As women around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, Doha News speaks to inspirational women in Qatar who have been pushing boundaries and breaking through the glass ceiling through their love of art, sport and politics.
Rim Albahrani is a 26-year old Iraqi-Swedish artist who arrived in Qatar ten years ago. Her work is inspired by her father, renowned artist Ahmed Albahrani.
Rim says she grew up with art, inspired by her father’s contemporary designs. She studied Art History and went on to do her masters specialising in Modern and Contemporary Art at The University of York, in the UK. Whilst researching modern Iraqi art from the 1950’s to the 1970’s she became interested in her own identity and family background.
As the pandemic settled in, forcing many to confront their existentialism, the young artist found herself painting about how she felt towards her identity. Houses were her first drawings when placing pen to paper, because she had lived in so many different countries.
“The structure of the house is the foundation of our identity. For someone who has moved so many times for as long as I can remember, from Jordan, Yemen, Sweden, England and then finally Qatar. I have lived in so many houses, there isn’t one specific house I could call home. That concept of a home is distant for me. It’s something I have never been able to connect to.”
Albahrani’s paintings are in black and white. When asked why she didn’t paint in colour her response was, “My art is abstract, my concept is abstract. I am still figuring it out. They’re not real houses.” For the young artist, her work represents “her state of mind” and feelings about having a home.
The paintings and sculptures she makes are centered around the categorical assumptions of identity and its association with the socially constructed concept: “Home is identity”. This is why her art is built on abstract formations of cities and houses based on her memories and imaginations to challenge the age-old notion.
“For me the blockhouses are very much like our identities, specifically diasporic identities that are strong and defensive because of the pain of losing or leaving our homes. Their hollow-core continues to speak of the story of the void within.”
The art historian had her first exhibition in March 2021 at Katara. Her art is also on display in a gallery in Lebanon.
The Olympic Champion
Pia Sundstedt is an Olympic champion, having represented Finland at the Sidney 2000 Olympics and London 2012 Olympics, and was the Head Coach for the Qatar Cyclists women’s group until 2021.
Pia arrived in Qatar in 2012 and began coaching young girls at Aspire Academy. She introduced young girls to all different kinds of sports from fencing to swimming and cycling. The same year the Cycling Federation contacted Pia with an offer to manage a team and prepare for the 2016 World Championships in cycling. They trained for a year but the national team programme was postponed due to a change in management.
After taking some time out to have a baby, Pia completed a masters degree in social sciences in Finland and became a qualified teacher.
The sports enthusiast couldn’t leave her passion for cycling behind and rejoined the Cycling Federation in 2018 to become an elite development coordinator.
Pia also began coaching the Qatar Cyclists women’s group the same year at Lusail Circuit Sports Club and coached around hundreds of women who wanted to take part in sports in a safe and private environment. The groups was forced to take a break when the pandemic began, reopening in 2021 at the Olympic cycling track where women were able to rent bikes and ride in a woman-friendly environment.
Pia tells Doha News that the feedback was phenomenal, saying: “This was the first time there was something for the community. It was for everyone. Women need to be able to go out and ride their bikes because there is a demand for it. Women in Qatar want to be active.”
Pia’s efforts in coaching women in Qatar in cycling are rooted in her desire to make sports accessible for everyone, she says, “ I wanted to make my profession into a hobby for women. It was natural for me. I know how to do it. I wanted to teach women how to have an active lifestyle. You don’t need to take a car everywhere. Share the passion of being active. Just to share that and show it can be fun.”
The Olympic champion said she wasn’t surprised that so many women signed up to ride. “Women found a safe place to exercise freely outdoors. The group expanded exponentially. I had some women come up to me, we didn’t understand you Europeans waking up at 5am to ride, but when I do it, I feel so good. Now I understand why it’s important.”
Pia is now part of the Swedish Federation, where she is an advisor to the national coach of mountain biking to Sweden. Not happy with staying out, in her spare time she is also Tourist guide for Discover Qatar.
Lolwa Ammar Al Khuzaei was born and raised in Qatar, and is the Manager of the International Business Support Division at Qatar National Bank. Last year, the 34 year-old decided to stand in the country’s first Shura’s Election, where she represented Rawdat Al Khail district and was one of a record 28 women standing for office.
Al Khuzaei has been independent from a young age, going abroad to France at age 18 to study Law of Public Administration at the University of Rouen. Soon after, Al Khuzaei also completed her masters in Supply Chain Management at the prestigious Sorbonne University.
Her passion, however, has always been in politics. “I stood in the Shura elections because I believe women should have a say in making decisions in their country. I also wanted to prove that there are strong women in Qatar,” she told Doha News.
Her family gave her their full support, particularly her father. “My objective was to change the narrative of women in Qatar. A Qatari lady can be anything she wants and play any role she chooses.”
When running for a seat in the Shura Council, Al Khuzaei said she wanted to change the way of working in Qatar, “I want it to be more flexible. For men and women.” In fact, one of her main campaign issues was granting paternity leave for men.
In her campaign manifesto Al Khuzaei had said she wanted to preserve the Arabic language. “We are losing our language. Qatari’s and Arabs in general seem to be losing the ability to speak Arabic. I don’t want our children to lose their heritage.”
Unfortunately, no woman won a single seat during Qatar’s first Shura Elections, despite 28 women being in the race. However two women were selected by the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani shortly afterwards.
“Qatar is playing a good role diplomatically, I hope one day to be involved in politics and the media. I want more women to believe in themselves. Playing more than one role, to be independent and also to be self-sufficient. It is never too late.”