x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

People of the decade: Sheikha Mozah of Qatar

Sheikha Mozah of Qatar has joined a small group of wives of Arab leaders who use their public profiles to improve the lives of women across the region.

Illustration Beto Alvarez
Illustration Beto Alvarez

Sheikha Mozah of Qatar has joined a small group of wives of Arab leaders who use their public profiles to improve the lives of women across the region. Hamida Ghafour looks at the rise of Islamic feminism and the changes that have taken place over the past 10 years. Arab women who fight to end the practice of child marriages, or encourage the education of girls, or for women's right to vote are often accused of importing a western feminism that is at odds with the values of conservative Muslim societies. Over the years, particularly in the past decade, the Arab world has become increasingly religious. Partially as a result, there are fewer women in public life. If prominent Arab women are rare, then prominent Gulf Arab women are rarer still.

Which is why, when Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned arrived in Paris with her husband, the Emir of Qatar, for a state dinner at the Elysée Palace last June, traditionalists gasped. She also upstaged her hostess, that scary glamazon Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. In a floor-length, long-sleeved fuchsia gown cinched at the waist with a diamond and pearl belt, her hair wrapped in an elegant matching turban, the sheikha projected a retro glamour. Bruni-Sarkozy almost looked mousy by comparison.

The Huffington Post blog ran a poll of who looked better and Sheikha Mozah won by a landslide. By September, she had landed on Vanity Fair magazine's annual international best-dressed list. Yet there is much more to Sheikha Mozah than her spectacular outfits. For the past 10 years she has been working to improve education and literacy in the Middle East through a series of charities and foundations funded by the oil and natural gas wealth of the state that her husband, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, controls with near absolute authority.

Qatar's wealth is mind-boggling. A state of 250,000 citizens sit on the third largest reserve of natural gas in the planet. It has the second highest per capita income after Liechtenstein. That wealth has propelled Sheikha Mozah into the small club of wives of Arab leaders with public profiles: Queen Rania of Jordan, her sister-in-law Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, who is also the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt. Queen Rania and Egypt's first lady also advocate reform but represent secular regimes.

Sheikha Mozah cuts a third way, and the outfit for the state dinner in France sent a subtle message: her Islamic values are modest but she is not afraid to walk next to her husband as an equal and carve a role for herself as a leader. In a sense, she embodies the spirit of the new direction in which women's activism is heading in the Muslim world. Some call it Islamic feminism: a return to the Quran to revive the egalitarian ideals of the sacred texts.

"We must be loyal to our Islamic tradition by insisting on the application of the equalities guaranteed in our religion and providing the proper environment for our young women to grow and prosper," she told an audience in Doha in 2006. In the past decade, political Islam entered mainstream Arab politics. In times of turmoil Muslims turn to their religion for comfort, and Islamist politicians provide appealing solutions to the economic malaise and political repression gripping nearly every Arab country. The sense of despair is deep among many Muslims for whom faith in God is the only certainty because their rulers have failed to improve their lives.

This is most apparent in the Palestinian territories where the struggle for nationhood was once secular. Women and men once went on strike in the streets, but in recent years the picture has become very different. In 2005, the Islamist movement Hamas easily won elections in Gaza, appealing to voters fed up with the rival party Fatah's corruption. Many young Palestinians believe that only God's will can change their desperate situation.

But in every case where the power of Islamists has increased, women have fallen under pressure to veil. Their education and work opportunities have decreased, as traditional roles of motherhood have been imposed on them. In Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Egypt, Islamists are being elected to parliament, which would have been unimaginable a decade ago. As a result, the discourse for social reformers has changed. Western feminism is equated with loose sexual morals and decadence and dismissed as an extension of colonialism. In response, from Afghanistan to Tunisia, female, and some male, scholars have been challenging fundamentalists by playing them at their own game.

Family law has been an important battleground. Scholars study the Quran carefully to build strong counter-arguments to laws that tyrannise women, insisting, for example, that of the 6,000 verses in the Quran, only six can be interpreted as being unfair to women. They point out that Muslim women have played important public roles; in Syria, Turkey and other countries, they have a long and distinguished history of patronage of schools, mosques and hospitals.

Islamic feminism has produced some results. There are female judges in sharia courts in Jordan and Syria. In Turkey, scholars are planning to publish six volumes that re-examine the hadiths, the traditions based on the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammed. The scholars are expected to reject controversial practices, such as honour killings and the stoning of adulterers. The high point of Islamic feminism came in 2007 with the launch in Malaysia of Musawah, an organised movement made up of dozens of Muslim scholars and activists who want to change repressive family laws based on narrow interpretations of shariah across the Muslim world.

In Jordan, women are trying to change the law that requires them to have a male guardian until the age of 40 if they are not married. In India, a man can announce to his wife that she has been divorced by SMS. Sheikha Mozah makes no claims to being part of the movement or an Islamic feminist. And yet as a product of a highly conservative, Bedouin culture she has risen to prominence in an era when Muslim women have been challenging the stereotype that if they are religious they must be repressed.

