An American education for women in Qatar

From the women studying at Georgetown's Doha campus, much is expected, and much is feared

Published November 25, 2017 6:00PM (EST)

The Doha Experiment: Arab Kingdom, Catholic College, Jewish Teacher by Gary Wasserman (Skyhorse Publishing/YouTube/Georgetown University Qatar)
The Doha Experiment: Arab Kingdom, Catholic College, Jewish Teacher by Gary Wasserman (Skyhorse Publishing/YouTube/Georgetown University Qatar)

Excerpted with permission from "The Doha Experiment" by Gary Wasserman. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

Parents in Doha wanted American educators in their city partly because they didn’t want their daughters educated in America. Their hope for this “home-delivery college” was that one could deconstruct a modern university, expose students to the good stuff, and keep them away from the bad. And they especially wanted to shield their daughters from the downsides of Western culture. Learning was fine, acquiring job skills was great, and familiarity with the world at large was okay if necessary. But the other foibles of youth that American campuses contained—social rebellion, sexual experimentation, drug and alcohol abuse, a debased online culture, and secular questioning of religious beliefs—not so good. Admittedly, this parental fantasy of separating the positive from the negative in their kids’ college years is a familiar one outside the Middle East. But in Doha, there’s at least the possibility of paying for the dream.

Has it worked? Has moving Georgetown to Doha removed the perils and produced graduates who can seamlessly fill their expected places in this society? Disentangling the impact of a university on its women graduates is as muddled as unpacking their actual educational experiences. From the women students, much is expected, much is feared. Educated women offer a unique catalyst for changing what are largely patriarchal societies. What these women—now composing 70 percent of the student body—do when they graduate is a key test of whether this type of education can actually transform these societies. Or are women graduates compelled to leave their countries to fully use what they’ve learned, what they’ve become? I spent time listening to educated women, both graduates and faculty, wrestle with their time in and out of school.


Amira took several of my classes and I got to know her as well as any of my students. I watched her develop from a shy, bright, but awkward girl into a socially adept young woman. She entered college with a cynicism that I thought came from living in a society where young girls were expected to listen to older, usually male, adults. Because she was usually smarter than the people she was listening to, she got comfortable quietly disregarding others’ opinions, especially those of us in authority.

I never saw Amira wearing an abaya; she preferred the contemporary casual dress—jeans and long-sleeved blouses—of a globalized teenager with a hint of restraint inherited from her conservative Syrian family. She would not be called conventionally pretty—too many angles on her long, Semitic face—but her large eyes stood out beneath her rimless glasses. She was a diligent student, seldom assertive in class. But her papers reflected someone who took her studies seriously.

She took my question about how a university education affected women like her and gave me a thoughtful response: “Education in the Middle East is a way to get a job, not to change the way you think. For women from families that can afford it, the norm is now education. A university degree no longer takes away your chances of getting married. Most of the women from my graduating class in 2009 are in fact married.”

But there was a price she paid for her education. University had changed her. Even worse for family tranquility, it had affected the way she thought.

“Believe me, my parents didn’t send me to Georgetown to widen my horizons or liberate my mind. But it often does change the way students think.” She paused and gave me a half smile. “After Georgetown, I have become more curious and less certain.”

She had become sadder, perhaps more realistic, about her hopes for the region and others’ grand schemes to improve life there.

And yet when she stopped to think about her classmates, she said that even before the Arab Spring, “Everyone has gotten good at playing the victim.”

Although Amira had passed on the student trip to Israel (“What was the point of it?”), she had signed on to the following year’s visit to Rwanda. It had changed her. Under the rubric “Zones of Conflict, Zones of Peace,” the Office of Student Affairs had organized a series of overseas trips each year. In spring 2009, they had visited the sites of the 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus. They went to memorials for victims and talked to people who had lived through the mass murders of some six hundred thousand people. The most meaningful experience for Amira was sitting in on the operations of grassroots courts, called Gaccaca, where people who had killed their neighbors with machetes were confronted by the families of the victims. Amira was especially struck by children who, though they had no memories of the horror, were made to attend the trials. She recalls how impassively they watched.

Not only had the trials emphasized forgiveness, they also deemphasized the country’s tribal divisions. Indeed, the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were never used. What struck Amira was how the memories of the violence were channeled into the courts and schools, and so the searing topic of genocide was in the main kept out of family discussions and social engagements. She compared this with her own experiences among Palestinian refugees and how their memories of war were never institutionalized but were left to the families with all the harsh, personal baggage that parents added to them.

