What You’ll Find in This Post:
My experience as a woman in Qatar (and acknowledging the other intersections I inhabit)
The “oppressive” female dress code
The separation of women from men
How I feel I was treated as a woman in Qatar vs. the U.S.
International Women’s Day
Fun (and Not-So-Fun) Facts about women’s rights in Qatar
Final thoughts on Qatar’s drive for gender equality
The three other (female) exchange students walking along the Corniche
Imagine you are trekking through one of the many malls to be found in Doha when in walks a group of Qatari shoppers. The men in the group walk a few paces ahead of the ladies in their party and you think to yourself, how dare they make the women walk in their shadow—yet another example of female oppression in the Middle East.
But what if you were reading the situation wrong? What if you learned the men were walking ahead of the women due to a subconscious historical safety habit? I was told that the practice comes from shopping in busy, crowded markets way back in the day; men would walk ahead of women to dismiss harassers, keep an eye out for danger, and essentially clear a path for the ladies before any potential bad guys even had a chance to approach them.
Even still, there were plenty of men walking with their wives, mothers, girlfriends, sisters, cousins, fiancées, and friends; there was actually more of this going on than the “five steps ahead” habit, but I think the fact both practices were the norm is a surprisingly good metaphor for how women are considered in Qatar. When it comes to ladies, traditional thoughts are mixed with modern progressiveness, more often leaning toward the modern.
Before we start talking about that, though, let me give you a disclaimer:
I am a woman, but I’m also a lot of other things
I am more than just a woman.
In this post, I am going to talk about what I experienced, what I saw, what I learned, and how I felt in regard to being a woman in Qatar. Thing is, I am also a lot of other things: I am American, I am black, I’m an artist, I was 21, I spent most of my time on campus, I’m shaped like a pin-up girl, I wasn’t Muslim, and I only lived in the country for four months. It’d be naïve of me to believe that these other factors about my status and appearance didn’t influence the way I was treated as a woman.
Though I don’t know exactly how these things effected my experience, it’s important to be aware of their potential effects because what I experienced may not apply to someone else with different descriptors. There could have been situations of:
Did that man hold the door open for me because I was a woman or an American woman?
Did he talk over me because I’m a woman or because I’m a black woman?
Was I in the country long enough to get a real feel for the way women are treated?
How did living in the Education City skew my experiences as a woman?
You see what I mean?
With that established, let’s go ahead and get down to the nitty gritty. First, I’m going to talk about the two cultural traditions people kept asking me about, traditions they assumed were clearcut examples of women’s freedom being infringed upon: Women’s dress and the separation of women from men.
The dress code is totally oppressive . . . right?
In the women's prayer hall at the Grand Mosque.
Clothing is so communicative; you can use it to define a decade, a gender, a religion, a career, a sub-culture, and even political ideologies (#suffragettewhite). The expressive quality of clothing is powerful, but because the Middle East is known for strict rules regarding female dress, the image of a hijab or niqab—or any kind of black shroud mixed with hidden hair—occasionally triggers an “oppressed woman alert” for many people in the West.
Here’s the thing, though: Not all Middle Eastern countries are the same. Yes, the idea that a woman should be covered ties in with the idea of modesty, which links back to Islam, but each country interprets and enforces modesty in different ways. In Qatar, women wear the abaya and the shayla—their national black robe/head covering combo—not because they are forced to, but because it’s part of their cultural identity. And even though the traditional dress is black, the abaya and shayla come in a variety of different colors, fits, and details (like rhinestones or embroidery), and women can wear whatever the heck they want underneath, so when it comes to self-expression, women do have freedom of choice.
It’s also worth mentioning that women began covering themselves more as tourism and immigration increased (remember, Qatar is roughly 90% foreigners). Plus, the modest dress code isn’t only meant for women—men have to dress modestly too. Have you seen the "Reflect Your Respect" posters? That whole campaign was started by a group of women.
One of the "Reflect Your Respect" posters.
What about the separation of women from men?
You know how I just said women’s dress is more of a cultural thing than anything else? Well, the separation of women from men is similar—it’s got roots in Islam, but it’s not a strict requirement for people living in the country. There are separate entrances and prayer halls for men and women in mosques, but other public spaces, like a mall, are just as coed as you’d imagine them to be.
It’s true that unmarried couples technically aren’t allowed to share a hotel room, and it’s true that there are separate dorms in Education City for male and female students, but the hotel situation is often overlooked, and the separate dorms are a fairly recent development; prior to the construction of the boys’ dorm, the current girls’ dorm was coed.
My point is that separating men from women is in no way an oppressive act and doesn’t happen as frequently as people seemed to believe.
