Foreign fans descending on Doha for the 2022 World Cup will find a country where women work, hold public office and cruise in their supercars along the city’s palm-lined corniche. They have been driving for decades, unlike Saudi Arabia, where women won the right just a few years ago.

There are ambassadors, judges and ministers of Qatar, even racing jockeys. The Emir’s mother, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, is one of the most famous women in the Arab world. In a region where the wives and mothers of leaders keep a low profile, she behaves like a Western-style first lady – championing social causes and making headlines like a style icon.

Yet the emirate has for years sat near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, which tracks gender gaps in employment, education, health and politics.

It is a traditional society with its roots in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula, from which emerged an ultra-conservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism. Rights groups say Qatar’s legal system, based on Islamic law or Sharia, hampers the advancement of women.

Here’s a look at the situation for women in the tiny emirate which has undergone massive social transformation for a generation when most women stayed close to home.


Qatar’s constitution enshrines equality among citizens. But the US State Department and human rights groups say the Qatari legal system discriminates against women when it comes to their freedom of movement and issues of marriage, child custody and inheritance. Under Sharia, for example, women can inherit property, but daughters receive half as much as sons. Men can easily divorce their wives, while women must go to court from a restricted list of acceptable grounds. Men can marry up to four wives without issue, while women must obtain approval from a male guardian to marry at any age. Under a rarely enforced rule, Qatari women under the age of 25 must also obtain permission from a male guardian to leave the country. Husbands and fathers can forbid wives to travel. Single Qatari women under 30 cannot check into hotels. Single women who become pregnant face prosecution for extramarital sex. There is no government office dedicated to women’s rights.


Last year, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani appointed women to two ministerial posts, bringing the number of female ministers to three, the highest number in Qatar’s history. Prominent Qatari women also hold other high-level positions. The deputy foreign minister has gained prestige as a spokesperson for Qatar’s critical diplomatic efforts in the context of the US military and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Another powerful woman is the younger sister of Sheikh Tamim, head of the Qatar Museums Authority, who has become one of the most popular figures in the international art world. Last year, Sheikh Tamim appointed two women to the country’s Shura Advisory Council. But the parliamentary elections for the 45-member council were a stark testament to the limited role of Qatari women. The candidates did not win any seats.


The laws guarantee the right to equal pay for Qatari women and men. But women do not always receive it. They also struggle to obtain high-level positions in private companies and the public sector, even though more than half of all university graduates are women. No law prohibits gender discrimination in the workplace. Laws prohibit women from jobs broadly defined as dangerous or inappropriate. Women must also seek permission from a male guardian to work in government and specialized institutions. Despite the obstacles, some women have managed to succeed professionally.


Traditional roles in Qatar are enshrined in laws that differentiate the rights and responsibilities of women and men. Wives, for example, are legally responsible for the household and are bound to obey their husbands. They can lose their financial support if they defy their husband’s wishes. Religious and tribal customs mean that conservative families frown on women mingling with unrelated men, even for business. Although women have made significant inroads in recent years, the world of politics and finance remains male-dominated. Islam encourages female modesty, Qatari women usually wear a headscarf and loose cape known as an abaya. Bedouin women are more conservative and some cover their faces with the niqab veil.


John D. Dewell, Sr. | Free Press Standard


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