Can Qatar’s Feminists Go Where Saudi Arabia’s Couldn’t?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This emerging movement will test just how different Qatar is from Saudi Arabia.
By David Harding
- On social media and university campuses, a generation of young Qatari women are challenging systemic discrimination.
- They’re forcing reflection from a regime keen to portray itself as more liberal than Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Last summer, a remarkable new Twitter account was activated. Called @QatarFem, the handle quickly gained a reputation for being publicly critical about everyday problems faced by Qatari women. Its posts condemned the country’s restrictive guardianship laws, where fathers or male relatives can prevent single Qatari women up to the age of 25 from traveling or studying abroad.
It called for an end to domestic abuse and asked why local female students needed a guardian’s permission to open a bank account. Or why mothers cannot, by law, pass down their nationality or renew passports for their children.
The pushback was swift — the account made its tweets only viewable privately and appears to have stopped publishing altogether after a month. Other social media activists reported that those behind @QatarFem, and their families, had been called in by the authorities. But the account revealed a growing demand — especially among young, professional, educated Qatari women — for change that the country’s rulers are grappling with as they portray themselves as more progressive than the monarchies of bitter rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Future Is Female, a student-led initiative at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar, launched in 2017 and hosts debates and workshops on increasing female participation in public spaces. Meanwhile, several Qatari women have in recent months fled the country, alleging domestic abuse and highlighting their plight on social media.
I think it [the Twitter handle] was very significant.
Harvard researcher Nora Doaiji on the Gulf feminist movement
And although @QatarFem gained fewer than 2,000 followers before it was effectively shut down, it asked difficult questions in a country where public criticism of the authorities is rare. Among other things, it questioned how Qatar could be allowed to host the 2022 soccer World Cup when restrictive rules against women exist.
“I think it [the Twitter handle] was very significant,” says Nora Doaiji, a Harvard University researcher who has studied feminist movements in the Gulf.
Even more significant, adds Doaiji, “is how swiftly the account was closed down.” She says “the women behind it were somehow identified, questioned, and the Qatar state sent a clear message to them and their families that they had crossed a ‘red line.’” Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says “cybersecurity agents seem to have intimidated those who may have been behind the account, which speaks to a broader problem that Qatari authorities wish to quell any criticism of their country.”
Begum calls the situation for women in Qatar “quite dire.” Husbands can use courts to stop their wives from traveling. A wife can lose her husband’s financial support if she travels despite his objection. Women need the consent of their male guardians to marry. All Qataris — men or women — need the government’s permission to marry a foreign national. Until recently, Qatari women also needed permission from their male guardians to obtain a driving license, says Begum. Women face discrimination in divorce settlements, child custody and inheritance.
Yet, while Saudi Arabia has drawn the most global focus when it comes to women’s rights in the Gulf, protests there in recent years have spurred similar calls for change in neighboring Qatar. Doaiji says friendships have formed between activists in both countries.
At a modern art show linked to the Ajyal Film Festival in Doha, I meet two young Qatari students, Aysha and Moudi, as they tour the exhibits. Asked what they are looking at, the pair begin speaking about their desire for a different life. “We are looking for freedom,” Aysha says. “We need room for us to speak, without being judged.”
In a deeply traditional, conservative Muslim country with customs dictating conventional roles for women, that’s not a simple demand. Women are expected to wear traditional abayas — long, black robes complete with a head scarf — in public.
At the same time, Qatar is trying to present itself as different from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which severed diplomatic ties with Doha in 2017 and have since tried to enforce an economic blockade. Qatar has introduced a minimum wage for workers, partially opened up permanent residency for foreigners, ended the exploitative “kafala” system used to monitor migrant workers and stopped demanding exit visas.
Transformed by its vast gas wealth since the 1990s, Qatar — the world’s richest nation — has opened up to influences from elsewhere. That has produced an urbanized, modern young female population, with many educated to degree-level in the West, and with different expectations from their parents.
Today almost 70 percent of Qatar’s higher-education graduates are women, according to the country’s foreign ministry. Qatar has the second-highest female-to-male workforce participation rate in the Middle East — 61 percent — behind only Kuwait, according to the International Labor Organization. That’s a sharp rise from 51 percent in 2009.
Prominent women in leadership roles include Public Health Minister Dr. Hanan Al Kuwari and Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwa Al Khater. Sheikha Moza, wife of the former emir, is among the country’s best-known people.
Qatar still has a way to go. “They [women] just need to be perceived as equals,” says one female Qatari professional, who requested anonymity. “The opportunities are out there for women; it’s the cultural norms that stop them.”
Doaiji fears the burgeoning movement might face “the same repressive trajectory as its predecessor in Saudi Arabia.”
But others are convinced that change is irresistible. “The future is female,” says Aysha defiantly.
- David Harding, OZY Author Contact David Harding