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Hatoon Al Fassi/Facebook

Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi

Prominent Saudi scholar Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi teaches at Qatar University. Last October, several people in Qatar attacked her on social media for her feminist views, with many calling for her to be sacked.

In honor of International Women’s Day earlier this week, she explains here the impact the attack had on her, and why she believes feminism and open debate both have a very important role to play in the region’s development. 

Last year, a female Qatari student came to me angry about the appearance of another Qatari woman on TV.

The woman had told the interviewer that everything was fine for women in Qatar, and that all women’s rights were granted.

Qatar University

Qatar University

My student had written an article rebutting these views with another colleague of hers from Qatar University (QU).

I was impressed by their well-written piece.

Once they published it online and passed the link on, I endorsed it. I expressed how proud I was, as any teacher, of my growing pupils going out into a world of well versed-grown-ups.

Unexpected consequences

I thought that the piece would draw attention to the issues that are holding Qatari women back from full participation in their growing country.

I also expected the piece to inaugurate these two college students into the world of opinion writing, and assumed they would start to have offers from media outlets asking them to further express their ideas.

What I didn’t expect was that the world would turn upside down and collapse on both these students and their instructor in the ugliest, most vulgar way.

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For illustrative purposes only.

Their article was shared widely on social media. This prompted an angry crowd to jump out from behind their (often anonymous) Twitter accounts to lecture about rights and traditions, religion and beliefs.

They started by attacking the students and asking how they dared to criticize their “ideal” lifestyle.

They then moved onto me, and dug into any juicy element from my academic and activist past, using and abusing without limit.

And they even created a new hashtag asking to fire me from my professorship at QU.

Unfortunately, some op-eds in respectable newspapers also took part.

Postponed lecture

During the furor, a debate I had been due to have at QU with a professor from the Sharia college about Women In Islam was postponed.

My views on this are well-known already.

Santiago Sanz Romero/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

My position stems from the fact that I am a Muslim woman of faith who believes in Islam’s contribution to human civilization, thought and values.

I believe that Islam came as a social and economic revolution to ancient practices and beliefs.

A large part of that change was on the level of women. For example, Islam challenged norms at the time that denied a woman’s right to inheritance and did not acknowledge her as an equal human being.

Human interpretation

Thus, I have high regard for what Islam has contributed to women.

However, we need to revisit and rethink the way in which Islamic ideals have been translated into our laws and practices. This process is totally man-made – and not enshrined in divine law.

What is known in Islamic history is that there is a rich history of differences and discussions among Islamic scholars.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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These differences were accommodated and considered to be normal.

I believe that it is time for women to participate in the production and interpretation of Islamic knowledge. The process could contribute tremendously to women’s status in Muslim societies today.

Questioning and debating are tools that are required in the Quran for Muslims to reach the level of thinkers, reflectors and sages. They are also required to reach the level of Khalifa (Trustee on Earth).

I believe that questioning the human production of Islamic knowledge produced hundreds of years ago should be acceptable in public, as it is in university classes.

A second home

November 2016, the month of the online furor, was one of the worst months I’ve ever had in Qatar, the country to which I owe a lot professionally and personally.

Doha has become my children’s second home, where they have grown up and been educated well.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

And at the same time, they could still visit Riyadh every holiday and see their now late grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

But after the Twitter mobs descended, my son came to me asking, “what does firing in Arabic mean, and what does it mean to us?” He had heard about it from friends at school.

In the end, I was not touched, but it was a difficult time for all of us.

Beacon of enlightenment

Despite my experience, I believe that it is vital that universities remain a place for open debate.

They are the beacon of enlightenment for any society, the space where knowledge is produced and generations are prepared to take their turn in carrying on their country’s development, building and progress.

Qatar University

The QU campus

They are a place where ideas are presented from all angles, debated, negated, accepted, adopted or refused in an environment of academic freedom, with respect for each person’s views.

Hence, they are leaders of change and progress.

This role might be challenged by society through its traditions and practices. But universities need always to keep standing their ground.

Otherwise, their existence becomes pointless.

Hatoon Al Fassi is a well-known Saudi commentator on Gulf women’s rights, championing for women’s ability to vote and drive in her home country. The scholar has been part of QU’s faculty for the past seven years, and teaches women’s and Middle East history in the Department of International Affairs. 


The views expressed in this Opinion article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Doha News’ editorial policy.

Supplied

D’Souza’s family enjoying a day out at the beach on the site of the Sheraton Hotel in Dafna

Priya D’Souza was born in Qatar in 1972, and has recently left the country. This week, she blogged about what it was like to grow up in Qatar in the 1970s.

In this shortened version of her post, she shares her nostalgia for the easy-going, diverse community she belonged to as a child.  