How did I feel I was treated as a woman in Qatar vs the U.S.?
Posing in the door frame of the ladies' room, per my friend's instruction.
First a statistic: The country’s population, including foreigners, is only about 25% female (the U.S., in comparison, is more or less 50/50).
So how did I feel being surrounded by so many men? Well, for one thing, I spent much of my time in the bubble that is Education City, which has a predominantly female student population. There were, of course, times where I was not within the bubble and did get the opportunity to interact with people off-campus, which included interacting with men. So how did that go?
Overall, I felt more respected as a woman in Qatar than in the U.S.
I was never catcalled.
I was never spoken down to.
I was never touched inappropriately.
I could smile at a man without them assuming I was interested in them.
I was referred to, in serious situations, as a woman, not a girl.
And when men did flirt with me, it was never pushy, vulgar, or presumptuous—it was polite
These are all things can say I experienced in Qatar, but not in the U.S.
And the thing is, it’s not like men were doing the most; I didn’t have guys laying down their thobes so I could walk over a puddle. All they did was put forth the effort to not disrespect me, an insanely easy task that American men don’t always grasp.
Don't get me wrong, you might get some stares if you've got some junk in the trunk or some tig ‘ol bitties, but an uncomfortable stare is different than unwanted touch or inappropriate speech. The lack of harassment and blatant gender-based discrimination made me feel more respected and comfortable in Doha than I had ever felt in the U.S.
And then there’s International Women’s Day . . .
International Women’s Day?
Yep, it’s a thing. It’s a thing that has some origins in the U.S. circa 1910, and a very notable history in communist countries since 1917, and yet no one in my world had ever brought it up. It was never mentioned in my 16 years of public education, it had never been printed on any agenda books, it wasn’t on the Google Calendar, heck, there wasn’t even a repetitive JCPenney BOGO commercial that referred to its existence.
The holiday was adopted by the UN in 1975, but I didn’t know it existed until 2018.
Get ready, because I’m about to go on a light tirade.
I know the U.S. recognizes Women’s History Month in March, and that naturally includes International Women’s Day (on March 8th), but it still feels a little strange that the U.S.—as progressive and worldly as we claim to be—doesn’t participate in an international holiday. Sure, we have a whole month to formally celebrate women’s history, but acknowledgment of the celebratory month was pretty low key during my formative years. I was 17 when I found out March was dedicated to women’s history, which meant that for nearly two decades the national celebration wasn’t readily mentioned in school, my neighborhood, or on television. Black History Month, however, was always acknowledged, and I can’t help but wonder why Women’s History Month didn’t get the same treatment.
The only reason I even found out it existed was thanks to a 3-minute infomercial on Disney Jr.
However, I grew up in the ‘00s and ‘10s, and things are a little different now. Like I said, I learned about Women’s History Month on Disney Jr., a channel meant for 5-year-olds, which suggests that the children of the future will grow up knowing what I didn’t. Further still, seeing the sorts of homework my kid brother brings home—homework that acknowledges the contributions of women (and minorities btw)—proves that the curriculum taught in school as of 2018 is not the exact same one I grew up in. It’s changing for the better (at least when it comes to more frequently mentioning society’s non-white male badasses) and I’ve got to give the U.S. credit where it’s due.
I still think the U.S. should celebrate International Women’s Day, though. It’s an international holiday, so imagine that for 24 hours (give or take some time zones) billions of people around the world are all acknowledging the importance of women in our history and present-day lives. That’s some cool kumbaya “global village” shit, right?
Right, but what does this have to do with Qatar?
Well, coincidentally, I wasn’t in Qatar for International Women’s Day (I was in Greece, another country that didn’t celebrate it as of 2018). However, when I returned to Qatar, I learned what sort of gestures were given to my female friends and faculty. They were simple gifts like a potted plant, fresh baked cookies, Krispie Kreme donuts, or treating them to lunch.
And I was like, whoa, really? You got gifts just for being a chick?
But then that’s the thing, it genuinely didn’t feel like it was about the gifts. It didn’t feel like the chocolate, flower, or toy industry was pushing the idea that forking over gifts for the women in your life was a necessary responsibility. The gifts that were given and the gestures that were made, didn’t seem obligatory or commercialized, they just seemed . . . nice. It was nice to think that there were people, men especially, who acknowledged that there were women in their life that they valued—be it their mother, sister, friend, daughter, or coworker—and that they wanted to do something to express that appreciation.
International Women’s Day just felt different compared to the way the U.S. celebrates Women’s History Month. In the U.S., it’s inherently about women’s history and it understandably focuses on heavy hitters, the women—dead or alive—who make big social, political, or scientific contributions. It feels like in order to receive appreciation for being a woman you have to be a woman who does something that the majority of people agree is significant.