She had not lost her cold-eyed view of the Arab world. She mentioned a story her father told her in explaining the spate of violence afflicting the region, following the Arab Spring. “When you lock people in a dark room and deprive them of a lot of things, including freedom, they may appear calm and adjusted. Then someone comes along and suddenly opens the door. No one files out in an orderly, single line. Instead, they rush out to the light, trampling each other on the way. In their desperation to fit through the narrow opening, they harm themselves and each other. It’s a shame but understandable.”

Rogaia was having none of it. Professor Rogaia Abusharaf, a Sudanese-born anthropologist teaching at our school, clad in black slacks and colorful wedged shoes, brought up a point that often gets raised among women in Qatar when they gather to “talk gender.” What’s wrong with the men?

The women of Doha—those from elsewhere as well as Qataris—hardly struck one as a weak, downcast social group. Rogaia endorsed the consensus view of her colleagues that our women students were better at their studies than the men. “Our Qatari women students are driven. They take pride in their work. And they have a strong sense of urgency toward their studies. No wonder. They worry about depending on men.”

She quoted a friend who said, “Men are cheap.” It is the women who are populating the government agencies. It was the best of our graduates, often women, who were allowing the Islamic world to compete in a global economy. And their families were behind this change, celebrating their success quite as much as that of their men. “Confidence is not an issue for our women students,” Rogaia added. “They have come to us with their family supports already in place. There are few clear-cut boundaries restraining them in their lives.”

Rogaia’s point is that Westerners’ preconceived notions of traditional societies have blinded many to the diversity and complexity of male-female relations. Women traditionally played a strong, if not dominant, role in villages while the men were off partying and hanging out with their buddies. This left the women central to financial, child-rearing, and housekeeping decisions made in the family. The myth of a harem and men with multiple wives is just that, she says: a myth. Qatari men seldom took more than one wife, even in the old days.

The truth in many Arab families is that “the women call the shots.” Rogaia recounted the story of an Arab professor in the social sciences—she wouldn’t tell me his name—whom she was recruiting to work on a project during the summer break. He apparently wanted to join the research but said he couldn’t. He said his wife wouldn’t allow him to travel during the summer. She wanted him at home. He stayed put.

In another story reinforcing the same theme, Rogaia spoke of an Egyptian housepainter who complained to her that a Qatari man he worked for couldn’t make a decision on the color of paint to use for rooms in his house. The Qatari man said he couldn’t decide without his wife present. She was apparently in another of their homes. The painter asked his employer to invite her to the house to decide. No, he responded, I tried but she won’t come. The project was put on hold, indefinitely.

The painter’s conclusion, shared by Rogaia, was that behind the appearance of patriarchy and male dominance, Qatari couples operated “like everyone else.” Where wives are the stronger personality, they will be in charge.

Rogaia disputed the dichotomy between modern and traditional in discussing the roles of women. She concluded bluntly, “I don’t subscribe to the idea of tradition making women subservient or holding them back.”

Boys and Girls Together

Most of the young men and women in our school would be easily recognizable in a middle-tier American liberal arts college. Some were bright, some weren’t; some worked hard, some didn’t. They had the customary range of abilities and interests and identities. Many were mature and motivated. Others were just occupying space. And why not? Education for their children was one of many benefits Qataris and their families expected from the state. Students were fulfilling expectations that they reflect the family’s position among a status conscious people. Georgetown offered another expensive import: a prestigious university degree.

Girls seemed better prepared, more focused on getting good grades, sometimes just smarter. Figuring out why was not beyond faculty speculation. Many of the boys we were teaching, especially those from the Gulf, were already familiar with the material pleasures of life: Porsches, summers on the Riviera, fast catamarans, drivers, servants. They came from closely knit, wealthy families in which they had inherited an elevated position. If they were Qatari, they were guaranteed a well-paying, not-very-demanding government job if they wanted, supplemented by financial grants from the regime that allowed them to live a very comfortable life. Bottom line: Gulf men did not have to do well in school to do well in life. Unsurprisingly, teachers who voiced an opinion thought Qatari male students were less motivated than the women. The president of Qatar University, Sheikha Missad, might concur: “This country doesn’t have a woman problem,” she was often quoted as saying, “it has a man problem.”

None of which is to say that girls didn’t engage equally with the material benefits that came with affluence. A graduate of Georgetown’s first class, Katrina Quirolgico, thought the discrimination facing Qatari women depended on their social class. The higher your standing in the social strata, the less likely you were to face adversity because of gender. The less affluent confronted more social restrictions. As for upper-class Qatari women, observed Ms. Quirolgico, “They do what they want to do.”

