This study abroad program we had the unique opportunity to see two very different countries in the Arab world. The first was that of Qatar—a newly booming nation state driven by financial success and its vast recourses in natural gas. Qatar, before the recent discovery and capitalization of oil and natural gas reserves, was as insignificant on a global spectrum as is its geographical size. The second country visited was Egypt—a multi-thousand year old nation rich in history and cultural but lacking in financial recourses, especially in a per-capita comparison to Qatar.
For my group’s final project we decided to look at the role of women in both Qatar and Egypt. We attempted to see if there were any comparisons or differences between these roles, and how women lived in these societies as wholes
In order to understand these specific roles, we must first look at citizenship within the two countries on a holistic level. Thus, in this article, through looking at citizenship in the informal and formal lenses, I will outline how Qatari citizenship is exclusive and the Egyptian citizenship is inclusive. From there, I will attempt to uncover women’s roles in these two nations.
It is true that both nations strive to become more successful from an economical and cultural perspective, but such citizenship in Qatar is limited to a few whereas in Egypt it is shared by all. The role of women in these two nations parallels the individual citizenries. In Qatar, the role of the female Qatari citizen is esoteric— barely approachable to the outsider, especially the male one. For the mere Qatari female resident (i.e. not citizen), women are bound to the working world, unable to become culturally ingrained due to the bars of formal and informal citizenship. In Egypt, as citizenship is more universal, the role of women tends to be an active one, involved in the many different aspects of Egyptian life but still bounded by a patriarchal society. Both in Egypt and in Qatar—though to different extents—women are dominated by the wills of a patriarchal society
Upon driving away from the arrivals terminal at Doha International Airport—the new technology advanced hub of Qatar Airways—one takes a glimpse at the vast skyline of ever heightening office, residential, and shopping buildings. Visible on each building are the signs of the company or family name that financed the building i.e. Dolphin Energy, Al Fardan Towers etc. Seemingly mysterious men wearing white thowbes and khaffeyas drive in their luxury sports cars, sedans, and SUVs. At the same time, men dressed in western clothing presumably from India, Pakistan, and South East Asia tend to the streets cleaning up the messes left behind. When one walks into a store in Qatar, one will never find a Qatari behind the counter, even if it is a high-end department store, of which there are plenty. There is an ingrained separation between the elite and everyone else marked only by Qatari citizenship.
Citizenship in Qatar was granted to those families who were literally on the right side of the dessert when it became an independent nation state in early 20th century. Attaining Qatari citizenship is only possible if either a women marries a Qatari man or if one is born to Qatari parents. Women, unlike men, cannot extend citizenship through marriage. With Qatari citizenship comes many benefits including but not limited to: better access to jobs, schools, and financial capital. But the more important issue is: What rights do non-citizens not have? Non-Qatari citizens living in Qatar can be deported at any time for almost any reason. In addition, these non-Qatari citizens will never have the right to vote. Qatar, citizens and non-citizens alike, is home to 1.5 million people with only 20% having full citizenship.
` Many people are born into Qatar, living their entire lives there, and never have the ability to attain Qatari citizenship. Upon meeting students at Qatar University, especially the Arab ones, this idea of long-term residency became more commonplace. Yet, the majority of people I met never seemed to be particularly worried about being deported. By keeping a low profile and staying out of the sights of the authorities, they assuage their worries about being deported.
The Southeast Asian and greater Indian population seemed to be more temporary. Usually, these emigrants were on short-term contracts expiring within a few years. The majority of them worked on construction jobs, or in various shopping outlets across Doha. Even more so then the well-established families, like the Arab students at the university, these workers must remain completely out of government’s watch.
The role of women in Qatari society seems to be more separated than that of the role of citizenry as a whole. Female Qatari citizens, for the most part, live a much different life than those of non-Qatari citizens. Being a male, exploring the intricacies of female Qatari citizens is near impossible. This is due to strong societal implementations of Islamic Law. The majority of my information gained was from perceptions of females by males, and an unusual encounter with a British- Qatari mother who gained citizenship through marriage to a Qatari
Due to the luck and kindness of some of my colleagues I found myself at dinner with Mrs. Ali Al-Humadi, the British wife of a Qatari who had fully emigrated to the United States some years ago. She told me her life story of having to give up work in London as an executive at a cigarette company. When she got married to her husband, Ali Alhumadi, she told me how she had to give every facet of her British life up, most importantly (at the time) her carrier. Coming to Qatar, she found herself managing the household, abiding by the cultural norms of female domesticity. This is not to say adopting Qatari citizenship was a negative experience for her, but it did in fact change her role in society.
