A First Lady Gently Shakes Qatar
Emir's wife maintains equality for women is no contradiction under Islam
DOHA, QATAR — In the West, they might be seen as the ultimate "power couple."
On one side is the iconoclastic young emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who is determined to usher his tiny, gas-rich Persian Gulf state into the 21st century.
He wants Qatar well-educated, to play a global role far larger than its size dictates. Already he has shaken up staid and aging Gulf leaders by embracing a free press and elections.
But on the other side of this powerful team is Qatar's "first lady," Sheikha Mouza al-Misnad, who is shaking up long-held attitudes herself. That's a departure from the norm among wives in some more conservative Gulf states: keeping behind a veil and hidden out of sight.
When she made an official trip to the United States to visit Harvard and other top colleges a year ago - unattended by her husband, confidently meeting such heavyweights as former Secretary of State James Baker - Sheikha Mouza was breaking new ground.
"I believe in what I'm doing, and that it is not against my religion, my culture, or my beliefs," says Mouza, during an interview in her palace near Doha. Her long black hair is stylishly held back by a black head scarf, and her clothing is also modest and "Islamic" - but very finely tailored.
Her pioneering spirit is seen by many as little short of revolutionary.
But this mission of seeking equality, she says, is in full accord with Islam, and simply a restoration of women's rightful place according to the teachings of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
"By practicing these things, we show people that there is no harm in letting women practice their own role," she says. "If we achieve what we want to achieve, that will really be a model for those who are afraid of change."
Her husband, Sheikh Hamad, first raised eyebrows in neighboring Gulf sheikhdoms when he ousted his father from power in 1995.
He fought off a countercoup last year, and his liberal style has now won hearts and minds.
Hamad's unprecedented appointment of a woman, Sheikha al-Mahmoud, as undersecretary of education in 1996 prompted the US Embassy in Doha to suggest that he be dubbed the "education emir."
Mouza's own role has been bolstered by this public support, and by the faith of a husband who "believes that women can do as much as men," she says.
"We are a good team," she explains. "I mean, I don't interfere in his affairs, but he trusts me to take responsibility for women's needs...."
That message surprises many in the West who believe that Islam demands the oppression of women. Nothing could be further from the truth, Mouza argues.
"What we are doing now should be compared with our history. I think we have many role models there," she says. "In the days of the Prophet Muhammad, women were participating in everything. The prophet consulted them, they were in the wars and in the courts."
Since then some conservative societies have twisted that message to banish women to cloistered lives, with little voice.
"I call these the 'dark days' after the Prophet Muhammad," Mouza says, "when the bad concepts toward women were formed - that women should stay indoors, or be covered. These things seem to be really misunderstood through history."
Muhammad, for example, allowed his favorite wife, Aisha, to advise when he was away: "Take half your religion from this woman," he instructed, according to "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women," the authoritative recent book on women in the Islamic world by Australian journalist Geraldine Brooks.
His many wives also took part at the battlefront - and one well-known for her courage helped save the prophet's life. Modern women warriors have begun to take root in the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates - Qatar's eastern neighbor.
But political examples of women activists are few. Sheikha Mouza is in good company with Queen Noor, the American wife of Jordan's King Hussein.
The next closest models in the Islamic world, though, are former prime ministers Tansu Ciller of Turkey and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan.
In Qatar, some more traditional aspects still hold sway. Mouza is the second of three wives to the emir, each of which have seven children. Islam permits four wives, if they are treated equally.
The others keep a much lower profile, and Mouza's teenage son, Sheikh Jassem bin Khalifa, has been named the crown prince.
Finding the path that best melds both Islamic culture and Western ways is likely to be the toughest challenge - a mission that the younger generation of leaders in Qatar seems well-placed to face.
Sheikha Mouza's trip to the US was to explore how the more rigorous, "American-style" university system can be brought to Qatar.
Mouza dismisses anxiety elsewhere that such an import may undermine the Muslim nature of her country.
"I believe that if you are very balanced inside, you won't feel any [bad] changes," she says. "We should establish this solid foundation inside ourselves first, then open to the rest of the world without any fears. We cannot avoid that - in one way or another we are going to interact with them, even through the Internet."
Despite anxiety in the Gulf that an Iranian-style fundamentalism is a threat to more secular Islamic Gulf states, she says that answers are found in the Koran, Islam's holy book.
"We don't sense this fear [of fundamentalism]," she says. "I feel this movement is losing.... For anybody who knows his religion well, he knows what is going on around us, that people are using Islam for their own benefit. It cannot go like this forever. People are now more educated and can judge for themselves.
"We should learn our roots, our Islamic culture, and our Koran," she says. "Then through all of this we will not get lost."