In the wake of the Arab Spring, women are speaking for the region, according to H.E. Sheikha Alya Bint Ahmed Bin Saif Al Thani, Qatar’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations. “We saw how women were the voices of the Arab Spring process in the Arab world,” she said.
Raised in a diplomatic family and educated abroad, Thani said she felt an obligation to pursue a diplomatic career and be a positive influence to other Qatari women after working with her own role model.
“My real role model of this region was Sheikha Mozah [bint Nasser al-Missned], the former first lady of Qatar. I had the privilege of working with her and for her for a couple of years. She inspired me and many others. She kind of broke the barrier,” Thani said.
Thani has tried to break barriers herself by focusing on previously ignored issues. “One of the most dear assignments to my heart was years ago when I served in New York as a diplomat. I was able to acknowledge the important developmental disorder of autism. In the past, autism was not given the right attention,” she said. Changing this perception in Qatar and on the international stage has been gratifying for the New York-based diplomat. She added, “I have been meeting people in the street and when we talk and they realize I’m from Qatar and that I was involved, they say, ‘You have affected our lives. We have a child with autism.’ This was really my most dear achievement.”
Change for women has not always come quickly to the region, but Thani credits a more gradual pace of change with lasting effects. “I don’t believe in taking the fast track. Some countries really wanted to showcase that they are doing well by introducing changes really fast, where the community was not able to accept them. In Qatar, we took the slow track. For instance, Qatar was one of those countries that joined late in the recognition of the convention on eliminating discrimination against women. It took us, I think, more than five years debating it at the national level. We organized many debates. I was part of the National Council on Family Affairs during that time, and we debated it with family members, [both] men and women. Even women didn’t accept the idea of joining this convention because they thought that this would bring in foreign ideas, which they or their families didn’t want to be exposed to. So it’s not only an issue with men — it was also with women. But with the gradual pace we took, I think we were able to get this consent,” she said.
Whatever the achievements have been, Thani knows that more is needed. She said, “What I think we need now is to safeguard these accomplishments and look ahead.”
The text of the full interview follows:
Al-Monitor: What inspired you to become a diplomat?
Thani: What inspired me? First of all, I belong to a family that is composed of a number of former diplomats — my father, my uncle. So it’s something that I learned throughout my life. This is one thing that has to do with it.
The second [reason] is that I felt it was important for Qatar. Just to give you some background, Qatar is a conservative society …, even though it respects women, we didn’t have women working in the diplomatic community. I felt the obligation because I had the ability, the knowledge and the skills.
I loved my previous job, I really loved it because my background is more in working on the social agenda within the community in Qatar, working with nongovernmental organizations, advocating for children’s rights and women’s rights. But I still felt I had the obligation because I have the skills and because I have the needed courage to enter this arena. I thought maybe I should do this because it will encourage others to join, and probably the sense of responsibility I carried on my shoulders.
Al-Monitor: So you felt an obligation to be a role model for others?
Al-Monitor: Did you have some role models other than your father and your family?
Thani: My family definitely comes first when it comes to the knowledge of this field. My real role model of this region was Sheikha Mozah, the former first lady of Qatar. I had the privilege of working with her and for her for a couple of years. She inspired me and many others. She kind of broke the barrier, she was the first to break the barrier. To be a public figure on TV in Qatar was not something common when she first became one. So she kind of encouraged us. I liked her approach. I consider her a role model.
There are a lot of role models in the Arab world. I cannot name them all, but I think she is the role model for me in terms of not having limitations when it comes to progressing in your career while still preserving your identity, your national identity. I never thought it would be easy to wear a headscarf and being part of a metropolitan community. She did it. When I saw that people accepted her and her national identity, I felt maybe it is not wrong to be part of this community and I think it paid off.
Al-Monitor: When did you work for her?
Thani: I worked with her from 1999 until 2007. Her highness Sheikha Mozah took the lead on improving the social and human rights agenda in Qatar. She established many organizations; one that I worked for was the National Council for Family Affairs. She was able to make a lot of improvements with this council when it came to the social agenda, [and] laws that are related to women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. Especially people with disabilities because she kind of got rid of the stigma that many Eastern societies have when it comes to [this group in society].
