Muslims around the world are celebrating the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all able-bodied Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetime if they are able to afford it. Since I have traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and am now a university instructor in Doha, Qatar, I wanted to honor this holy Islamic tradition by focusing my posts this week on Arab and Muslim women, particularly those in the Gulf.
Contrary to the popular belief, Khaleeji women are not universally and uncategorically “oppressed.” In fact, there are many women in the Gulf who are leaders of their communities and are pushing the envelope.
In Qatar, the former first lady Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and her daughter Sheikha Al Mayassa spring to mind. Since she and her husband rose to power in 1995, Sheikha Moza has tried to advance women’s status and the country’s education system. She founded the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to enhance education and academic research and which has persuaded several elite American and European universities to set up campuses in the country (including the one I work for). I’ve spoken to many female students at QF’s Education City campus and at the public Qatar University, and many of them cited her as their inspiration for wanting to pursue a career after graduation. One QU student even told me that it doesn’t matter what her future husband may think or want, she will pursue her dreams no matter what.
This year, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (Sheikha Moza’s husband) stepped down as emir and their son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, took over. But though she may no longer be the first lady, Sheikha Moza is still running QF and will probably continue to play a strong role in the country. Meanwhile, her daughter is rising to fame. Forbes named Sheikha Al Mayassa one of the most powerful women in the world and some pundits say she is revolutionizing the country’s art scene.
There are many other ambitious Qatari women, and I will highlight some of them later this week. But the point is, Qatar is not a sexist backwater. Yes, when it comes to women’s rights in the country, there is definitely much room for improvement, just like in every nation on the planet. But in terms of gender equality, Qatar fares better than some other GCC countries. Here, Qatari women can drive, vote and run for municipal council elections, and they do not need permission from a male guardian to get a passport and travel abroad (at least, in theory). Of course, they still face discrimination on many fronts, which I will address in later posts, but things appear to be changing for the better. The government has stated multiple times that it is committed to improving women’s economic development. Increasing women’s workforce participation is even listed as one of the Qatar National Development Strategy and Qatar 2030 National Vision’s top goals.
This last point is important because Qatari women continue to lag behind men when it comes to employment. But they are not alone. This is the case for every GCC country. I recently wrote about this issue in an article for Al Fanar, a news site that covers higher education in the Middle East. Here’s my story: Women In the Gulf: Better Educated But Less Employed.
Some surprising statistics I highlight in the story:
- Women in Saudi Arabia make up 57% of the country’s university graduates, but just 17% of female nationals work. In fact, 78.3% of unemployed women in Saudi Arabia are university graduates. That’s a ridiculously high number!
- Only 28% of female nationals work in the United Arab Emirates. And just like in Saudi, unemployed Emirati women have higher education levels than their male counterparts.
- Just 25% of women in Oman are employed.
- Only 30% of Bahraini female nationals work.
- Kuwait’s labor force comes closest to having some sort of semblance of gender equality: women constitute 67% of university graduates and 51% of women in Kuwait have jobs.
This disconnect between higher education levels but lower employment rates for women is particularly striking in Qatar. Here, 54% of Qatar’s female nationals enroll in universities compared to only 28% of national men. But just 36% of Qatari women work compared to 63% of Qatari men!
Let me write that again: Qatari women significantly outnumber men at universities. But all that changes once it’s time to find a job. Just 36% of Qatari women are in the workforce. And though they have less education, 63% of Qatari men work.
By the way, these figures are actually an improvement. Apparently only 27% of Qatari women worked in 2001. But now the female participation rate appears to have stagnated at around 36%. The Qatar National Development Strategy 2011-2016 hopes that figure will rise to 42% by 2016. Nevertheless, when it comes to women nationals working, Qatar and most of the GCC countries are below the percentages of other developed, high-income countries.
The reasons for GCC women’s low employment vary. It has a lot to do with cultural and logistical issues, personal choices, the Gulf countries’ very generous welfare systems, wariness of private-sector employment, and well-paying public-sector job options that attract more men and do not require college degrees. You can read all about them in my article.
One regret I have: I know that in this article on GCC women’s employment and education, I interview only one female expert. The irony is not lost on me and I wish I had more time to interview GCC women for this story. But in my defense and to give you some context as to how this story came about: my goal was to write an in-depth piece on education reform in the GCC, not women’s education and employment. I produced two main stories, the first of which is up on Al Fanar titled Gulf Students Say Their Education Needs Improvement. But as I was writing these pieces on deadline, I realized I had gathered so much information that I needed to write two sidebars to go along with them. The gender story was meant to be the sidebar for the piece I just linked to. I pulled all the information for the gender story from the interviews and research I conducted for that main piece on education reform.
But since the gender article is pretty long on its own, the editor decided to make it a stand alone piece, which is great. But FYI, had writing a story on Gulf women’s education and employment been my primary goal for this project, I definitely would have interviewed a ton of other Khaleeji women.
But even that is not a good excuse. The fact is, though I am an ardent feminist, I fell for a common journalistic trap: not interviewing enough diverse sources. I am somewhat comforted by the fact that I am not alone in this pitiful practice of poor gender balance. Female journalists seem just as likely to not include enough women in their pieces – at least that has been Washington Post reporter Adrienne LaFrance’s experience. She reviewed a year’s worth of her reporting and this is what she found:
Over the course of the year I covered all kinds of topics — media, technology, the 2012 election, Hurricane Sandy, the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., the Boston marathon bombing, immigration policy, patent reform, standup comedy, Internet culture, etc., etc.
In all those stories on all those topics, I mentioned 1,566 men and 509 women.
Here’s another way to look at it: 52 of my 136 articles quote no women at all. Zero. And although 63 percent of the articles I wrote mentioned at least one woman — even those articles mentioned more men. Yikes.
In my case, when I was trying to find sources on education reform, I kept getting referred to male experts. I should have tried harder to find more female voices. And in the future I will make sure I don’t make that mistake again. I’m actually working on two pieces right now about Qatari women’s rights and empowerment, and you can rest easy knowing that female interviewees will predominate.
Nevertheless, I think my Al Fanar gender piece is strong. My main expert in both stories, Mounira Jamjoom, is an excellent research specialist in Saudi Arabia who has been covering women’s issues for quite sometime. And the men I interview are either locals or education leaders who have lived in the region for quite a while and understand the cultural challenges facing their female students. And they all support and are committed to advancing women’s education and employment in the Gulf.
Let me conclude by sharing with you some inspiring facts that didn’t make it into the final piece. At Texas A&M University at Qatar, which only offers degrees in engineering, women make up 40% of the student body. That’s more than the number of women enrolled in Texas A&M’s engineering department at the home campus: there, women constitute only 18% of the engineering department’s student body.
And at the American University of Sharjah, women make up 27% of the university’s engineering students – more than I expected. They outnumber the men in every other department. They constitute 52% of students in AUS’ business and management school, 81% in the college of arts and sciences, and 81% in the architecture and design school, according to the statistics I was told by Ali Shuhaimy, the university’s vice chancellor for enrollment management.
At my place of employment, female students also outnumber the boys and I have had the privilege of teaching many talented and impressive women (of course, my male students are awesome, too). I really just love being there and I am honored to be helping educate the next generation of media vanguards and leaders in Qatar.
But more than that, women are rising in the Gulf, and I am honored to be witnessing it first hand.
Main image by Christina Paschyn.