My father moved to Qatar from Bombay in 1969.

Back then, the flights took six hours instead of less than the four hours they take now. That’s because they had to stop in Karachi and Muscat to refuel.

Ismail Mandani House

A home that looked just like D’Souza’s.

Shortly after I was born, we moved to a seven-bedroom house in what is now a row of shops and restaurants in Matar Qadeem (Old Airport Area).

Limestone houses

In the 1970s, our neighborhood was predominantly middle-class Qatari (Irani-Qatari), and we were one of the few Indian families living there.

The houses were made from local limestone and packed mud, with mangrove beams for roof.

For this house, my dad paid QR280 as monthly rent while he earned QR5,000. We lived there for six years.

Ismail Mandani House

A home that looked just like D’Souza’s.

My father preferred the Old Airport area because the big house also came with a huge yard he built a warehouse in, that he went on to expand over the years.

We also had chicken, a goat, a make-shift aviary housing 140 birds, and rescued animals, including a hare and a turtle.

Today, I recognize the place only because the electricity transformer and mosque (since renovated) that marked our east and west boundaries still stand.

We moved a lot in Doha; we changed 17 houses over 40 years. Every time my father ran out of garden space for his vegetables, sometimes after just one season, we moved.

Today, not one of those homes have survived Qatar’s infrastructure development.

A sense of belonging

What I remember most about the Matar Qadeem house and area is a sense of community.

When Qatari grandmothers went shopping at the souq, they came back with boxes of goodies for children in every family in the neighborhood.

When our dog would go missing, all the children in the neighborhood would get together to look for her (she got lost a lot).

Salim Abdulla/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Weddings in the community (almost always Qatari) were especially fun because we got to run in and out of tents and eat as many sweets as we liked.

Everybody was too busy taking care of something or the other to bother with what the children did.

In the mid- to late 1970s, when my family moved to more central neighborhoods, the wonder of Doha only grew.

Safe spaces

As legal advisor to the British and Indian Embassies, besides being a businessman, my father hosted many soirees in our backyard.

Every other weekend we had people over. My father also had an unlimited alcohol permit.

Alcohol permits were already hard to come by and an unlimited one, issued to very few people, meant my father felt “obliged” to throw parties also for the community.

Jamie Dobson/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

This included “bachelors” (as married men, mostly from the Indian sub-continent, who live in Qatar without their families are referred to today).

This was so people, especially those with no liquor permits, could enjoy a drink or two. We even had live music at these parties that would often go on till the wee hours of the morning.

We continued to explore spaces on our own because Qatar was safe.

It was safe enough for us as children to bicycle in the streets to nearby parks 500m away unchaperoned, with no threat of being kidnapped, raped or run-over.

Brian Candy/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Summers were hot even back then. We had air-conditioners, but there were power outages quite often.

Many a night was spent under candlelit desert skies, listening to stories about ghouls and spirits.

This stuff didn’t frighten us because my father told us we were in Allah’s land and were safe from anything that caused harm.

Qatari friends

I did not know I was Indian or that my family was Catholic until I moved to India for a while when I was seven.

In Qatar, not once was I made to feel different from the others, and I didn’t know I was.

When we were young, we used to go to a Qatari house for the occasional weekend family lunch or dinner, and we all sat together. The women were never veiled, and they treated my father like their brother or son.

Isabell Schulz/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

In more recent years, I started having lunch one Friday every month at a Qatari friend’s house. Not much had changed, except that I was now a woman in my late 30s.

As of 10 years ago, many Qataris still held family lunches at the parents’ house, with four generations gathering together for the meal.

As there’d be over 20 of us, we’d all sit on an oversized Persian rug. Men and women weren’t separated, and nobody was veiled or wore headscarves.

I almost always ended up sitting next to somebody older who was unafraid to heap servings onto my plate.

Exotic in their own land

In 2010, mainly western colleagues at the university where I worked told me how very little they knew about Qataris and Qatari families. Some said it was a privilege to have visited a local’s home.

I started to understand what the fuss was all about. Qataris had become exotic in their own land.

None of these colleagues experienced the sense of community I did as a child  – or as an adult – though I was a migrant like them.

It is a sense of community that I have missed most about Qatar in the last 10 years.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

This certainly isn’t unique to Qatar, however. Everybody has probably experienced this “change” in their own cities, and towns and countries.

So why does this aspect of Qatar seem so surprising to so many who have heard of my experiences?

Is it because I’m a migrant who has experienced this sense of community, while most migrants today don’t?

Or is it because people know so little about Qatar and Qatari culture? Thoughts?


Read the full version of this article on D’Souza’s website.

