WOMEN HIGHER EDUCATION IN QATAR

KANWAL SALEEM
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)
Mar 22 - 28, 2010

With Qatar continues to grow and develop, women and women's issues are a key factor in this forward movement. At most educational institutions in Qatar, and at all age levels, there are more female students enrolled in schools than males, making Qatar one of the most progressive Gulf states as regards to education of women.

Along with the country's free healthcare to every citizen, every child has also free education from kindergarten through to university. The country has one university, the University of Qatar, and a number of higher educational institutions. Additionally, with the support of the Qatar Foundation, some major American universities have opened branch campuses in the Education City, Qatar. These include Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Cornell University's Weill Medical College.

In 2004, Qatar established the Qatar Science & Technology Park at Education City to link those universities with industry. Education City is also home to a fully accredited International Baccalaureate School, Qatar Academy.

In November 2002, the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani created the Supreme Education Council. The Council directs and controls education for all ages from the pre-school level through the university level, including the "Education for a New Era" reform initiative.

The Emir's second wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, has been instrumental in new education initiatives in Qatar. She chairs the Qatar Foundation and is on the board of Qatar's Supreme Education Council.

The most significant change for women has come in education. Female education in Qatar goes back to the end of the nineteenth century, when families who could afford it hired tutors, called mutawah, to give their children (mainly boys) lessons on Islam. The curriculum consisted mainly of recitation of the Quran and some reading and writing. However, few women were fortunate enough to receive even this minimum. (Writing, in particular, was thought to be corrupting for women.) Those few studied only from the age of six to twelve; thereafter, they stayed at home awaiting a marriage proposal.

The first pioneer for female education in Qatar was a remarkable woman, Amnah Mahmud al-Jiddah, who began her own career in the 1940s as a mutawah, going to the houses of her female students to teach them. Finally, she started her own private primary school for girls in 1947, the first of its kind. It was not until 1955 that the government opened the first public primary school for girls. Slowly, families began to send their girls to these government schools, which were originally staffed with female teachers from other Arab countries.

To encourage education, in 1950, the Qatari government offered free schooling, free distribution of schoolbooks and equipment, and even a monthly stipend to any Qatari who enrolled at any level. Women benefited from these measures. Indeed, they soon made education a chief channel of mobility and a focal point of their endeavors. After a slow start in the 1960s, female enrollments grew and, by the late 1970s, began to surpass those of men. By 1978, more girls than boys were graduating from high school.

In 1973, the first university-level faculty was opened in Qatar--a faculty of education, which had two separate branches: one for men and one for women. Then, in 1977, Qatar University was officially inaugurated. Since then, the number of faculties (now called colleges) has expanded to seven: education; humanities; sciences; law and shariah (Islamic law); technology, economics and business administration; and engineering.

From the beginning, women have been allowed to study in all of these colleges except engineering.

One of the most striking phenomena in women's education has been the gender imbalance in enrollments. This is particularly noticeable at the university level, where over 70 percent of the students are women. This discrepancy in gender enrollment, which exists at lower levels and in other countries of the Arab Gulf as well, calls for some explanation. One is that the best male high-school graduates are sent abroad to study on scholarships supported by government or by their parents.

Since the assumption of power by the current Emir of Qatar, the role of women in Qatar has been supported and encouraged in all aspects of public and private life. According to analysts, Qatar has played a pivotal role in the expansion of US higher education in the Gulf region through the leadership and guidance of the ruling Al-Thani family, the Qatar Foundation and the RAND-Qatar Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank. The creation of a knowledge economy became one of the state's priorities after the 1995 bloodless coup that installed the progressive Al-Thani Emir, Amir Hamad bin Khalifa. The establishment and funding of new higher education offerings followed and in 2003, the first and only branch campus in the world, Education City, was inaugurated just outside the capital, Doha.

Located on a 2,500-acre campus, Education City has the largest concentration of US learning facilities outside of the country. The campus includes residential and recreational facilities. Only certain programs from each of these universities have been opened in Qatar, a testament to the segmented nature of the export of US higher education.

