Posted on August 09, 2014

It was former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan who said that when women thrive, all of society benefits, and succeeding generations are given a better start in life. A saying, which a research team from Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) is upholding through a study, entitled ‘Qatari Women: Engagement and Empowerment'.

Seeking to uncover ways in which Qatari women empower themselves through a survey involving 1,000 Qatari women and in-depth ethnographic research, the investigative team from NU-Q - comprising 15 female students, 11 of whom are Qatari, overseen by three faculty members - expects to shed light on how national women may take on larger roles in the rapid development of their nation, guided by the Qatar National Vision 2030 (QNV) and the Qatar National Development Strategy.

“Although Qatari women outnumber men in terms of higher education graduate figures, they still do not make up 50 per cent of the national workforce,” says Mitchell Jocelyn Sage, Primary Investigator and assistant professor in liberal arts. This imbalance is one of the reasons why the team is seeking to investigate the factors which could affect highly educated national women actively contributing to the development of their nation.

“We see a lot of hindrances to full female participation and involvement within the Qatari community so we began the research by asking what the reasons behind the social and economic obstacles are and subsequently, what helps Qatari women become more involved in their society and economy,” explains Mitchell. “So we thought we would approach it in a way that enables their individual voices to be heard.”

Joining Mitchell on the research team is Christina Paschyn, lecturer in journalism, and Kirsten Pike, assistant professor in communications. As well as faculty mentors Tanya Kane, adjunct anthropology lecturer at Texas A&M University at Qatar and Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar; Justin Gengler, senior researcher at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute of Qatar University, and Sadia Mir, assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.

Comprising a survey and ethnographic research, the results of which could assist the government in future policy-making, the 'Qatari Women: Engagement and Empowerment' study was recently awarded a one year grant through the Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP) from the Qatar National Research Fund, established by Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development in 2006.

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The survey, involving the anonymous participation of 1,000 Qatari women, follows the ethnographic research conducted earlier this year that saw student researchers engage Qatari women in typical Majlis (the Arabic word for an informal gathering) settings. “The Majlis is known to be a male social activity but there are also Majalis for females, and these gatherings are an important but understudied and overlooked area of female engagement,” says Mitchell. “Through the Majlis, we are able to explore not only the issues discussed during these gatherings but also the ways in which the women empower each other.”

Mitchell and her team sought to investigate what role the Majlis plays in the life of a Qatari woman. “Is it an area where women are able to learn skills that would enable them to participate more in their social and economic choices? Is it a place where they are sharing information and creating awareness by discussing common issues? A place where the women encourage each other to solve a problem?” she adds.

“Through the observation of the Majlis setting, we are exposed to social and behavioural attitudes of Qatari women, which we believe has a connection to their greater engagement within the wider community.” Tied to Human Development goals of the Qatar National Vision, the 'Qatari Women: Engagement and Empowerment' study seeks to support the government in understanding the obstacles and drivers of national women’s engagement in society.

“The Human Development Pillar is one of the most important, because it is the educated national workforce that will take charge of the country in the short and long term,” says Mitchell. “With 50 per cent of the local population being female, ways in which to engage women therefore becomes essential to national development. “The female labour force participation rate is not a dire situation as increasing numbers of the younger generation of women are getting more involved,” she adds. “However, about 66 per cent of the Qatari workforce is male, and ideally that should be an even split. So through studies such as ours, we are able to contribute to the continued improvements of this situation by letting Qatari women’s voices be heard.”

Through the combination of the survey and the ethnographic research, set to be presented not only through academic papers but multimedia as well, Mitchell and her team believe that the insights gained through the 'Qatari Women: Engagement and Empowerment' study could pinpoint specific issues currently hindering national women’s engagement in society. “Our study could reveal social indicators that we can highlight to the government. It might also lead to friendlier working hours or workplace childcare that would enable Qatari women to contribute more to the development of their nation,” she says.

However, Mitchell also believes the diverse methods through which the team will present the research, via museum installations and a documentary for example, will attract a wider audience, in Qatar and abroad. “In the wider world, there is a stereotypical perspective that Gulf women are silent, oppressed and passive members of society,” she says. “However, people who live in this region are well aware that this is not true, because Qatari women for example, are very vocal, passionate and active in their societies when they want to be. Therefore combating a misunderstanding such as this is inherently interesting to the outside world.”