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Expat women living in Qatar will find that the government policies of the Arabian Peninsula make for a unique life that usually demands certain initial adjustments.
Women's rights in Qatar
Unlike neighbouring Saudi Arabia, women have more progressive rights in Qatar. They vote, run for municipal elections, and participate freely in all parts of public and social life while enjoying much more equality in professional and educational settings than in Saudi.
Following the lead of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser (the chairperson of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, and also one of the wives of the previous emir) women are employed and educated at all levels of society.
These familiar rights will make most newcomers comfortable in their surroundings. Qatar also practises religious tolerance and there are several religious facilities, including an official Catholic church and Hindu temples, in addition to the mosques around the country. Those who practise other religions are free to do so, but proselytising is illegal.
That said, both men and women should realise that Qatari society is engaged in a constant balancing act between the traditional and modern. This means that old-world values, such as gender-segregated schooling environments, are still upheld and considered core to national identity. Similarly, males are considered the natural head of the family, and Western expats should be prepared for a typically patriarchal society.
Though women can work and are respected in the workplace, women under a family residence visa sponsored by their husbands will likely need their husband's official approval to do so. The LGBTQ+ community also undeniably face multiple challenges given that homosexuality is illegal under Sharia, Islamic law.
Dress in Qatar
While non-Qatari women are not expected to wear the abaya, a black robe-like covering, expat women should dress appropriately when at shopping malls, the souks, the Corniche and other public areas. This means covering the arms, at least with short sleeves, and wearing dresses, skirts and shorts that covers the knees.
Dressing appropriately in Qatar will also ensure that expat women will avoid being stared at, or attracting other unwelcome attention from men while out in the city (men, often far from their wives and families, greatly outnumber women in Doha).
Hotels are generally more permissive when it comes to dress and can be an enclave for expats, but keeping the culture in mind while en route and when leaving the hotel is important. A good principle for the expat woman is to always have a shawl in one's handbag or car to use for covering up if needing to get out of the car in public unexpectedly, or for chilly air-conditioned interiors.
Making friends in Qatar
Many of the expat women in Qatar are homemakers who have travelled for the sake of their husbands' jobs and have suddenly found that they don’t have to “make home” in Qatar. House help is widely available at a reasonable price – one of the great benefits of living here, particularly for those with young children. As a result, expat women may find infinitely more hours to spend with their family and friends, or working, or on hobbies.
The transition can be challenging at first when women left at home alone must find ways to fill the time. Those living on compounds are lucky since the compound can act as a safety net for first-time movers. These instant communities have welcoming neighbours and often a central swimming pool or clubhouse.
Another pre-made circle of friends is the network of spouses and children who are the wives and kids of work colleagues. It should be kept in mind that these relationships can often be necessary and welcome, but people may eventually want to branch out, as expat communities can feel claustrophobic with people living and working very closely together.
As there are many others in this situation, there is a varied social scene, with potluck, writing groups, book clubs and other interest groups that are generally open to all women. Activities such as salsa and creative writing have sprung up in recent years. Notices of their meetings are posted regularly in local magazines as well as on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Due to the somewhat transient nature of expat life in Qatar, many people stay an average of only three years. Most of the groups (and people in general) are used to welcoming new arrivals and are very good at making fresh assignees feel welcome. If a new arrival doesn’t find a group for their particular interest, it is fairly easy to start one.
Work-life balance in Qatar
Those who move to Qatar as single working women will find the elusive work-life balance all the more important to establish. Spending all one's time doing business can get lonely. Start-up companies that demand long hours and companies that uphold the working days and times of Western countries (and not Qatar) often monopolise their employees' time and commitments.
Those who deliberately limit the amount of time they spend at work and on email will find opportunities to explore the city and establish relationships outside of it. It’s important to make this effort, and there are networks related to professional working women that could be useful in helping to meet other women who aren’t able to develop friendships over coffee mornings.
Those looking to make connections in the local community or outside the bubble of their living/working conditions, may find this takes a fair amount of determination, but it can be done. The ephemeral nature of the expat community means that those who stay longer than three years – Qatari and non-Qatari – can be wary of the steady stream of inquiries by newcomers, and may be reluctant to make new friends. The best way to break into these communities is to get involved in meaningful activities, like volunteering and participating in charity work, and to give friendships time to develop.