For the past two years, I’ve been working diligently on a story about the Qatari cultural taboos and traditions that prevent many women here from showing their faces in the media, even if they don’t wear a niqab in every day life. That means refusing to appear in photos or video reports even for positive news stories, or even posting a profile picture on Facebook.
This piece was just published by Chime For Change, which is edited by renowned journalist Mariane Pearl. In it, I explore how this taboo impacts gender equality in the country.
Here’s an excerpt:
The stigma against women appearing in visual media is “a tradition that has no basis either in Islam or in any logic,” said Amal Al-Malki, the only Qatari professor at Education City, a campus run by Qatar Foundation that is home to several American universities. She teaches literature and Islamic feminism and has researched media representations of Arab women.
“Women appear on a daily basis and work. So what’s the problem with them appearing on camera and recording that for history?” she said. “Sometimes it’s a mental obstacle because we belong to a culture that is patriarchal and that looks at women as jewels that need to be protected.”
Indeed the dozens of Qatari women and men I interviewed for this article said the taboo against visual representations of women does not stem from religion. Only fundamentalists would believe Islam prohibits television or photography, they said. Furthermore, Islam does not require women to cover their faces. Rather, as my interviewees explained to me, this particular taboo is a cultural relic from the country’s tribal past.
“How can I harm you if I don’t know your face?” Qatar University engineering student Mohammed Abdulla, 22, asked me rhetorically. “When I want to smash a man, I don’t go to him. I go to his relatives. Who’s the weakest relative? Of course it is women. Not all men think like that, but [keeping women out of photos or on TV] helps us keep problems under control.”
Ali Mohammad Karami, 23, is a finance graduate from Qatar University. He says he doesn’t think someone would try to physically harm a woman that he saw in a photograph or on TV. Rather, the taboo exists to protect families from gossip and teasing.
“If a man sees a woman in a photo and sees she is beautiful, he may make some noise and talk about her, or say bad things about her. That can get back to the family,” he said.
“A reputation of a family and of the men is really important because it can be damaged so quickly,” said Hayfaa Al Marri, 29, a professional Qatari women of Bedouin ancestry. “And women hold the key to that honor.”
Read the full piece here.