There is no doubt that the participation of Qatari women in the country’s first Shura Council elections – scheduled to take place on Saturday, October 2 – in the country is a healthy phenomenon for the state. Full suffrage to Qatari women comes after longstanding efforts by the ruling authorities to encourage women’s participation in all areas of political life, including the nation’s cabinet. Their participation in the election is the culmination of decades of encouragement to take part in the professional and academic sectors in the country, inspired by a top-down push for reform to encourage gender equality and equal access to professional and academic opportunities. The increased involvement of women in the education and public sector has improved their impact on societal issues and led to greater participation in government and politics.
It is likely that Qatar’s first popularly elected Shura Council will contain several women. As of this writing, there are 30 out of 294 candidates are women, nearly 10 percent, which is a relatively good number for a country taking the first steps into participation in government and encouraging women to be involved in public affairs.
Women Candidates, But No Quotas
The relatively high number of women among the candidates is a positive result, and it has helped to allay concerns that women would suffer under legal gender-blindness when it comes to voting rights. Unlike the many other Arab states that set aside parliamentary seats for women, Qatar has not dedicated a quota to ensure women’s representation, trusting that Qatari voters – men and women alike – would see the wisdom of electing them on their own merits. The fact that 30 female candidates are running, determined to be involved in public affairs despite patriarchal hostility and a lack of reserved seats, is an encouraging sign for Qatar’s future.
While the country encourages political and social equality between men and women, there is no denying that inequality stems from social and private norms in the country. The 30 female candidates are fully aware that their race will be full of challenges, faced by them alone because of the double standards that tie women more than men to many traditions and customs deeply entrenched in the community. On the other side, many members of the Qatari community are utilizing a different double standard: judging these women with stereotypes and arbitrary, fabricated judgments and undermining their academic and professional achievements, assuming that their accomplishments must be smaller because they are women.
A distinction should be made here: it could be argued that electing women solely because they are women, in order to increase women’s participation in government, would be a positive result for Qatar – and, moreover, would help to bolster its image internationally. However, this can be disputed. What cannot is the notion that the right candidate should be selected, without regard to gender, because he or she could best perform the duties of a member of the Shura Council for the benefit of the state.
Women’s Success and Limitations in Qatar
Since Qatar’s 1971 independence, women have made incredible strides in both the academic and professional sectors, despite living in a highly patriarchal society. Thus, in the election, it is time to give reason more power than societal norms. To do so, Qatar should get over societal customs that limit women’s roles and involvement in politics and public affairs, despite an official policy of encouraging women’s involvement. These societal norms are linked to society only; they have no association with either the state policy or with Islam. Therefore, only education in society can resolve this dilemma, and the tool for that is changing the perceptions of Qatari men about the importance of women’s presence in public sectors. Unfortunately, it is widely acknowledged that norms run deeper than laws in Gulf societies. Therefore, a more meaningful change within the Qatari community is needed to achieve a gradual growth of women’s participation and move a conservative society to a place where most accept education about a woman’s role in politics and different societal roles.
Another aspect is women’s participation and leadership in forming state policies. This is a challenge because Qatar still has a predominately male presence working in government decision-making circles. This election could help to rectify that, and for the good of Qatar, it is hoped that the presence of women will be increased within decision-making positions.
Qatari women have accumulated qualifications in different sectors and are more than capable of taking these roles and ending the gap. Before the election, Qatari women who were appointed to the Shura Council in 2017 and other women appointed to other leadership positions have proved their ability to carry out the tasks required of political leaders despite all challenges. Probably these appointments are what encouraged women to run in these elections despite societal taboos and patriarchal community stereotypes. Yet even with that, women’s chances to get an appointment in decision-making positions is still low and our government is overwhelmingly held by a majority of men.
Currently, there is a “pre-democratic” climate in the country, simply because it is going through a major shift in its government style, in which citizens are taking part in the first electoral process without any regard to gender whatsoever – neither laws whether against their participation nor quotas guaranteeing it. This is an indication that Qatari women have equal opportunity and can achieve that beyond elections and in all sectors, whether appointments, government positions, or positions of decision making despite the norms that limit their participation.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum,