For Qatari Women, Change Slow in Coming

In fact, three times as many women as men are matriculated in programs of higher education in Qatar. Reforms are palpable in the curriculum of the University of Qatar and in the coeducational systems of the new campuses recently introduced. The Qatari people are torn between trying to preserve the traditional culture, and, with the influence of the emir and his wife, adopting a more progressive approach to education and to life.

Moza al-Malki, a professor of psychology at the University of Qatar, is a protégée of the emir's wife and a pioneer in the roles she assumes as a Qatari woman. Al-Malki was among the first women to run in a municipal election, to drive by herself, and to take off the abaya. She challenges her students not to cover their faces in her classroom.

As for the separation of women and men, al-Malki says: "[It is] not in the Koran, not out of religion, just culture. They just think that women should be, not everybody, but some people think that women should be at home, or work certain places where there is no mixing with men."

Signs of Change

Women in Qatar now have the right to vote, drive, and pursue many career opportunities, but the restrictions of family and tradition, which are much stronger than any law, are still strong.

But signs of cultural change can be seen in the public spaces of Qatar. While the older women wear the traditional all-black abayas, many of the younger women can be seen wearing abayas that are embroidered or in bright colors. In the malls, many women express their individualism with platform shoes and accessorize with designer purses and sunglasses.

An unspoken dialogue can be noticed between young men and women flashing cell phones. And, Nightline producer Gerry Holmes, while on a run, discovered a young couple driving off the beaten path for some romantic time alone.

Change will come slowly to this area, and the people of Qatar are heading in that direction at a far more dramatic pace than most surrounding Gulf countries.

In the last municipal elections, on April 7, voter turnout was low, at 40 percent. There were 93 candidates vying for 29 seats, and one woman, Sheika Yusuf Al Jaffiri, was declared elected unopposed.

"It's not from the government. There is no law to ask you what to wear or what to do," said al-Malki. "But the people themselves, they have the choice. Everybody here in Qatar has the choice to do whatever they want. Even women."

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