Lila Abu-Lughod describes the work of contemporary scholars on women and gender studies in the Middle East as that of “storytelling”. She explains that these scholars are narrating stories about women and their lives in relation to power structures grounded in historical specificities within local contexts, cultural settings and political landscapes. It is scholars such as Abu-Lughod, Deniz Kandiyoti, Amira Sonbol, Zib Mir-Hosseini and Suad Joseph who inspired me and many other writers on women in the Middle East to look beyond dominant narratives established by Western and Middle Eastern academia, nationalists and state institutions. The “woman’s question”, which places women’s lives and experiences as the subject of study, tends to focus on studying the lives of women through the lens of rigid academic concepts, often over-simplifying social and cultural constructs that govern societies and have an impact on gender relations.
This is exactly why the role of “storytelling” and recording diverse narratives is central to understanding women’s roles in state and society, the main focus of my research. This concept of storytelling and “lived realities” of women has guided my academic journey to date. These “lived realities” are to be found in everyday interactions, official and unofficial court records, documents, unrecorded voices of women and over-looked local grassroots organisations and initiatives.
Despite the work of pioneering scholars, women’s narrative remains relatively undocumented in modern Middle Eastern history. When it comes to the Gulf region, it remains not only under-studied, but also misrepresented. It is precisely for these reasons that I am sharing the story of a local, student-run women’s initiative. It was not only academic concepts and theories learned in class, but also local realities that motivated my colleagues and I to establish an organisation where lived realities could be highlighted, celebrated and debated.
In 2010, as a first year student at Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar, I was looking for answers to issues of women and their place in society. The international education at Georgetown exposed me to social, political and economic thought and the complexities of Middle Eastern history. However, I wanted to move beyond the rigid world of theory and binary boundaries between languages of modernity vs. tradition, old vs. new, West vs. East, and see how systems and power structures affect women’s lives. I was interested in the grey areas that were beyond constructed black and white images of a Middle Eastern woman.
Inspired by the diversity of women’s backgrounds, histories, voices, opinions, and views in Georgetown and in Qatar, I established the first student-run club under the banner of the Qatar Foundation (QF) in 2010: The Women’s Society and Development Club (WSDC). This club, which aimed to address women’s social, academic, economic and professional development issues, faced challenges both internally and externally. First, like any women’s association in the Middle East, we faced issues of bureaucratic management and questions about the need for such an organisation. All women at the QF by default have their agency highlighted. Aren’t we receiving education from one of the best universities in the world in the heart of the Middle East? What else could we possibly want? I disagreed. We needed to do justice to this education by problematising what we had learned in class and applying it to the local context.
The motto of the club became “To Inspire, Dream and Achieve”. The following year, my classmate Ghada Al-Subaey joined me in furthering the vision of the club. We organised several discussions about women’s issues and talks by inspirational women from all walks of life in Qatar, in addition to charity fundraisers, awareness campaigns, networking and other creative events. We also worked with international organisations like Vital Voices, organised workshops with local lawyers and introduced entrepreneurship opportunities. The organisation was indeed established through an academic institution but with the personal vision and ambition of female students. I aimed to step out of hegemonic frames of knowledge regimes and gender mainstreaming agendas by engaging with women of all backgrounds, classes and voices from the society. This was done by working with women-led organisations, other local businesses and youth initiatives. In addition, we engaged in discussions with women outside of the QF structure, to both highlight and benefit from their narratives.
Through this organisation, new narratives were discussed, stories were shared, and new perspectives were created. Of course, we were not alone in this; we were supported by a network of strong females from diverse professional backgrounds like Dr Amal Al-Malki and Maryam Al-Subaey. In the years following my graduation, exceptionally talented and intelligent women led the club and carried on its legacy: Mashail Al-Malki, Haya Al-Waleed Al-Thani and Maha Al-Abdullah. Others like Asma Al-Jehani established a separate initiative called “The Future is Female” which focused on increasing women’s presence in the public sphere. These young females made the organisation a national success and added their own visions to the existing vision and history of the club. Spurred on by its achievements, many other branch campuses under the QF umbrella, like Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon, started their own women’s societies and thus helped to raise overall awareness about women’s issues in society. Why, then, are these projects not mentioned in international reports discussing the status of women in the Gulf?
Recently, the World Bank’s report “Women, Law and Business” rated Qatar quite low on women’s agency, but how can we measure such agency and why is an international economic organisation speaking on behalf of all women? Reports generated by international organisations contribute heavily to knowledge creation and perception of women in the Middle East, as they affect policy making. The politics of knowledge cannot be ignored. What we see is the chosen narrative of these international organisations which serves their own agenda.
We need an alternative approach to international bodies that claim to speak on behalf of Middle Eastern women or misrepresent local realities. Our alternative approach focuses on local initiatives, which do not make it into official narratives but which operate within but differently in hegemonic knowledge and political structures by creating their own narratives.
The Women’s Society and Development Club remains a bottom-up grassroots women’s organisation. I did not set out to represent others or to speak on anyone’s behalf, but to have my voice and myself represented and heard. My colleagues did the same when they took on the presidency of the club, by bringing forward their voices and representations. I was, of course, able to start this club and reach out to the broader community of young women because of the platform provided by the Qatar Foundation’s strong female leadership like Shaikha Moza Bint Nasser, whose vision brought Georgetown to Qatar in the first place.
Why, though, do we continue to see shallow discourses rooted in neo-oriental ideas of women’s lives and those of their oppression and lack of agency? Of course, significant improvements are needed when tackling women’s issues, but this need for improvement is not exclusive to the Middle East. Much is already being done by women who are not visible or at the forefront of political or social life, and thus their voices get lost in translation or are hidden behind dominant narratives. The diversity of women’s voices rarely makes it into discussions or even academic journals, yet it is these venues that are shaping policies and people’s perceptions of women in the region. This is not to romanticise women’s agency as separate from power and social structures; the reality is that we all exist within structures of one kind or another, but women must question how they are represented in those structures and social systems. It is imperative, therefore, that women write their own stories and claim their own agency, and make sure it is heard and read by both regional and global audiences.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.