She promoted this agenda and brought us more in line with global standards. So she was really a pioneer on this particular issue, not only in Qatar but also in the region.
Al-Monitor: How has the status of women and families improved in recent years, especially in Qatar?
Thani: In our society, as I said, women are respected as mothers, as sisters, as caregivers. They are well respected in this society. When it comes to building a career it was probably not easy. I think in the last 18 years, since 1996, we have progressed when it comes to empowerment of women. We have many women in different positions, including in the Foreign Ministry and the diplomatic community, but we still need to do more in areas such as defense and the military, though we do have women in technical jobs in these industries.
I think we have achieved a lot when it comes to empowerment of women. We need to do a lot when it comes to gender equality, as does everyone else. I think we have achieved a lot when it comes to reforming laws relating to women and family. It was very important, for instance, to set a minimum age for marriage … this had a big effect on education career-building for women.
Al-Monitor: What do you feel are the remaining challenges?
Thani: I don’t believe in taking the fast track. Some countries really wanted to showcase that they are doing well by introducing changes really fast, where the community was not able to accept them. In Qatar, we took the slow track. For instance, Qatar was one of those countries that joined late in the recognition of the convention on eliminating discrimination against women. It took us, I think, more than five years debating it at the national level. We organized many debates. I was part of the National Council on Family Affairs during that time, and we debated it with family members, [both] men and women. Even women didn’t accept the idea of joining this convention because they thought that this would bring in foreign ideas, which they or their families didn’t want to be exposed to. So it’s not only an issue with men — it was also with women.
But with the gradual pace we took, I think we were able to get this consent. We were very democratic in that. We got the consent from the community, that, yes, we will join the convention, but we need to explain some of our — not our reservations — but at least put down explanatory notes on some articles where we needed the international community to understand that these were areas we needed to do a lot on at the national level before we could commit to it. So this is what I was saying. I think one of the challenges we will face later on is really more related to gender equality. I think no one in the world, even the Western world, even the United States, is able to achieve a lot when it comes to gender equality. We heard the actor at the Oscars when she was saying that loud and clear. So, I think that is something we need to work on hard and do something that really applies, with society understanding it because there’s no one example that fits all. We need to really think about it on a national and international level.
Al-Monitor: I think you might have addressed some of this but what are some of the biggest misconceptions about women in Qatar and in the Middle East that you encounter here?
Thani: I think the misconceptions related to, for instance, [why women are] wearing the veil ... headscarf ... and hijab.
I think this fear of what we call Islamophobia — I mean, even women are very much affected by that. We see a lot of unfortunate incidents where women are being harassed or misunderstood because of how they look. I think we need to do a lot in that regard, especially as sometimes these incidents turn violent and people need justice. There were a lot of incidents where women were attacked and they didn’t get justice. I think this is something we need to work on and see how to deal with this.
We understand, of course, the line between freedom of expression and protecting people who practice their religion but when things turn violent, we need to make sure that people who are confronted by these situations — Muslim women — get justice in the end. I think also with the use of social media, people are realizing this, and I think it’s a good tool to showcase how much people are now understanding this subject.
Al-Monitor: The shooting of three students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a recent example.
Thani: Yes, I mean it is important to acknowledge that this is a hate crime. There is nothing wrong with doing that. You are not associating yourself with Islam. They are Americans at the end of the day.
Al-Monitor: Since becoming a diplomat, is there an accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
Thani: One of the most dear assignments to my heart was years ago when I served in New York as a diplomat. I was able to acknowledge the important developmental disorder of autism. In the past, autism was not given the right attention. It’s one of those developmental disorders that is not categorized as extreme, unfortunately, but it is. It affects the lives of a lot of children. In Qatar and in the region, we are very much aware of the disorder. There are a lot of children who are affected by it.
When we were debating this possible [UN] General Assembly resolution on an international day that is devoted to raising awareness of autism, I worked closely with a well-known US organization called Autism Speaks. I was really surprised to see that there are a lot of struggles to passing laws here in the US on early detection, for instance, and providing services for families to deal with this matter. We work together very closely and we were able to pass a resolution in 2007. So this is something very dear to my heart because I saw the impact. I have been meeting people in the street and when we talk and they realize I’m from Qatar and that I was involved, they say, ‘You have affected our lives. We have a child with autism.’ This was really my most dear achievement.