"First, the women of the Gulf have to identify our goals. We have to learn our capabilities and believe in ourselves. Once we do that, we can achieve anything." In the West no one but feminist lobby groups are bothered about female role models. Women's empowerment is a cliché. But in the Middle East it strikes at the very heart of the debate about how societies are changing and what role women should play.

Egypt, for example, was very secular a generation ago and hardly any women covered their hair. Today in Cairo it is unusual for anyone but tourists or Christians to not do so. Stylish Cairenes experiment with colourful hijabs, but they also work outside the home and interact with men not related to them. Sheikha Mozah has the potential to be a powerful role model beyond Qatar. Little is known about her personal life. She is believed to be aged 50 and was a student at Qatar University in the late 1970s, when she married the Sandhurst-educated Sheikh Hamad. She was 17 or 18 years old and not a member of the royal family. The sheikha is the second of his three wives - the only one with a public role - and it is believed they have seven children together. She has an unusual official title: Consort of the Emir.

For years it was forbidden to photograph or film her. In 2003 she was interviewed for the first time on state television with Sheikh Hamad. Before that, Qataris did not know what she looked like. The interview was a calculated decision on the part of the Qatari leadership to project itself as a progressive state and gain a competitive edge over its neighbours by positioning Qatar as an educational and diplomatic player.

The decision was a stroke of genius. Foreign investment came pouring in. The sheikha launched Education City in October 2003 and prominent American universities such as Georgetown and Cornell set up branches that are educating the younger generation of Qataris. The wives of other Gulf Arab leaders are rarely seen in public. Sheikha Mozah, however, has her own website, appears frequently on Qatari television and travels abroad for work - turned out immaculately in Chanel or Jean Paul Gaultier and her trademark turban.

At home she confidently greets visiting dignitaries in a black abaya that frames her pale, beautiful features. When she speaks about her work, it is always "we" in reference to her husband. She also refers to her religion as one of her guiding principles. Qatar is, after all, conservative. Its citizens follow the strict Hanbali school of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. But Qatari women are free to drive, and work outside the home. Obtaining a university education is highly encouraged. About 70 per cent of students at universities are women.

But there are many barriers. In 2007, a study showed that nearly half of Qatari women believed they deserved to be physically or sexually abused by their male relatives. The study was remarkable for another reason: discussing domestic violence is taboo in the Arabian peninsula, but the research was funded by an organisation headed by Sheikha Mozah. She is chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation for Education Science and Community Development, a private, non-profit organisation. Among its many projects is funding the controversial but respected Doha Debates.

She likes to makes references to the traditions of enlightened Arab scholarship in the Middle Ages. "The type of education prominent in the Middle East sustains autocratic regimes and inequalities - racial, class and gender. If we want to change this narrative, we must weave new threads into the discourse ... In Qatar, we are trying to do this by investing heavily in education and reviving our forgotten traditions of dialogue and openness."

The sheikha started the international fund for higher education in Iraq to rebuild its universities with a US$15 million (Dh55 milion) donation and has given refuge to Iraqi scientists who faced death threats after the 2003 invasion. She is Unesco's special envoy for basic and higher education and supports school projects around the world. In 2007 she became the first Arab and first woman to be awarded the Chatham House Prize for her contribution to international relations by the prestigious London-based think tank.

In parallel to her rising profile, the Qataris in recent years have been on a spending spree. They have just bought the site of the American embassy in central London to add to their growing property portfolio in Europe. A US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) Islamic museum opened in Doha to critical acclaim. The Aspire Academy for Sporting Excellence was built with the sole ambition of creating a football team that will be the best in the world.

Sheikha Mozah is quickly becoming Qatar's best-known brand after Al Jazeera. But the accolades abroad are not always reflected at home. There are grumbles of too much change, too soon. The conservatives don't want their daughters to go to university because they fear the girls won't find husbands willing to put up with a well-educated wife. There are more grumbles that Qatar preaches political reform abroad but does not practise it at home.

The Frenchman who was asked by Sheikha Mozah to start the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, which funds press organisations in countries ruled by repressive regimes, resigned this year. Robert Menard said that by making his job difficult, the conservatives who do not like the pace of change were trying to discredit the sheikha herself. To what extent Sheikha Mozah's reforms will extend beyond the small circle of a westernised elite with progressive views is impossible to predict. But the same criticism applies to reform-minded leaders in other Arab countries as well. A counter-argument is that sometimes it is difficult to bring change from below because ordinary Arabs don't have much political power.

Sheikha Mozah is in a unique position because she can bargain with authority (her husband). We are not talking about Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem bringing about a revolution. But the bra-burning, sexually liberated model of western feminism was never going to sell in this part of the world.