Debra Shushan on "The Female Face of Qatar's Municipal Elections"

May 10, 2011

Debra Shushan was the 2010-2011 Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for International and Regional Studies. Currently, she is Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary.

Qataris went to the polls in May to elect members of the tiny Gulf emirate’s Central Municipal Council. Of the CMC’s 29 seats, 28 were won by male candidates. But Sheikha bint Yousef Al-Jufairi, the woman who trounced her opponent to win the remaining seat is the one who captured headlines.

Al-Jufairi’s victory may not sound like much. After all, the Council plays a limited role, dealing only with local issues like roads, lighting, sewage, and parks and recreation. Even within that narrow remit, the CMC’s role is purely advisory; the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture decides the allocation of resources. Moreover, the vast majority of Qatar’s residents lack a voice, since voting is restricted to Qatari citizens, who comprise only about 15 percent of the country’s population of 1.7 million. Of those eligible, only 32,662 registered to vote in last week’s elections. And turnout among registered voters is declining, with 43 percent of registered voters (13,606 people) coming to the polls last week as compared to 51 percent when CMC elections were last held in 2007.

And yet, Sheikha Al-Jufairi’s strong showing in the CMC elections is notable for what it may do for the status of women in a state which is steadily increasing its stature in regional and global affairs.

Al-Jufairi is an impressive figure. The 49-year-old Qatari was educated in law at Cairo University, and serves as a member of the Arab Women Labor Affairs Committee of the Arab Labor Organization presided over by Jordan’s Queen Rania. She first won a seat on the CMC in 2003. In defending that seat in the two subsequent elections in 2007 and 2011, Al-Jufairi scored more votes than any other candidate across the 29 electoral districts. She chairs the Council’s Legal Committee and is a member of its Public Services and Facilities Committee. Al-Jufairi, one of four women to appear on the ballot last week out of a total 101 candidates, is the only woman ever to win a seat on the CMC.

Political liberalization and female empowerment have been intertwined in Qatar since Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani ousted his father to assume the throne in 1995. Later that year, the new leader announced that there would be elections for the previously appointed Central Municipal Council. The first elections were held in 1999, with women and men eligible to vote and run for office. It was the first time that women in a Gulf monarchy were allowed to vote, a fact the regime highlighted by holding the election on March 8, International Women’s Day. Eager to portray a progressive image to the international community, some contend that the regime responded to the failure to elect a woman in the 1999 election by pressuring potential candidates not to run against Sheikha Al-Jufairi in 2003. While unopposed in her first run, she has defended her seat ably against challengers in two subsequent elections.

Al-Jufairi is making an impact within her municipal district and helping advance the position of women in Qatari society. Her success is encouraging female participation in politics. This year, Al-Jufairi’s district (in the vicinity of the Doha Airport) was one of eight in which female voters outnumbered men. Fatima Ahmed Al-Kuwari, Al-Jufairi’s opponent in the 2011 election, says that she was spurred to become politically active by her own experience volunteering at the polls in 2003, when Sheikha Al-Jufairi was first elected to the CMC.

The prominent role of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned, the wife of Emir Hamad and Chair of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development, has helped accustom Qataris to female leadership in public life. In a recent poll, Sheikha Moza was voted the second most popular role model for Arab women, next to Queen Rania. However, some conservatives within Qatar have decried Sheikha Moza’s active public role and even her allegedly immodest dress. The growing prominence of a few women outside the royal family may help to normalize female participation, and even leadership, in public life.

Indeed, male support for Sheikha Al-Jufairi and other female CMC candidates is an encouraging sign. Asked how he felt about choosing between two women on the ballot, one male voter in the Airport district indicated that he was quite happy; after all, in his experience, women work harder than men. Al-Jufairi’s energetic campaigning, commitment to her constituents, and command of local issues may be rooted in an understanding that female candidates must work harder than their male peers to be taken seriously. This drives innovation: Al-Jufairi claims to be the first CMC candidate to use social media like Facebook and Twitter as campaign tools, helping her to publicize her electoral agenda and reach out to voters. Signaling her heartfelt commitment to helping her neighbors, Al-Jufairi emphasizes that she even helps expatriates (who cannot repay her with their votes) with their concerns. She insists that women must win seats by demonstrating their competence and has spoken out against the adoption of quotas for female legislators. A week before the election, Al-Jufairi held a majlis (communal gathering) for male voters. Observing her lay out her electoral program and address questions – a lone woman in a black abaya standing before a sea of men in traditional white thobes – it was easy to be impressed by her political skill.

In addition to the standard local issues which Sheikha Al-Jufairi pledges to address through the CMC, her agenda includes increasing the availability of daycare at mothers’ workplaces and building a special clubhouse for women. Since male representatives are less likely to fight for such services, Al-Jufairi’s work illustrates the difference female participation can make in terms of policy outcomes.

Insofar as political liberalization in Qatar is concerned, Emir Hamad has indicated that making the Central Municipal Council an elected body is only the beginning. According to the new Constitution he introduced, which was approved by an overwhelming majority of Qatari voters in a 2003 referendum, the appointed Consultative Council was to be replaced by an Advisory Council, in which two-thirds of the 45 members would be chosen through popular elections and the remainder by royal appointment. However, Advisory Council elections have been postponed repeatedly, and it is unclear when they will be held. A popular explanation for the postponements is that, as in Kuwait, an elected parliament could perpetuate gridlock and give conservative elements a chance to block the regime’s progressive initiatives. At present, there is no public groundswell among Qataris demanding that the regime expedite Advisory Council elections. That is consistent with the prevailing quiescence among Qataris, most of whom appear content with a status quo that includes economic prosperity and political stability but lacks meaningful political participation.

When Advisory Council elections are finally held, we can hope that the work of early pioneers like Sheikha Al-Jufairi will translate into a substantial role for Qatari women.