Qatar has spared no expense in changing the local educational landscape, from investing in infrastructure to elevating students’ voices; every educational aspect has been revolutionized. One of the educational feats that Qatar has established is Education City, an educational environment that hosts nine international universities along with advanced pre-university education. Although the number of Qatari students conducting their studies in Qatar Foundation is quite large, their presence facilitating education in these universities is almost non-existent. As the first Qatari professor, and later dean, in Qatar Foundation Dr. Amal Mohammed Al-Malki is slowly reshaping the educational scene to be more inclusive. So, who is Dr. Amal Al-Malki?
I am a woman with multiple identities. Some of these identities join and intersect to give me a state of privilege, whereas others give me a state of disadvantage. Both states play together, as I cannot be one or the other. I am a mother, a woman, a Qatari citizen, a Muslim, an Arab, a professor, and a feminist. As with all things in life, those identities could put me at a disadvantage in one second, and put me at an advantage point of reference in another. I am a hybrid; my father is Qatari, and my mother is Qatari by marriage but she is originally from Lebanon who married early in her life. It was easier back then to marry a non-Qatari and give the passport to your wife. As a product of mixed marriage, I believe that we have been taught to be open to accepting differences, very early on in my life we have been exposed to different cultures and were well-traveled because of my father’s job. It was not just people that were different; I was different too. The idea of being raised in the context of differences can be both positive and negative. It can be positive in the sense that you get to understand people from different backgrounds and accept them and not judge them, but it is very negative when you try to seek acceptance. From the mid-seventies to the early nineties, the Qatari society was very traditional and closed off. It was very segregated, and we were not supposed to go out or do anything. We usually had to wait till we went to our house in London to get to do the things that we wanted to do. So to be accepted as someone different in Doha was not something mainstream, people tried to fit me within certain frames in which I didn’t fit. That experience was difficult, and I had to answer many questions -and I still do- like why do you sound different? Why do you look different? You’re half non-Qatari so you must be more outgoing…etc. I have got to a point where I have accepted my hybridity, and I saw myself in so many different generations of students that I taught. This is why I say teaching is my calling. I was very young when I started teaching, but the moment that I entered that world I connected to my profession. I was able to identify with students, the cultural clash they face, and the discussions they were having, and many of the things they were going through at that stage. So, teaching managed to put me in a position as someone who understood them and could guide them. That is why I have a big fan base among the younger generations, because they know who I am, and I know who they are. Teaching contributed to shaping my professional identity as I became more accepted, which dictated my role afterward as an educator.
Did your longing to be accepted by society lead you to teaching?
Definitely, it is all about identity politics at the end of the day, and I struggled with understanding my identity because of my unique combination. The older I got, the more open society became, and the more junctures of clash of identities existed. Some would ask ‘why are you a feminist? Is it because of lost dreams or being raised in a conservative society?’, but it is more than that. Somehow, because of my gender, I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do. People would also ask ‘why are you an advocate of social justice?’, it is because I see how misfortunate some of us are because they don’t hold a passport or because they are poor. I was able to identify with multiple levels of injustices, which positioned me in a middle ground of some sort. I did not identify with the superior, and I did not identify with the inferior. I wasn’t the self or the other, I was the hybrid self. Connecting to multiple identities was problematic back then because we were raised to believe that you have to be “pure” Qatari, or pure such and such. That rhetoric that was created during that period because the national state, or the state identity formation, had to exaggerate that narrative to create what we now call the ‘Qatari identity.’ This rhetoric is totally not valid anymore, when we think about it who is a Qatari? It is everyone on this land, the people who are contributing every day to building this land of ours. During the seventies and eighties, people resorted to added surnames, they were seeking a different form of identity that would ground them to this land. They failed to realize though that it is not names that ground them to this land. Since I was raised during those conflict ideologies, I have to say that I am a product of that conflict too. I had to oscillate between narratives until I found myself, and I found myself when I saw that I am not alone. The first generation that I taught at Carnegie Mellon University was the first group of students who have been exposed to American education in Qatar. At that time, there was a kind of backlash as people struggled with accepting that generation. Those students entered the university and believed that everything was possible, but they were hit on a daily basis due to limitations of their gender, culture, and mobility.
