Certainly, on a global scale the Gulf countries have a long way to go towards achieving true equality of the sexes. But compared to many of its neighbors, Qatar is one of the most liberal countries in the region.
In fact, in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Index Qatar was ranked first among all Arab countries. It was also ranked among top Arab countries for women’s rights in studies conducted by The Thomas Reuters Foundation and the United Nations.
In 1999 Qatar became the first Arab country in the Gulf to allow women the right to vote. Together with their male peers who were enfranchised at the same time, Qatari women, who made up as much as 45% of the vote, participated in the country’s first election on International Women’s Day in March, 1999.
Women also won the right to run for office and initially 6 women ran, though none of them were able to gain enough votes to succeed at that time. Instead it was in 2003 that Sheikha Yousuf Hasan Al Jufairi became the first woman in the GCC to ever win a municipal election. Since then women have taken positions in several key posts such as the ambassador to the United Nations, the Minister of Education and Health, General Authority for Museums, and as Presidents of Qatar University and SCFA.
Such political power for women in Qatar has paved the way for improvements in gender equality across all levels of civilian life. Unlike their counterparts in neighboring countries, women in Qatar are allowed to drive. They also have the right to own land and property, control their income and assets, and enter into business and economic contracts.
Qatari law recognizes women as full and equal persons and permits them to represent themselves in court proceedings. In fact, Qatar appointed its first female judge in 2010. Since then women have gained the right to two-months paid maternity leave, and one hour off work a day for one year for the purposes of breastfeeding. In 2011 Qatar also passed its first anti-trafficking law which was designed to protect vulnerable populations including women, children, and migrant workers.
But perhaps the most progress for women in Qatar has come in the education sector. Qatar has a higher proportion of female students than anywhere else on the planet. In fact, female university students in the country outnumber men almost 2 to 1. Women also make up 70% of all Qatari graduates and as they enter the workforce in increasing numbers they are poised to play a key role in the country’s economic future.
Qatar further boasts the highest percentage of women in the workforce out of all of the Gulf states at 51.8%. Though traditionally women in Qatar have predominantly pursued careers in education, the social sciences, and the public sector, more and more are breaking into information systems, computer science, engineering, and business.
Though there are indeed many ways in which women’s rights and gender relations can be improved in Qatar, the country’s relatively liberal policies towards women in comparison to its neighboring Gulf states should certainly warrant international attention. For a country that still remains privately pious and conservative, it has nevertheless succeeded in negotiating ways to bring a proudly Muslim-majority society forward into the 21st century.