Penny Yi Wang

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Last week, Doha News ran an opinion piece by a Qatari woman who argued that her country is being treated unfairly by the world’s press. Here, long-term Qatar resident Vani Saraswathi, Associate Editor of Migrant-Rights.org, explains why she disagrees.

When I was first asked to present a counterpoint in a debate about Qatar media coverage, I didn’t think I had anything new to say.

There were some points in “Why I believe that Qatar is being victimized by Western media” that merited a nod; but by and large it wasn’t a piece I agreed with.

When I read it, I was mostly thrilled that there were Qataris who respected Doha News enough to ignore its blocking by the government and to continue to send them their views.

Then thousands of miles away, an executive order was passed.

A powerful majority felt victimized and threatened, unleashing unimaginable misery on the vulnerable and disenfranchised.

A dear friend and co-worker was also affected, albeit not as badly or seriously as some others, as she herself admits.

Alongside all that anger and fury, what emerged was the power of the civil society.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens standing up for what they believed in, aware of their privilege and using it for a greater good.

The media were pushing back, not cowing down to pressure or bullying. Lawyers were gathering at airports to offer pro-bono services.

It was then that I revisited this opinion piece.

Playing the victim

For too long Qatar has played the victim card.

It blames countries that send migrants to its shores, and it blames the skewed population ratio, talking of “cultural dilution” by migrants, with no genuine attempt to accept blame or responsibility.

eDmonD uchiha/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

But if you live in Qatar, you do not need the “Western media” to reveal injustices. It’s in our face, day in and day out.

You see it in your workplace, you see it in ghettoized living spaces, you see it in how housemaids are treated, you see it in how construction workers lie around in the summer heat, and if you care enough to look into their faces of these lower-income migrant workers, you will also see it in their eyes.

But blue-collar workers are all but invisible in Qatar.

Most higher income migrants, aka expats, are too scared to speak up, as they have much to lose if they do. And the nationals obviously don’t think this is a real problem, meriting their censure.

So, I wonder what the author’s definition of dignity is, when she writes this:

“As a Qatari national possessing knowledge as well as a first-person perspective as to what truly occurs in our country and how our workers are treated with respect and dignity, I feel compelled to take some steps to separate facts from fiction and begin an educated defense.”

Domestic worker abuse

An educated defense would be to spend a few weeks with blue-collar and domestic workers, and then proving that the injustices you see are just exceptions and not the norm.

Simply parroting the government’s PR is too defensive.

Dimitris Papazimouris/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

In her piece, the author makes a passing reference to domestic workers.

“Meanwhile, Amnesty International has made similar claims…”

Doesn’t she think the 90,000 plus women working in Qatar as domestic workers, without laws to govern them, deserve more than a snide dismissal of the Amnesty report?

How can one live in Qatar and not understand the absolute power wielded over domestic workers, and their lack of options?

A large part of my work involves advocating for rights of domestic workers in the GCC, and to see such scant regard for the problems they face in an “educated defense” is disheartening.

Especially so from a Qatari woman, because they understand more than many others the desperate need for empowerment.

Good journalism

Yes, it is true enough that the media has misreported or sensationalized labor issues in Qatar over the last six years.

Two years ago, Migrant-Rights.org was among the first to call bluff on a very misleading Washington Post graphic, despite backlash from critics who said we were “going soft” on Qatar.

Jacque/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

However, there has also been exemplary journalism (primarily by the Guardian) looking at problems no one else has bothered to report on.

This includes North Koreans being put to work in Qatar under inhumane conditions, and the fact that Nepali death rates are extremely high in Qatar.

The newspaper’s report actually triggered extensive study and research into what was happening. It found that lack of acclimatization significantly shortens lifespans of Nepalis not just in Qatar, but also in other Gulf states and Malaysia.

That’s what good journalism does. It lays bare the problems in a society, and allows experts then to do their job to resolve it.

Repeatedly, Qatar has been advised to investigate these deaths, but it still hasn’t. Had it taken that initiative, it would have probably saved some face.

Muzzled local press

Although I no longer live in Qatar, I still visit regularly for work.

And even though I never thought of Qatar as my home, I am extremely fond of the country and its people.

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And that’s why I feel one must continue to debate this issue, and not dismiss it with fatalistic reasoning of “we are being victimized’ or “Qatar won’t ever change.”

If Qatar had a free and fair media – instead of the currently muzzled group of newspapers that amount to advertising supplements – there would have been better informed reporting locally.

This would negate to a large extent the need for “Western” media to “victimize” the country or report on it.

Providing lip service, saying “it’s not perfect but we are trying,” just doesn’t cut it.

Even if you are a minority, you are more powerful than the faceless and disenfranchised majority put together.

The author is the Associate Editor of Migrant-Rights.org. The views expressed are her own, and do not necessarily reflect that of her organization, or of Doha News.