So, to be a woman who just has to put others before herself, or just has to be eternally patient, a woman who just takes care of others, thinks for others, plan for others, and somehow manages to take care of herself while also being a wife, mother, daughter, and/or full-time breadwinner doesn’t receive the same appreciation as “first woman in space”.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shitting on Valentina Tereshkova or Stephanie Kurlow or Ella Fitzgerald, but I am saying that the normal, everyday women in your life are worth just as much acknowledgment. In that regard, I feel as though the U.S.’s celebration of Women’s History Month is hollow compared to the way Qatar approached International Women’s Day. It feels as though the U.S. barely scrapes the surface when it comes to the idea of appreciating women, especially having that there’s still a whole lot of disrespect, endangerment, and questionable legal actions going on that actively work against women.
All I’m saying is that a small gesture like a desk succulent is worth more than a celebratory month when the person celebrating you is being both deliberate and genuine.
As much as I appreciated the way women were considered in Qatar, though, it wasn’t exactly a woman’s paradise either. In addition to the awesomeness I observed, there were definitely some things I learned that didn’t sit well with me.
So, let’s go through a mini fact sheet.
Here’s some fun facts:
Qatar was the first Arab country in the Persian Gulf to give women the right to vote and they received it the same time as men (the first elections were held on International Women’s Day in 1999).
51% of the workforce in Qatar is women, which is not only the highest rate in the Arab states, but it’s also higher than the world average.
Qatar’s first university (Qatar University) opened in 1973. Out of 157 initial students, 103 were female.
Some notable Qatari females to look out for include: Sheikha Moza bint Nasser (Chair of the Qatar Foundation), Alya bint Ahmed Al Thani (Permanent Representative of Qatar to the United Nations), Hessa Al Jaber (the first ever Minister of Information and Communications Technology), and the entire Women’s National Rifle Team (yes, girls shooting guns).
And some not-so-fun facts:
Both Qatari and non-Qatari women are affected by the wage gap. They are paid 25% to 50% less than men.
A woman who consents to an abortion—or induces her own abortion—can serve up to five years' in prison (however, abortions performed to protect the life of the mother/prevent the birth of a sick child are totally legal).
Want to hear a story? During the (terribly triggering) medical exam all us exchange students had to endure, there was a woman who was reluctant to take the x-ray because she thought she may have been pregnant. When this was announced, the air in the room seemed to slow and everyone had this vibe of “keep calm and carry on”, implying that there was something to be concerned about otherwise. They called up the woman’s husband, he came to the hospital, they learned she wasn’t pregnant, and that was that, no biggie. Until I learned that if she had been pregnant and if she hadn’t have been married, it would have definitely been a biggie.
That said, having a child out of wedlock is illegal. Hospitals will ask for marriage certificates when treating pregnant women and if you aren’t married, it’s possible you will be detained and possibly deported.
If a Qatari woman has children with a non-Qatari man, those children would not be considered Qatari citizens (regardless of whether the couple is married).
A lot of the issues in Qatar—like the wage gap, abortion, and the disproportionate representation of women in governing positions—are global issues (and were all notably hot topics when I left the U.S. in 2018). That in mind, they aren’t exactly issues I can pin on Qatar alone, you feel me?
Then when it comes to women and education, though there’s been an incredibly high graduation rate amongst women since the 70s, it’s in part due to a cultural inclination to keep close to home. As in to say, its more likely for male students to attend universities abroad whereas female students tend to study in their home country. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind when looking at outrageously awesome statistics Qatar has about women’s education.
Overall, equality is the name of the game
Me and the Emir at the mall . . . more or less
Stories of catcalling, acid throwing, dismissed assault claims, and strict rules about everyday things like clothing and driving are the sorts of stories about women in the Middle East that make their way into the American consciousness. But what if instead we more often heard stories like this:
At a female empowerment panel held at VCUQ, a college educated, entrepreneurial woman—who couldn’t have been older than 40-something—told us about the moment she realized her mother was illiterate. The story was powerful, and it made me think about how just one generation later the problem her mother had was not only remedied, but education for women had completely skyrocketed. So, even though Qatar had some rules that I’m not a huge fan of, when I hear stories like that I can’t help but see the country as a place that has dished out more help than harm for women.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but Qatar really has done a lot in a little bit of time; they’re quickly moving in the right direction when it comes to women and their genuine acts of progress are what I respect the most. And, despite the myriad of misconceptions and stereotypes about the way women are treated in the Middle East, the truth is that for four months I felt freer and safer as a woman in Qatar than I had ever felt in America.