Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Qatar: For Qatari Educators, Women Are Both the Problem and the Solution

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Qatar: For Qatari Educators, Women Are Both the Problem and the Solution

Article excerpt

QATAR: FOR QATARI EDUCATORS, WOMEN ARE BOTH THE PROBLEM AND THE SOLUTION

BY RICHARD H. CURTISS

Saif Ali M. Al-Kuwari brushes aside compliments on Qatar's remarkable educational progress. "Running the schools for an American city of 600,000 wouldn't seem like a very big problem," he says.

Whatever the truth of that assertion, what Qatar's assistant under-secretary for educational affairs modestly doesn't mention is that there is no American city with the same population as Qatar that had to start an educational program virtually from scratch in 1956. Prior to the opening of a Qatari public school system in that year, there were four boys' schools and one girls' school in the country. Today there are some 35,000 students in Qatar's primary schools, more than 16,000 students in various schools at the secondary level, and nearly 8,000 university students in Qatar. The progression in numbers reveals something else.

Qatar's resident population of no more than 600,000 people, of whom some 20 percent are Qatari nationals and the rest from three dozen countries of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, is growing at a phenomenal rate of 4.8 percent a year. For this reason a country that had only five schools 40 years ago simply cannot turn out enough teachers for its explosively growing student population.

That brings Mr. Al-Kuwari to a paradox. Asked what is Qatar's greatest educational problem, he answers: "The education of women." Asked later in the interview what is Qatar's greatest educational accomplishment, he answers: "The education of women."

The fact that educating women is Qatar's biggest educational problem and biggest accomplishment as well is explained by the nature of Qatari society. Nearly all Qatari nationals are Sunni Muslims of the Muwahidun (unitarian) faith. They are known to other Muslims as "Wahhabis," named after Muhamad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the Saudi reformer who initiated the strictest brand of Islam in the 18th century A.D. and whose alliance with the House of Saud, sealed over generations of intermarriage between the two families, spread the discipline throughout all of Saudi Arabia. Since many Qatari nationals have origins and tribal ties that extend across the Qatari-Saudi border, this extremely conservative school of Islam found a home in Qatar as well.

Nevertheless, there are differences in practice. Most but not all Qatari women cover their faces when they go out in public, as do most Saudi women. But, by contrast with Saudi Arabia, Qatari women drive automobiles. And whereas women in Saudi Arabia who choose careers are expected to work within an all-female environment (women's schools, universities, hospitals and even banks), this is not necessarily the case in Qatar.

Although many Qatari families would prefer that their daughters work separately from men, the Qatari government not only does not legislate such segregation, it actively encourages all government offices and private businesses in Qatar to employ women.

Thus the original paradox of providing educational facilities through the university level for women who were likely to graduate into a society in which there were not enough jobs for educated women has been solved. For example, in Qatar, as in virtually all Arab Muslim countries, boys and girls have separate classes. Therefore, boys traditionally were taught by male teachers and girls by female teachers. In modern Qatar, however, there is a third way, illustrated by the country's educational statistics. …

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