Could you tell us more about the nature of your work?
One of the things that we try to uniform is Qatari society, where we say everyone looks like this, or everyone sounds like this, and everyone believes this and so on and it’s not true. For example, I come from an open-minded family, but when we were in Doha, we had to follow the rules, whether we liked them or not. Those rules were the untold social conduct between us and our prestige. Thankfully, one of the values that Qatari families uphold is education, and thus they have sent their kids to Education City to seek Western education in Qatar. One of the things that those families appreciated was the presence of a Qatari faculty, to whom their children can talk; someone who would understand where they are coming from. In addition, I was always willing to communicate students’ concerns to the management. One of the main concerns was about whether we were simply importing theories, which is not true. We teach all kinds of theories, but we do not import them. I taught post-colonial theory, which opened up my students’ minds and expanded their horizons. They started understanding more about why the world is the way it is today, and I remember some students clashed on a daily basis with American faculty because of the colonial attitude with which some of them come. That colonial attitude manifested itself in thoughts like ‘we are here to educate you; we are here to free the woman…etc.’ When we teach those theories and the context behind them, they become educated and informed, in turn, they learn how to respond to that kind of attitude without getting angry. I think everyone appreciated that I brought this to the table, I didn’t represent either side at that age. I didn’t represent the parent generation, but I didn’t represent the American academia either. I was the connection between both, and they appreciated it. Among all Gulf states, I think Qatar understands what education means to the society, and understands that education brings change. I believe that there was a clear plan for social change, there is no way that we would bring American universities without thinking change would happen. The question is how to gear that change in a positive manner that doesn’t disrupt, although disruption in certain areas should happen, the coherence of the society? With each generation, the nature of change will change, my daughter’s generation will introduce me to changes that will be shocking to me. My role though is not necessarily all that shocking, for I fit a traditional gender role which is working in education. Although the education system in question is American, it is education nonetheless.
How was your journey as the only Qatari professor in Qatar Foundation?
Everyone who knows me would know that I haven’t achieved anything if it wasn’t pure hard work. I never took anything for granted, and I don’t have any sense of entitlement because of my nationality as I wasn’t raised like that. I was raised during a period of time where Qatar was not known, whenever we traveled and I introduced where I am from people would say where is that. Maybe until the mid-nineties Qatar was not on the map figuratively speaking, so you can’t have any sense of entitlement within the international context. More than that, I was too busy thinking about how I would fit and get accepted which pretty much shaped my external basic effort. As for my internal effort, I was an avid reader. My dad had a lovely library in the house, and I read everything from novels to legal books as early as ten years old. Since I was infatuated with books ever since I was young, it made me more aware of the injustices surrounding me. I learned very early that I am disadvantaged for being a woman. For example, it wasn’t easy for my mom to be accepted by society at the beginning. She was young, she was non-Qatari, she looked different, spoke differently, and witnessing all of that made me very aware of my limitations. Just for being a woman, I started life from a point of disadvantage, not a point of advantage. I finished my Ph.D. when I was very young, and for that everyone described me as an overachiever. My academic career in general was wrapped up very early in my life, where I started university at the age of sixteen and finished my Bachelor’s degree at a young age. Following that, I immediately went to London for my Master’s degree when I was around twenty years old. I remember when I applied for a Master’s degree, the interviewing supervisor told me that I was very young, and I should get married instead! You can see the dichotomy in that narrative as I was not too young to get married, but I was too young to get educated. This incident further proves how disadvantaged I was in any context, whether it was the Qatari traditional context or the British educational context in London. After I finished my Master’s degree, I spent a year figuring out what I wanted to do, I then decided to obtain a Ph.D. degree. I was a big fan of Jack Shaheen and I was interested in American education, and I knew that I wanted to do something around those ideas. This led me to postcolonial and gender theory, especially third world feminism. It was the best decision I ever made, it opened up my eyes and made me realize that my struggle is