But for those not quite as privileged, a university education promised an elevation at home and within their female-subordinated society. It might even provide a path to a lifestyle that could take them out of traditional home-and-hearth roles. Wealthy, educated women did not have to give up their families to have a profession. Education for women was prized in traditional societies as long as the consequences of that education didn’t undermine the family, the male-dominated hierarchy, and the faith.

Those women who made it to Georgetown had already proven themselves outstanding students. One Egyptian colleague described her female students as “strong, confident, and assertive.” If they were intimidated by men or a male-dominated culture, I never noticed it in the classroom. Doing their best in college increased their options, including grad school and delaying marriage. In short, Georgetown opened the possibility of following the Western female models portrayed in the global media.

Mixing with men in academia was a daring step for many of them. After an unsteady first year, most of the women adapted fairly easily. But that doesn’t mean the broader cultures did the same. It was not uncommon to hear that Georgetown women were considered “sluts” for mixing with men by their peers at gender-separated, less-prestigious Qatar University across town. One graduate of our “University of Kafirs” told of a prospective husband closely questioning her over the phone about having gone to college with men and then never calling again.

Social mixing between unmarried women and men was still haram in most Gulf families. When it did occur, the results could in some cases be dire. A colleague told the harrowing story of a female student who had a boyfriend at school. As did others, they would sometimes meet and hold hands in inconspicuous corners of the school building. My colleague thought it rather sweet and innocent. Unfortunately, the female student sent an email intended for her boyfriend to her father by accident. The father, who hadn’t known of the boyfriend, confronted her at home, stripped the girl to the waist, and lashed her with a belt. The girl knew enough to take photos of her injuries at the school clinic and to give an account there of what had happened.

Her mother supported her daughter and they both moved out of the compound where they lived; from there, they went into hiding. The father, with the girl’s brother, came looking for them. My colleague was sure they meant to punish the girl, likely with another beating, perhaps worse. At this point, the police intervened to protect the women. It was now plain, however, that it was too dangerous for the girl and her mother to stay in Qatar. The women had stepped outside of customary boundaries and the males in the family were unforgiving. The women fled to another country in the Gulf where the girl continued her education.

A clash of cultures, which could have had a tragic outcome, seemed to resolve well enough for the girl involved, in part because of her own ability to use the resources that our school made available to her.

Where Do They Go Next?

An independent-minded Pakistani coed who graduated with honors from Georgetown and went to graduate school in California remarked, “My family has both given up on me and is proud of me.”

Outside the classroom, many women confront the binding traditions they have temporarily left. They have increased their value in the marriage market, yet they may intimidate the less-educated men available. The women, too, might have gotten a little bit pickier, less amenable to the pressures put on them by their parents, who have selected partners for them. One former Georgetown student insisted that her husband-to-be had to be a college graduate. Needing to live up to his new wife’s expectations, after their wedding he went back to college to get his degree. Georgetown’s former dean Gerd Nonneman called this a “reinvention of traditional elements” by women graduates. While these women still might be socially constrained, many were insisting on rights in their marriage contract that included continuing their education and having a separate house to live in.

Marriages arranged by parents still occur but in the cases I heard about, those pairing off had a say—often a veto—over any parental choice. As one said, we are not forced into marriage but we are pressured. With gender separation in force, it became somewhat difficult for prospective partners in Qatar to make an independent selection. Often the mothers were key in making the choice for their offspring. My wife, Ann, saw this at a Qatar wedding she was invited to. There were two celebrations held miles apart: one for men, one for women.

At the female gathering, an interesting fashion show occurred. Young women, dressed in very revealing clothes, paraded on a stage in front of an audience consisting mainly of older women, most of whom were described to Ann as being the mothers of eligible sons. This was apparently an opportunity for the mothers to “inspect the goods.” The ones passing this initial physical review would presumably merit a recommendation for their sons and a pass to the next level of selection.

Careers for women in Doha were possible, indeed sometimes easier than in other parts of the world. Becoming a mother in Doha was not a career killer as it could be in the United States. With plenty of servants and extended families, day care was not an issue. But the quality of jobs could be a challenge. Two Georgetown graduates spoke about taking their guaranteed jobs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry had a poor reputation among students as an uncreative place to work and these grads’ story illustrated why.