The conversations and experiences I had with Qatari men cemented the esotericism of female Qatari citizenry. A group of Qatari students from Qatar Foundation, a conglomerate of American university branch campuses in Doha, invited us over to a Qatari majlis (a Arab-style living room). The room was full of only men save the seven girls who were in our group. I asked one of the Qatari students if women ever come over to the majlis as bi-gender socializing is common practice in the United States. He told me that women never come to the majlis, rather they associate with only fellow females in their own designated spaces. Through dinner the conversation progressed into the discussing the roles of Qatari women in society. Hamid, one of the Qatari students, proclaimed that women are not as responsible as men, citing his beliefs that men alone have the mental capacity of managing a business. His perceptions of women were not those of degradation, rather he solely thought women were different and their role was best kept managing the household or taking part in decorating jobs—stereotypical gender roles attributed to women.
Between the conversation with the British-Qatari women and the Qatari students, female gender roles seemed to represent the esotericism of Qatari society. Women by means of societal pressures are expected to separate themselves completely from society, in the social, academic, and working lenses. Their lifestyle is reserved not only to the Qatari population as whole, but more specifically their fellow females and respective families. Rarely would one see a Qatari women socializing in mixed gender groups or entertaining a carrier.
One exception to this parallel is the role of women in education. Though for the most part, save for Qatar foundation, education is single-sexual, Qatari women are graduating from top Qatari universities with degrees in a wide variety of subjects. This could be an indicator that women are going to break gender norms in the future. Yet, such events are yet to be manifested and one can only merely surmise that the role of females in Qatar is changing.
Egypt, a country of over 80 million citizens, is rich in history yet very poor financially. Citizenship is much more universal in Egypt than it is in Qatar. A wide variety of religious and geographical identities make up the Egyptian citizenry. For example, 10% of the population is Coptic Christian (the other 90% being Muslim). In addition, there is a great population that associates with the Nubian identity as opposed to the Arab one. Thus, Egypt is the melting pot where the Middle East mixes with Central and Southern Africa.
Though there are some specifics requirements to obtaining citizenship in Egypt, the process is neither as exclusive nor as difficult as it is in Qatar. Thus, inequalities are not present in the formal citizenship lens. There is no disparity between citizens and non-citizens because, for the majority of people (save Somali and Palestinian refugees) citizenship can be easily attained.
In Egypt our group surmised that though the social expectation of female subordination and a patriarchal society exist, such factors do not inhibit the lives of women nearly to the extent as they do in Qatar. Though the intentions are not necessarily intentionally degrading nor subjugating, cultural and religious pressures limit female citizenry in Egypt.
In a conversation we had with Aamil, our Arabic teacher, she outlined the role of the female in Egyptian society. She told us of her experience growing up as a female in a Muslim household. Though she is Muslim, she claimed that her experience was similar to those of women growing up in Coptic households. Her life at home tended to be a very protective one. The males in her family (her brothers and father) had the role of safeguarding her. This role meant that they escorted her on social outings and were certainly present during any interactions with potential boyfriends. In addition to this, they insured that she be back by 9 pm every evening. Aamil told me she enjoyed such protection and care. Even though her liberty of doing whatever she wanted was limited, her freedom from danger never waivered.
In a separate conversation I had with her alone, she told me that women, via societal pressures, are not allowed to smoke or drink. I asked her if she felt that this was imposing and she, to my surprise, asked me if women should be embarking in such endeavors. In Arabic she asked me “are these things good for you?” I countered her response by asking should women have the choice to do these things, in which she responded that such activities are not healthy, thus there is no reason for one to take part in them.
One extreme contradiction to the Qatari world was the amount of women in the working world in Egypt. From my conversations with Aamil and observations of society during my stay at Egypt, I concluded that though there are more men in the working world then women, the latter group still has a wide variety of employment opportunities. Just alone in the American University Dormitory, women accounted for at least 25% of the security force. In addition, many women found positions as baristas, waiters, and other blue-collar jobs of the sorts—jobs that would never be taken up by the female Qatari citizenry.
During my stays in both Qatar and Egypt, I along with my entire group concluded that the female citizenry of both countries is dominated by a patriarchal society just to different extents, Qatar’s being the more extreme of the two. Being responsible observers, we must uncover the reason behind such a discrepancy. I believe the reasons for a stricter patriarchal society in Qatar when compared to to that of Egypt is due to the lack of, until recently, globalization and influx of external cultures. In addition to this, Qatar is substantially wealthier than Egypt, warranting gender roles (as the male the breadwinner and the female the family caretaker) to be unchanged, as the financial incentive is not present.