For Qatari Women, Change Slow in Coming

Reform is coming to the country of Qatar, but, on my first trip to the Middle East, my impression was that real change is yet to come for Qatari women.

Upon arriving at Doha International Airport, as a 22-year-old American female coming as part of an ABCNEWS Nightline team to cover the then-imminent Iraq war, I took one glance around the baggage claim and realized that, apart from my fellow journalists, every woman was completely covered in the black abaya. Many women wore a second veil over their faces, revealing only their eyes.

The culture in Qatar is very conservative, second only to that of Saudi Arabia. The men, too, wear traditional dress, clad in long white cotton robes and either red or white head scarves.

Not wanting to inadvertently offend anyone, I tried to read the cultural temperature by befriending an American expatriate I met at the gym in our hotel. This woman had moved to Qatar because her husband worked in the oil business. She said that she does not cover her head, but whenever she goes to a public place such as the mall, she wears long sleeves and pants, making sure that her shoulders are covered and her neckline is high.

Her rule served me well during my month in Doha. I was shocked, however, when reading in the club rules for the hotel that Muslim women are asked not to drink, to be accompanied and to cover themselves.

I have to admit that my first impression was that the women's complete covering of themselves gave testament to an ingrained cultural oppression. While walking down the aisles of the Carrefour, equivalent to an American Wal-Mart, just days after my arrival in Doha, I felt a sinking sadness for the abaya-clad women I saw buying groceries for their families and disposable diapers for their children. Coming from a culture that objectifies the every curve of a female's body, this was the opposite extreme. I could not fathom this reality of having to hide yourself from the outside world.

My impressions were fresh and previous knowledge minimal. During my time in Doha, I had the opportunity to speak with students — both male and female, many of them around my own age — at the University of Qatar. And much of what they said has remained with me upon my return.

No Sadie Hawkins Here

The difference in the men and women's campuses at Qatar University is palpable. The men's campus is constructed as a series of modules, connected with covered passageways between the buildings The campus lacks the energy of a bustling university atmosphere, even during peak class hours. We were able to walk freely on this campus and speak with some students who were leaving a biology class.

When asked about their interactions with Qatari women, one student said that unless for a business purpose, he would not speak with a girl. I think I took him by surprise when I asked what he would think of a Qatari girl who came up to talk to him. Although afraid of offending me at first, he finally replied, "I would think she was a whore."

Marriages are still for the most part arranged, and once his family decided upon a girl for him to marry, a young man would be able to go on arranged dates with her. Until then, however, contact between young men and women is frowned upon, even in groups.

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.

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."