Apparently, the women were assigned to the fourth floor of the Ministry, where female employees gathered mostly to gossip and do their nails. When they were invited to hear visiting speakers, they were seated in the back and given pro forma questions to ask. They complained that in their time at the Ministry they were not assigned anything significant to do. They both quit after six months. There was a debate in the corridors of our school about whether female graduates of Western universities could ever fulfill their professional ambitions if they remained in Doha. Many recent grads stayed in Doha, if only because they were required to remain for a couple years if they wanted their financial aid from Qatar to be forgiven. Most found jobs in multinational corporations, nonprofits, or government agencies, courtesy of a still-expanding, prosperous economy. Sheikha Mozah was a model for many Qatari women seeking positions in Qatar society. Female students often pointed with pride to the three Qatari women who had become ambassadors. Some added knowingly that none of the three was married.

On the other side of the debate was a realpolitik appraisal that we were educating women for a world that didn’t quite exist in the Arab Gulf. Georgetown’s first and, later, interim dean, Jim Reardon-Anderson, put it this way: “Success of women lies with those who take our education into the global marketplace. Those who don’t are stuck.” In reality, the women grads of Georgetown in Doha were not doing what women who gained a degree from the main campus had available to them. The non-Qatari women educated here have taken wing, the dean added. For the others, they might have to wait for the next generation.

And of course, there was the other side. An Arab friend criticized America for letting its women wander the streets at all hours of the night, vulnerable and unprotected. He pointed to crimes against women and how many were victimized by predators or trapped raising children on their own without the support of a husband or strong family. But women in America have collectively decided they don’t want men’s protection; they want tasks and careers equal to those of men. Pressuring or steering women toward subordinate roles in the family or workplace was no longer acceptable for increasing numbers of them. Justifying this practice because of their “weaker” feminine inclinations or inherited customs was equally unacceptable. If the women themselves rejected these identities, men were unlikely to be able to impose them for long.

Creating choices for individual women was what many Georgetown administrators, faculty, and families recognized and supported. One Georgetown graduate and feminist leader, Melanne Verveer, put the point well: “An educated girl was the single most important development story.”

Many in the Muslim world and elsewhere do not allow women to make their own choices or honor them when made. This will not likely halt the increasing number of women who want to travel their own paths and live with the consequences. Arguing that there were no differences between how women were treated in “traditional” and “modern” societies was not consistent with the experiences of these students. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t considerable variation in both types of society.


My last meeting with Amira was in a Washington coffee house—one of those modern, mostly glass affairs on a downtown corner but nearly empty on the late Friday afternoon when we sat down to talk. It had just rained, a sudden summer downpour. I was wet and late. She had arrived on time, which was not like her. Amira seemed unusually upbeat. She proudly declared that she had given up cigarettes. She was working for an English nonprofit that campaigned to expand press freedoms and online access throughout the world. I turned the conversation to her life. She said she had a serious boyfriend.

“He’s a Catholic, an American, working as an international consultant.”

“What do your parents think?”

“Actually, he was traveling through Doha and he stopped by to meet the family. He stayed for dinner and it went well.” She said this with a bit of can-you-believe-this in her voice.

“My mother was surprisingly accepting. My father didn’t seem concerned; he worries more about my safety living in the West. He doesn’t understand my living so far away from the family with no relatives to depend on. He doesn’t quite get the concept of roommates.”

“What happened?”

“I just turned twenty-seven. That’s quite old in our family for an unmarried woman. They just want to see me get married. And they don’t seem to care to whom.”

We said good-bye on the corner outside the café. In keeping with my Gulf training, I waited for her to reach out her hand to shake mine, knowing that in Qatar only a few Arab women were willing to indulge this seemingly daring courtesy.

Instead, she grinned and gave me a hug. Yet another step away from Doha.

Walking away, I wondered about her parents and their acceptance of her boyfriend. I thought of my mom when, in my late thirties, I brought home a divorced woman, not Jewish of course, with her six-year-old boy. I told Mom we wanted to get married. She never objected to Ann. Indeed, she welcomed Daniel as if he were already a grandson and seemed quite happy. I was pretty impressed with this late-in-life flexibility. Afterward, other family members mentioned, offhandedly, that despite having witnessed a series of my girlfriends, Mom worried that I was gay. She may have been joking, which didn’t mean she—a woman of stern traditions—wasn’t worried.

Who knows what fears, spoken and unspoken, caused Amira’s parents to accept her changes and choices. Perhaps the prospects she presented them were a vast improvement on the disasters they were witnessing in their own part of the world, not to mention other fears of what they could imagine harming their precious daughter. Maybe her parents were not that different from mine. One can almost hear them all reciting the oft-spoken oath of parents—from many different lands and faiths, of times ancient and current, who—when presented with an offer they can’t refuse from children they can’t control—bravely if halfheartedly respond:

“As long as you’re happy, dear.”

By Gary Wasserman

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Book Excerpts Gender Girls Higher Education Islam Middle East Qatar Women