'The veil is not a barrier' in an Arab vote

In Qatar's first election on Monday, women both voted and ran foroffice - a first for the Gulf states.

In this small, oil-rich state, no woman agitated for the vote in the fashion of rioting British suffragists. But nevertheless Qatari women have attained a political voice. In a scenario nearly unheard of in the Gulf, women were both candidates and voters in Monday's national municipal elections - although only men were elected.

The competition of 221 men and six women for a 29-seat Central Municipal Council was a first here. The four-year council, which has no executive powers, serves as a transitional body between the rule of the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and a full parliament.

For women especially, the opportunity to campaign was more than just an exercise in glad-handing, baby-kissing, and pie-eating. "It was a victory the moment the six of us registered," said candidate Fouzia al-Naimi after her loss. "Twenty-seven men withdrew. None of us withdrew. This is a victory."

Their campaigns rode a societal wave, with more women in the workplace and studying at universities than ever before. Between 1991 and 1997, for example, Qatari women in government jobs jumped 61 percent. And females made up 44 percent of the 21,992 registered voters.

"We can see a different attitude. Before you'd never have a Qatari woman working in a bank," says Dr. Naimi, who was a candidate in Al-Hilal. "Now you see them everywhere."

From leather jackets to veils, the women blend the old and new. They reveal how far Qatar is willing to go in the reinvention of gender roles.

Naimi, who is the director of Qatar's Secondary Technical School of Nursing, speaks pleasantly about the challenge of running against 13 opponents, 10 of whom were male.

"Men and women can act and share in building society in their own ways. The veil is not a barrier," she says. "Being a respectable lady, it is not an issue. If you saw me on the day I met with women voters, I wore my veil and plain clothes. When I met with the men, I wore the abbayya [a type of cloak]."

While the majority do not venture outside the home unless they are covered in black from head to toe, Qatari women have more freedom here than in some Arab states. Restrictions stem less from police authority than they do from family and social pressures.

On election day, a 19-year-old female explained why she rejected the women candidates. "The man is better than the woman here. More people like men because they are traditional.... The man is strong," she said. "I don't want women on the council."

But the election has sparked debate about the region's sexual politics and forms of government. By having a democratic process, Qatar has posed a challenge for the region to consider. Kuwait is the only Gulf state to have an elected parliament, although women cannot participate in elections.

Despite the women's defeat, Ernie Ross, an observer for the elections and chairman of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in London, adamantly defends the election's relevance. "After March 8, things have changed. Whether the region likes it or not, women will be saying, 'What about me?' " says Mr. Ross, also a Labour Parliament member in Britain.

In many ways, Moza al-Malki, a candidate in the West Bay, was among the most unconventional of the Qatari women. She has not worn the veil daily in over 28 years. "I didn't stop wearing it because I don't like it. The abbayya and veil are very beautiful," she says. "Still, it's hard to live and to go to work dressed in them."

While some men's faces glower at the mention of her name, Ms. Malki dismisses the notion that her behavior diverges from Islam. "Islam - the real Islam - gives women their rights and respects women in all aspects," she says. "Before Islam, women had no rights. After Islam, she is free to inherit property and work in any kind of business."

She looks to the emir's wife, Sheikha Mouza bint Nasser al-Misnad, as a major boost. "With the support of Sheikha Mouza, Qatari women will get more of their rights," she says.

Besides women's participation in the election, the sheikha's influence on the emir can be seen in numerous appointment and legislative decisions. In 1996, the emir named Sheikha Ahmad al-Mahmoud undersecretary of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, the highest position ever for a woman in Qatar's government. The emir has also relaxed restrictions on women driving.

Since orchestrating a bloodless coup against his father in 1995, the emir has made a clean break with Qatar's conservative past. In the face of heavy debt for oil and gas projects, a citizenry subsidized by the state, and a heavy reliance on foreign labor, the emir has introduced more liberal measures and greater freedom of expression in the country.

Biochemistry Prof. Jehan Abdulla al-Meer, who was a candidate in Al-Hilal, says, "Living in the West, I thought it would be hard for women to get political rights. I think we should be grateful for a chance that many Gulf women do not get."

*Ned Parker writes for The Peninsula, a newspaper based in Qatar.

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