Al-Monitor: What are the current issues that you’re spending the most time thinking about at the UN or its agenda?
Thani: Unfortunately, for us coming from the Arab region, we’re living a very tense and difficult time. Most of the issues being discussed in the Security Council are related to the Arab region: Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. So, we have a lot to do and especially now that Qatar is chairing the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] this year. We assumed the chairmanship in December and it’s a one-year responsibility. So especially when it comes to Yemen, we have to deal with this matter and coordinate with our GCC colleagues. We have a special responsibility this year with this chairmanship. When it comes to diplomatic issues, of course the debate — the post-2015 development agenda is something that will conclude in September — we will see heads of states come in for the summit to adopt the document.
As you know in 2000, the Millennium Summit took place and there was the outcome document where a lot of goals were set and principles related to health, education and the environment.
Now we are working on the sustainable development agenda. We are working together to come up with a set of measures and principles to deal with these matters and also emerging issues, such as new developments when it comes to the agenda related to climate change, and other matters dealing with conflict and natural disasters. Because from 2000 until now things have changed.
Al-Monitor: What do you think on Syria, how the evolution of the intervention against the Islamic State [referred to as ISIS by Thani] is working. Any resolution in sight?
Thani: On Syria, the revolution is entering its fifth year. It wasn’t expected to take this amount of time, where the death toll has exceeded 210,000, along with the influx of refugees and the burden on Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. It’s just incredible. But when it comes to, of course, dealing with this extreme new phenomenon — terrorism and ISIS — Qatar is a part of the coalition to combat terrorism. We joined these efforts with France, the US and a number of countries in the region. I think this coalition is growing in number now with some helping militarily or humanitarianly or logistically. But, for us, Qatar, we have always stressed the importance of dealing with the root of this problem.
The root of this problem is the regime, the Syrian regime. You cannot tackle or combat the work of ISIS without dealing with the source of the problem, which is the Syrian regime. We didn’t have ISIS when all this began. ISIS is something that happened while this problem has been ignored. Countries were trying to find a solution but the deadlock in the Security Council and not being able to unite on this subject has caused this inability to deal with it within the international community.
Al-Monitor: Do you see a kind of consensus versus ISIS, even including Russia? Is a shift to some sort of political solution emerging?
Thani: Yesterday [Feb. 26] there was a debate on the humanitarian situation in Syria and we heard statements by all members of the Security Council. I see, in my personal view, a new tone by some of those who had difficulty in the past. I see this means of asking the regime also — the Syrian regime — to show cooperation with the efforts of the special envoy, [Staffan] de Mistura, with the international efforts to find a political solution. I hope what I heard yesterday was real because this is to me a new tone. We count on that because once you have unity, both the Syrian regime and ISIS will be isolated. This coalition will be strengthened if we are able to also address the wrongdoings of the Syrian regime. People on the ground will feel [they get] justice and we will feel that we haven’t let them down.
Al-Monitor: What do you hope to see in the coming years for future generations of women in the Middle East?
Thani: I think that women in the Middle East have achieved a lot already. Women in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia — and I don’t want to name all the countries in the Gulf, but certainly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — women there have achieved a lot and have been pioneers in the previous decades.
What I think we need now is to safeguard these accomplishments and look ahead. We saw how women were the voices of the Arab Spring process in the Arab world. In Yemen, for instance, Tawakkol Karman, who is a Nobel peace prize laureate, was the voice of the young people and the Yemeni people when it came to wanting justice, equality and dignity. Even though Yemen is a conservative society, their voices have been led by women, similarly to other Arab countries.
I think we need to safeguard what we have accomplished and I’m very much positive. We have wonderful young women now. For instance, whenever I’m on [UN] mission assignment, I make sure I have women in my diplomatic staff. I see in the younger generation the interest to do more and they have the same sense of responsibility I felt when I started my career. So, I’m not worried that they will do the same because they feel there is a lot to be done and they want to have the same sense of achievement. I think this element will help them pass the torch to the next generation.