Qatar’s Invisible Women
Category:Chime for Change, Words
Article and the below photos were published by Chime For Change on Dec. 17, 2013.
By Christina Maria Paschyn
At Nando’s restaurant in Doha, capital of Qatar, Hanadi Hassan is about to challenge her entire society by simply stepping in front a TV camera. An utterly banal act in most part of the words that feels here like a defiant, revolutionary deed.
The 26-year-old television presenter sits patiently as a make-up artist gingerly applies foundation and blush to her face, careful not to stain Hassan’s traditional black abaya (cloak) and shayla (headscarf) in the process.
Hassan is only filming a segment on a special pink drink in support of breast cancer awareness month. But she remains a rarity among Qatari women as one of the few pursuing a career as a television personality. In fact, she is one of the few national women whose family allows her to appear on television, have her photo snapped by a newspaper or even post a ‘selfie’ on social media.
“It’s taboo in the society,” Hassan explained, adding that a Qatari woman risks diminishing her marriage prospects and denigrating her family’s reputation if her image is shown even in positive news stories.
“I have a friend who graduated valedictorian from a local college and they told her ‘we’re going to take some photographs and your speech and put it in the newspaper,’ but she couldn’t do that because her family was really strict.”
The story of the female achiever unable to claim the limelight that is her due is not a unique one in Qatar. It is a phenomenon I have witnessed again and again since moving to this conservative Muslim peninsula in the Persian Gulf two-and-a-half years ago. I teach multimedia journalism at Northwestern University’s international campus and I try to instill an appreciation for the power of visuals to educate, inform and change public perception.
At first I watched my students struggling to persuade Qatari women to appear on camera for quick sound bites. I was particularly befuddled as to why women who did not veil their faces on a regular basis were opposed to appearing in a news photograph or video.
But my female Qatari students ended up telling me they would never use the broadcast presentation skills I had been teaching them. Being an on-camera reporter for a class project was no big deal. But their families would never allow them to become professional TV anchors and reporters. Instead, at even the most benign photo opportunity, such as class and graduation group shots, my female students would flee the scene if there was a chance the photo would be sent to the media.
I gave a presentation at a journalism symposium at Qatar University, where the female students in attendance outnumbered the males. But when the university sent me the official photos from the symposium, none of the female students had been photographed. When I questioned the organizer about this decision, he said it was just easier for the photographer to focus on the men because he wouldn’t had needed to ask their permission first. Hence women had simply been erased.
The Big Picture
In many ways, Qatar is an innovative and liberal modern-day Islamic state. Though the country embraces Wahhabi Islam just as Saudi Arabia, women here enjoy more legal freedom. They are allowed to drive. Qatari women can obtain a passport and travel abroad without needing a male guardian’s permission. Qatari women also can vote and run in the municipal council elections. Like elsewhere in the Gulf, women here significantly outnumber men at universities. And a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll recently ranked Qatar fifth best among 22 Arab countries for women’s rights.
Many women attribute the country’s evolving gender expectations to Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the former first lady whose husband, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, abdicated this past June. Their son, Sheikh Tamim, is now the ruling emir, but Sheikha Moza continues to play a strong role in the country. She is often credited with enhancing women’s education and employment opportunities.
Yet despite these advancements, Qatar is still a patriarchal society with a strong conservative streak. Qatari women (not including expat women) may be able to drive, but must get their fathers or husbands to sign off on the license. Theoretically they don’t need a male guardian’s permission to travel abroad, but my students say the law is not applied evenly to all families. Qatari women can’t pass on their citizenship to their children if they marry a non-Qatari man. Many workplaces are gender segregated, female cabinet ministers have been rare and the Central Municipal Council has only one woman among its 29 members. Qatari women may outnumber men at universities, but the reverse is true in the workforce. Only 36% of Qatari women work compared to 63% of Qatari men, according to the Qatar National Development Strategy 2011-2016.
The Rationale Behind the Taboo
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.”
The advertising industry must work around the cultural taboo, too. At the Pearl-Qatar, a luxury retail and residential development, large posters of Qatari women shopping and mingling with friends cover the exteriors of unoccupied retail space. Except, the women are not really Qatari. A spokesperson from the Pearl confirmed that the models used in the images are Arab expatriates dressed up to play the part.
Razan Suliman, a Saudi woman who grew up in Qatar and founded a stock-photo company called Bylens, said she too uses expat women who can pass as Qatari for her models.
A Qatari woman might be interested in posing for a stock photo, Suliman said, but she would still need to get permission from her father and possibly from her brother and uncles as well, though the law does not require her to do so. Even if everyone agrees initially, problems may still occur down the road, like if the model decides to wed and her husband is resentful of her past career.
Hassan is one of only three Qatari women presenting for Qatar TV, the local public television network. The network has been operating since the 1970s. But Hassan and other industry experts say it only began hiring Qatari women in earnest last year in an effort to make QTV presenters more relateable to the local population.
One television producer, who requested anonymity, said he was tasked with finding Qatari women to appear on camera. Though QTV higher-ups were desperate to hire these women, he said they still looked down upon them for wanting to be on TV. “One exec actually told me he thought any woman who wanted to be on air must be a lesbian or divorced or a slut!” he explained.