The scope of the project remains small: in 2005 there were only 800 students with 60 percent of students enrolled in Education City being Qatari and 40 percent being non-Qataris, including a few Iraqis on scholarship. In a state with a population of 850,000 where 23.5 percent of the residents are believed to be citizens, it is not surprising that a national project would involve non-Qatari students. In fact, it seems that the Qatari nationals are over-represented in the student body in terms of the population. This is likely due to the offer of full funding provided by the state to Qatari citizens wishing to attend university. Despite this financial incentive, many Qataris continue to choose the University of Qatar over Education City.

The first US university to offer classes there preceded the official inauguration of Education City by six years. When it began offering classes in 1997, VCU was the first US university to open a branch in Education City. Although it is a coed public university in the US, it opened as a women's only campus to cater to the demand for a local outlet for women's education that was outside of the public university. The University of Qatar has sex-segregated sections for men and women in all of its faculties, with the exception of the engineering faculty, which is only open to men. VCU was conforming to the current norms in Qatari education by creating a women's school but the choice also indicated a prioritization of women's higher education at the outset of the project. There has been a recent and controversial decision to start admitting men in a few years that has been opposed by many female students who speak of the perceived need to become more ladylike and quiet once men are admitted. Although sex-segregated education is indeed traditional, VCU departs from the model of women's higher education in the Gulf in two significant ways: it is not a teacher training school and it offers a bachelor's liberal arts degree with a US-based curriculum.

Cornell began offering courses in Qatar in 2002, becoming the first US institution to offer an MD degree overseas. The Weill Cornell Medical College is located in New York City and so already forms a branch campus of the upstate Cornell University's main campus in Ithaca, New York. The founders of the Weill Cornell Medical College- Qatar (WCMC-Q) worked with the Hamad Medical Corporation to recruit qualified physicians with the required credentials to become faculty at the medical school alongside US faculty members. Weill Cornell now offers two degrees in Education City, a two-year pre-med degree, and a four-year medical program to male and female students. Upon completion of their degrees, graduates exit with the same qualifications as Cornell in New York.

Texas A&M established an engineering undergraduate program in Qatar in 2003, offering bachelor's of science degrees in petroleum, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering to both men and women. Since women are barred from attending the University of Qatar's faculty of engineering, Texas A&M is the only place that a Qatari or Qatari-based woman can study engineering. Faculty is appointed to their positions in Qatar for one to three-year terms so the professors are transnational and teach similar material in both countries. The engineering-only school runs two research centers ñ one dedicated to the environment and the other to liquefied natural gas exploration.

Since Qatar has one of the worldís largest gas reserves, the training is clearly applicable to industries within the state as well as the region. The Texas A&M program in Qatar runs one of the most powerful systems of supercomputers in the world that is used for analyzing chemical properties and allows for research collaboration with Texas A&M colleagues in their home campus in College Station, Texas. Such computer capabilities facilitate research across continents and contribute to the ability to globalize research in addition to university expansion.

Another way of utilizing technology for the globalized university is teleconferencing. Carnegie Mellon, which offers undergraduate degrees in business and computer science to both men and women in Qatar, simultaneously teleconferences classes in Pittsburgh and Doha, enabling senior professors to be in two places at once, maximizing their time and the university's resources.

The latest addition to Education City is Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. In 2005, Georgetown began offering a bachelor's degree in Foreign Service with a strong focus on international affairs. As a Jesuit institution, Georgetown is the only religiously affiliated university and stands out against the backdrop of the secular educational programs of the other US universities. Like many of the other universities in Education City, Georgetown's stated mission is to bridge cultural differences and nurture citizen leaders.

Only certain programs from each of these universities have been opened. Men and women's education are focused on addressing the national and regional economic needs through degrees and skills in engineering, medicine, business, computer science as well as diplomacy. The programs are oriented to the vocational and technical spectrum of education, but not at a manual labor level.

With the exception of VCU, the focus here is not a general education, rather, the programs are geared towards the job marketplace and the practical application of skills needed for healthcare, industry and business. The evaluation of these needs is tempered by what is considered socially acceptable for students in the Gulf. The pre-professionalism of the programs is clear and intentional: there is no wood shop or electrician's course on offer in Education City. As one author wrote, "Many people in the Gulf still value white-collar jobs much higher than blue-collar ones."