Before I began this program, I already knew that I would want to focus on women’s rights in Arab and Muslim countries and how their citizenship was affected by their gender. As soon as we arrived to the Gulf, I began researching the experiences of women through numerous interviews.
Our first two weeks in Doha, were filled with adventure and irreplaceable learning experiences as we visited numerous majlises and got a first hand look at a day in the life of Qatari males.
However, I was yearning to know what the other side experienced. Women are so coveted and hidden within the public sphere of Qatar. It is almost as if they are the most beautiful pearl encased in an impenetrable shell made of diamonds. Walking through the luxuriously built malls in Doha, I would always see women walking around in all black abayyas and niqabs. It is such a mysterious guise and always left me wondering about the woman beneath it all.
Luckily, my last night in Doha gave me so much insight into the lives of young Qatari women. We met with a group of beautiful young women for a girls’ night at one of their homes. I was finally able to gain the perspective of educated young women in Qatar. However, I received two contradicting lifestyles when talking to these women.
One of the girls, Leila, was telling me about how she planned on studying abroad in the United States to study film and media communications. She was very determined and knew what she wanted to do with her life.
“Not many women get to travel abroad for their studies,” she told me. This was a privilege for men. However, her family was willing to allow her to gain an educational experience way from home.
In contrast to Leila, I met another young girl that night, Amira, who was only 23 years old. She was married with a two-year-old son. The sharp differences between the two struck me. I could not fathom being settled down with a family at the ripe age of 23. Yet, Amira was content with her life. She had a husband who treated her like a queen and a family that she would die for. In her opinion, her life was complete.
It became clear to me during my stay in Doha that young Qatari women were treated with such care and love by their family members and friends. Their lives seemed perfect.
Behind this illusion of luxury, the status of women as Qatari citizens was flawed in my opinion. Women in Qatar are lacking both formal and informal rights as citizens. Sarah, a wonderful half Qatari and English woman, told me a lot about this inequality of rights. She told me that Qatari men are granted a piece of land in Qatar to build a home on for their prospective families. Women are not afforded this same right. It is assumed that they must depend on their husbands and fathers financially. Also, men receive 90,000 Qatari riyals for unemployment. Women are not expected to work outside the home. Therefore, they receive no sort of compensation for their unemployment. Also, despite the fact that women make up approximately 75% of the student population in Qatari universities, they are unable to find sustainable jobs with high pay. Women were typically limited in the workplace to jobs as secretaries, assistants, or some sort of job in academics. I was plagued by the limited mobility of women in the professional world of Qatar.
Sarah also told me about how pertinent it is for Qatari women to marry Qatari men. Women risk losing their Qatari citizenship when marrying non-Qataris. Also, their children would not be recognized as Qatari citizens. I never realized until then just how much influence patriarchy and culture had on the future and lives of women in Qatar.
These interviews and interactions with Qatari women allowed me to gather a lot of useful information about the true experiences of Qatari women and their personal sentiments concerning their rights for my final presentation.
“If Morsi wins as president of Egypt, women will have no rights! They will not be able to work or drive cars! The government will force them all to wear hijabs,” exclaimed Ahmed, a taxi driver taking me home for the evening.
Egypt’s atmosphere was thick and suffocating with anxiety over the elections. The two presidential candidates caused unease and fear amongst every Egyptian that I have met. Many feared Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt as an Islamist state was far from what many Egyptians wanted, and some believed that Mohamed Morsi would enforce strict Islamist laws on all Egyptians, inhibiting their rights as citizens.
Women’s formal rights as citizens seemed unaffected by this turmoil. They were granted the same rights as men and had an equal voice in the future of their nation.
“I will vote for Mohamed Morsi. I cannot let someone from Mubarak’s regime become the president of Egypt. Shafik will just be another Mubarak if he becomes president,” said our Arabic teacher, Amina.
Amina made it very clear that women played an equal role in the revolution of 2011, and they have a prominent political voice.
Unlike Qatar, women were very prominent in both the public and private sphere of Egypt. According to Amina, they also had a higher chance of finding employment in comparison to men. Women in Egypt are more likely to work for lesser salaries than men, and women are less likely to ask for a raise or for more money from their employers. Although women are more likely to get jobs, these jobs are have low pay and no benefits. Men receive more benefits and pay when they work because they must make enough money to provide for their families. However, women are expected to work inside their homes as the caretaker of their family. Clearly, patriarchy is very present in Egypt even though Egyptian women have more rights than Qatari women.
Duke in the Arab World was a very enriching experience that opened my eyes to the complexities of citizenship. The patriarchy of both Egypt and Qatar is rooted in Islam. Being a Muslim woman, I never truly understood how many used Islam to inhibit the rights and status of women as citizens in both the public and private sphere. Although I do not agree with the cultural implications of Islam on the rights of women, I was able to gain great insight on the matter from speaking with women about why they feel that their main role is to be the caretaker of the family. This experience was so enlightening in both Doha and Cairo. I gained an inside look at what it means to be El Sha’ab in the Arab world. I will never fully understand the experience of citizens in both Qatar and Egypt. However, the one thing that has resonated with me is that citizenship is about more than just holding a passport. It is ingrained in the political and social rights of the individual.