The issue of women’s rights in the Muslim world has been a contentious area of discussion and intense debates. In the West, Muslim women have long been unfairly stereotyped as weak, obedient, and passive to the men in their lives. And the Gulf women are not excluded from this narrative. However, the Gulf countries have been witnessing rapid changes in the social, economic, and political framework over the past decades, and women’s empowerment is a crucial point of the ‘national vision’ initiatives. In order to get closer to the reality of the Gulf, we had the pleasure of meeting Sheikha Ali Al-Marri and talking about the case of Qatar. Sheikha Ali Al-Marri is a student at the Queen Mary University of London and a member of the Youth Advisory Committee.
- What do you think is the most common negative stereotype about Gulf women?
Most people think that Gulf women are oppressed, arrogant, stupid, and slaves of men, and that their society doesn’t value them enough. Most Europeans and individuals from other cultures who criticize Gulf women have never been to the Gulf or met Gulf women. As a woman from the Gulf, I can say that Arab and Muslim people in my region look at both men and women differently. When we talk about women in particular, we look at scientific facts and data supported by the holy Quran, which is a scientific holy book that covers all aspects of life (political, social, economic etc). And I think that being different shouldn’t result in underestimating others. Instead, it should reinforce understanding and tolerance. And I think here is where negative stereotypes come from, “being different”.
Allow me to elaborate about Islamic laws that shape women’s lives in particular, as it is known that the Islamic doctrine is the backbone of Gulf countries’ laws. Thus, Islamic law gave women inheritance, property, social, and marriage rights. This included the right to reject a proposal and start a divorce. In the early days of Islam, women had jobs and owned property, just like many do today. Even though the right of women to start a divorce is harder than it should be in some countries today, this is because of patriarchal laws and not because of Islamic values. The prophet Muhammad often told Muslim men to take good care of their wives and daughters. He said to them, “You have rights over your women, and your women have rights over you.” Islam emphasizes education for men and women intellectually. The Holy Prophet (SAW)* said: ‘It is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge’ (Ibn Majah). Islam offered women education rights 1500 years ago. Cambridge University did not allow women to take examinations until 1886 and to get degrees until 1948. Oxford allowed women in, in 1920. Women in Islam are exempt from all financial liabilities. And as a wife, a woman has the right to ask her future husband for a good dowry that will be hers. She is entitled to have everything she needs taken care of by her husband. She doesn’t have to work or help pay for the family with her husband. She is free to keep everything she had before she got married, and her husband has no right to any of her things. And as a daughter or sister, she is entitled to security and care from the father and brother, respectively. She has the right to do that. She is free to work or support herself and help with family responsibilities if she wants to, as long as her honour and integrity are kept safe. Thus, women’s wellbeing in Islam is a priority through providing her a safe and secure environment. So, any behaviour that contradicts Islamic laws as briefly illustrated, then only represents individualistic and ideologist approaches.
* The acronym SAW stands for “Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam” in translation “May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him”. It is an act of worship usually expressed by the Muslims when Muhammad’s name is mentioned and it is also part of their five times daily prayers.
- What are the main challenges and opportunities for women in Qatar and what objectives of the Qatar National Vision (QNV) 2030 have been achieved so far?
Challenges for women in Qatar concern some of the cultural assumptions that often expects them to stay at home and raise children. This is in direct opposition to Islamic law, which mandates that women play an active role in their communities as it is part of familial service and it can’t be separated. And even though they can provide for their families and their communities, women in Qatar are generally limited to holding only one job at home isolated from the community. An integral part of a woman’s unique skills is the capacity to serve as a role model in the actual world through her community service that inspires future generations. Regarding the opportunities, the Qatari government provides jobs for women with equal salaries to men as Islamic law granted them. And opportunities to best represent themselves and their country locally and internationally.
With respect to QNV 2030, social development is one objective and I can consider it as an achieved one. It encompasses a system dedicated to social welfare and protection for all citizens and to bolstering women’s role in society and empowering them to be active community members. Social advancement also means equal educational, employment and career opportunities for all citizens, regardless of their background or gender and a tolerant and fair society that embraces Islam’s values of peace, welfare, justice and community.
- How does the local population respond to the emerging reformist trend in the Gulf countries? In your opinion, does women’s empowerment challenge traditional values and culture?
I think governments policies influence local behaviours, thus reshape their traditions. I believe women’s empowerment indeed challenge traditional values and culture especially if it lacks Islamic law support. And I’m glad that women gradually can be empowered as granted by Islamic laws and values that were buried because of illogical traditions and wrongly attributed to Islam, and are now making a comeback and giving women the independence they deserve.
- Is there a Qatari woman that you consider a source of inspiration for your future? How has she inspired you?
Yes, in Qatar, I get motivation from my mother, Mubaraka Al-Marri, and from Lolwa Al-Khater. My mom wasn’t just a stay-at-home mom who doted on us and taught us right from wrong; she was also a pillar of the community and an outspoken champion of social justice causes. She uses her position as an author and academic to advocate for social justice and fight corruption on a local and worldwide scale.
A political personality, Lolwa Al-Khater uses her platform to promote and defend the Islamic Arab worldview. Not to change who she is to fit in with other cultures is admirable. She uses Twitter to promote human rights and is widely regarded as being accessible to citizens, an unusual trait for a political person in Qatar, where most officials prefer to keep a low profile, which in my opinion doesn’t serve the social influence.
Sheikha Ali Al-Marri, student at the Queen Mary University of London and member of the Youth Advisory Committee.
*Jessica Pulsone was a WIIS Italy mentee in 2021.