter have been proposed, where some have been blaming the strong economy in the Gulf as an obstacle towards women attending the job market (read: Michael L. Ross). Other researches have focused on the role of Islam, and how it supposedly is holding women’s advancement into business and job market at a low level.
My own experiences from Qatar show that the patriarchal attitudes towards women still are strong. The belief among many Qatari men, that women need to be protected and controlled, seems to be rather prevailing.The general view on the government, however, seems to be gratefulness due to the Government’s support of women and women’s rights. Hence, one might say that the government is some steps ahead of the general (male?) opinion about women’s role in the society.
It is necessary to point out that change take time. Because of so many factors influence the development; it may take long time before the effects of new policies and initiatives to encourage women’s participation in the labour market become visible. Even though the gap between genders is high today, there are reasons to believe that the gap will decrease over time as the policy implementation and initiatives become more effective.