We had to be granted special permission to visit the female campus. Guards stand outside to deter unauthorized people from entering. A wall separates the two campuses, and the beehive-like structures of the men's campus can be seen over the wall from the female campus.
While not all of the female students wear the full abaya and face veil, the majority do. Unlike the male campus, the female campus is bustling with energy. Women gather in the cafeteria, socializing in groups. They talk in the hallways and laugh with one another.
Most of the women, however, hesitated to speak with us and chose to leave class instead of being filmed with our small DV camera, even though we promised to show no faces and to allow them to see the footage afterward.
Student Dana al-Saiddiki was one of the few who agreed to speak with us on camera. She said that as a Qatari woman, "You have to think twice."
Al-Saiddiki, 21, suggested that if a woman did something her family considered shameful, her reputation would be ruined and she would most likely not marry. And that most families disapprove of any mixing of young men and women.
During our visit to the university, our guide from the public relations department was a young woman a few years older than I am. She told us that she still lived at home, and when we asked her how she would marry, she gave us a desperate look that communicated the difficulty of balancing personal and professional choices in a traditional society.
Al-Saiddiki indicated that both a woman's willingness to be seen on camera and her choice of wearing the abaya depend not on any institutionalized rules, but on "how they were raised, their beliefs, their thoughts."
Many Arab women choose to wear the abaya to outwardly show their pride in their Muslim identity. But when we asked some of the women who walked away from us why they were so resolute in their desire to cover themselves and not be seen, these women replied, "It will cause problems for us." What kind of problem was not clear. One student added: "We cover our faces when we go out in public. What if a man sees it?"
Emir’s Wife Seen as Inspiration
But these women see a beacon of hope on the horizon. Under the current emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the first municipal elections were held in 1999 for both women and men; al Jazeera, the most influential news organization in the Middle East, was born in the Qatari capital of Doha; and many educational reforms have begun. Qatar has positioned itself strategically in the current political climate by building the longest runway in the Persian Gulf and offering it to the U.S. Air Force.
The emir's wife, Sheika Mozah, serves as a role model for women's independence in Qatar. The opening of the Cornell Medical Center and other American college campuses here are largely a result of her vision. These university campuses have stretched the existing norms of education, introducing new programs and coeducational campuses that challenge Qatar's traditional university system to keep pace.
And, when you ask young women about her, their eyes light up.
"Her Highness Sheika Mozah has done lots of things for us, especially for the Qatari women, Qatari girls, especially in the educational field," says al-Saiddiki.