The stereotype of the female TV presenter as a “loose woman” mixing with strange, unrelated men is what almost prevented Waad Ali, a 27-year-old Qatari-Jordanian fashion designer, from starring in her own QTV series.
“There’s a preconceived notion about presenters that they are not decent, they talk very loudly, are not modest on camera, wear too much make-up, and they portray Qataris wrongly,” she said. She claims that to get her parents to acquiesce, she had to drop her presenter title and re-brand the series as a documentary that followed her business.
Academics I spoke with said this taboo did not always exist and in the early 20th century Qatari women were even willing to pose for photographs taken by Western visitors. But wealth brought by oil might have triggered a conservatism that wasn’t always there. Pushback against globalization and Westernization may also be a contributing factor in reinforcing the stigma.
Whose Choice Is It?
When I questioned young Qatari women about whether the taboo hinders gender equality, many dismissed my concerns. Some said that as long as a woman’s name is written down in an article, her photo doesn’t need to be shown.
The Qatari community makes up only about 15 percent of the country’s 2-million population. It is small enough that the right people will read these articles and word will get around, they said. In other words, she will still get the credit she deserves.
But when I pressed my students further they acknowledged their generation is heavily visually orientated. They admitted they don’t bother to read an article unless the accompanying photo attracts their attention first. They even said a woman could “lose credit” for her work if she isn’t shown in the main picture.
Nevertheless, many of my students said it is ultimately a Qatari woman’s choice not to show her face in the media and they are not necessarily being pressured by their male relatives to stay hidden.
I have personally questioned whether I am over-thinking this taboo or if I am insensitively and unduly trying to impose my Western perspective. If some Qatari women feel satisfied with just having their name printed that is indeed their prerogative.
But not every Qatari woman gets to make that choice for herself.
Rosie Garthwaite is a British woman and former Al Jazeera English reporter who founded Mediadante, a documentary production company in Doha. Two years ago she planned to follow a Qatari businesswoman for a TV series. The woman Garthwaite chose was an adult and legally did not need to get her parent’s permission for the shoot. But the TV station asked the woman to get a letter from her father anyway. She got her parents’ blessing and was ready to shoot. But then one of the woman’s relatives found out about her plans.
“He attacked her and held her under house arrest. Her extended family from Saudi flew over and got involved even though she had never heard much from them at all in the past,” Garthwaite said. The woman dropped out of the production and is now trying to keep a low profile.
I have met several Gulf women who would love to pursue a career in the media but can’t because their families would punish them or force them to quit their jobs. Amira, who asked that her last name not be revealed, is a 24-year-old Yemeni who was born and raised in Qatar. She says in Yemen women face even more restrictions.
“Women there have to wear the face veil from age 12. My brothers are upset I don’t wear one now – imagine if I tried to be on TV!” she explained to me. Amira works for a women’s business organization and is in charge of running workshops and conferences that are often photographed by the media. She says appearing in the media would help advance her career, but her male relatives would never allow her to. “Believe me, if my brother or father say it’s ok, the next day I will be on TV. But I don’t think they will ever change their minds. They are like dinosaurs.”
“By not being in the picture, women endorse that they come second. It’s an acknowledgment of their inferiority, even if they say otherwise,” said Khaled Hroub, a professor at Northwestern University in Qatar who specializes in Middle Eastern studies and Arab media. “It does affect gender equality. It gives the authority implicitly to the male that they should manage this public domain and women.”
“I think the protection theory is just a way to mask men’s sexism – it romanticizes it and makes women accept it more. But really they are trying to stop women from getting into positions of influence and power,” said Sarah Al-Mohannadi, a 21-year-old Northwestern student.
Changes on the Horizon
Many Qatari women continue to avoid the camera, but experts predict this will change significantly in the coming years. In fact, some say the situation has improved already thanks to Sheikha Moza, who appears frequently in the media. More and more young women, locals say, are trying to follow her example.
Surprisingly, Qataris can also look to Saudi Arabia for inspiration. Though Saudi women lack many of the legal freedoms of their Qatari counterparts, local female presenters have been a standard feature on Saudi TV for quite sometime.
“Qatar’s advancement has been very recent. Saudi Arabia has been known since the 1960s, with oil and things and people traveling abroad, said Muna AbuSulayman, a popular TV presenter who says she became the first 100 percent Saudi woman to host an international, non-local TV program 12 years ago.
The fact that Saudi women are ahead in this field may sound unbelievable considering the international fury that erupted over an IKEA decision to airbrush women out of its catalogues for Saudi Arabia last year. But AbuSulayman said this shocked locals too, because women are featured in magazines all the time in the country. Her guess: someone at IKEA was just acting overly cautious.
Mary Ann Tetreault, a recently retired distinguished professor of international affairs at Trinity University, said Kuwaiti women faced a similar taboo in the 1990s and that likewise, it will eventually fade away for Qatari women, too. She surmised that this cultural phenomenon, particularly when brothers try to stop their sisters from appearing on TV or in photographs, probably stems more from sibling rivalry. This is exacerbated by the fact Gulf women are outperforming their brothers at all levels of education.
“There is a degree of resentment by young men, especially of the successes of young women,” she explained. “So this is one of the few ways you can complain about modern female behavior that doesn’t seem as though you are being envious. It seems as though you are protecting the traditions of your society.”
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