Mon, May 12, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Qatari women spearhead reforms in conservative Gulf region


Sheikha Al-Mahmud, named this week as the first female Cabinet minister in the reformist Gulf state of Qatar, says she had not expected to become "Her Excellency the Minister" though she fully supports putting qualified women in top state posts.

Mahmud's appointment as minister of education and teaching by Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani came hours before he left Doha Tuesday on a Western tour, the highlight of which is talks with US President George W. Bush on Thursday.

"No, I did not expect to become `Her Excellency the Minister', although I do think that women are entitled to assume senior state posts if they have what it takes to do so," Mahmud said.

The Emir's talks with Bush will center on democracy, the reconstruction of Iraq and the war on terrorism, the White House said on Monday.

Sheikh Hamad, who put his small gas-rich state on a path of reform after coming to power in 1995, is visiting Washington -- as well as Britain and France -- shortly after an April 29 referendum overwhelmingly approved a constitution that will give Qatar a partly-elected Shura (Consultative) Council, probably next year.

Mahmud said she would devote equal energies to male and female students but is still not sure whether they should mix in school.

"It is premature to speak about this issue," Mahmud said of mixed educational institutions.

However, she pointed out that women have been participating in the decision-making process at the education ministry, where she herself spent 30 years, initially as a teacher, before ending up at its head.

Mahmud, whose appointment came a month after another woman, Sheikha Al-Juffairi, also scored a first by being voted to Qatar's municipal council, said she had consulted her four children before accepting the post, as she did for all important decisions in her life.

Her two sons and two daughters "strongly encouraged me" to take up the challenge, said the widow of a one-time director of the Qatari post office.

She said her promotion from undersecretary to minister would not stop her devoting time to her family, although she regretted that she no longer found space for her main hobbies -- writing poetry and reading.

"I will focus my energies on grooming Qatari generations that can keep pace with developments in the field of education in the world," Mahmud said.

Mahmud, who is in her forties, said she did not feel intimidated when she took part for the first time in a Cabinet session on Wednesday, especially since she had dealt with some of her fellow ministers before in the framework of committees.

Juffairi, the first Qatari woman to win elected office, said Mahmud's appointment not only put "the right woman in the right place," but was also a manifestation of "the confidence which the Emir places in qualified women."

Qatari women have covered much ground in a short time "under the guidance of the Emir and with support from his wife, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Masnad," Juffairi said.

Mahmud's appointment is "a source of pride for all Gulf states," said the Qatari secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates alongside Qatar.

"And yes, why wouldn't a woman be named secretary general of the GCC?" Abdul Rahman al-Attiyah said.

Qatar's first written Constitution provides for "equal rights and duties for all citizens," upholding the political rights which saw Qatari women blaze a trail in the conservative Gulf by voting and standing for office in the 1999 municipal elections.

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