a small piece in a huge struggle. I was not alone. I prolonged my Ph.D. as I didn’t want to come back to Doha, I didn’t know what to do when I came back and Doha became a bit of a strange place for me now as I spent seven years abroad. When I came back, I was contacted by Qatar Foundation, they called me to inform me that Carnegie Mellon University is opening a branch campus and I should meet with them. When I was interviewed, I was told that I was overqualified for an administrative position. Yet, at the same time, they could not hire me as faculty because I was Qatari. They are to open a university that offers American education through American faculty; to hire someone who is not American was unheard. Although they did not want to take me in as faculty, they still wanted me to work with them as I was their only point of reference to the culture at that point. After a series of negotiations, we reached a compromise. At the end of the day, we must learn how to compromise as we won’t get what we want in life the way we want it. We are humans, and so we have our limitations even if we plan ahead in life. We struck a deal that I would do some administrative work for six months in exchange for trying to convince the Pittsburgh main campus to hire me as a professor. I truly value those six months when I did administrative work, as I kept referring to the work I did when I became a Dean. Part of a Dean’s job is human resources, and I was able to transfer those skills that I gained in that short period of time to my current job. This is just to show, everything happens for a reason. That experience truly taught me a lesson, and that being an overachiever is a negative thing. I don’t want my daughters to go through that, you do everything before anyone else, but you are not emotionally ready. I was very underdeveloped emotionally, even though I did everything well when I finished with my studies, I collapsed emotionally. During those six months at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the staff thought that I could be a good addition to the team after they saw my work. They said they were willing to invest in me, but without guarantees, they wanted to send me to the main CMU campus in Pittsburgh to train as a postdoc. If, and only if, main campus thought that I was fit to come back as a visiting professor then the Qatar branch would accept me into their faculty. I had to plead to my father to convince him that I needed to go to Pittsburgh alone to teach there for six months, and I remember he told me that if I failed, I will end up paying for it later in life. I promised him that I will not fail and I will make him proud of me. I ended up co-teaching there and developed my own syllabus for the first time, and I later came back as a visiting professor to CMU-Q. People were skeptical; they could not comprehend the possibility of a Qatari professor teaching in QF. I don’t know why these skepticisms existed, I am a graduate of Qatar University and they have amazing Qatari faculty. I was approached by different people because they wanted to get to know me, they wanted to find out how I was here and whether I was fit or not or did I have connections. Building that trust with Americans and non-Americans was something through which I had to go. It was certainly not easy when one’s gender and age played against me as well. I was often the last one to speak in any meeting, the last one whose advice or opinion is sought.
Did your experience change once you became a Dean?
I have seen, and was part of, the changes that the Qatari society underwent, along with which the shift in women’s role in the overall makeup of the country. The struggle through which I went at the beginning of my career was vastly different from when I became a dean. For almost eleven years, I was the only Qatari faculty in Education City, and I had to build my career in these years. I had to do double the work to prove myself to the American faculty, the Qatari society, and to my family and colleagues, that I didn’t get it easily. I am a capable individual, and I worked very hard to get to where I am. Something that helped me immensely is that I established my career before I got married and had children, it is definitely not easy juggling education and children. I see how some of my students struggle with attaining their Master’s degree while raising their children, I truly feel sorry for them and see them as superwomen. I practice what I preach, and so I ensured to have a diverse faculty, and we got amazing women all across although I am yet to have Qatari faculty. I established my publication record, and I built a connection with my society as my ideologies resonate with the younger generation in Qatar. In a nutshell, the challenges differ according to the situation, people’s opinions are shaped by politics, economy, historical turns, and the like which has shaped how people react to each other. I started a blog, and I suddenly became a blogger and that was the door through which the younger generation entered to listen to what I had to say and interact with it. We spoke about many contemporary issues, and argued in a public space about them. It was the beginning of digital activism and I liked doing it, and that was when the title of activist was attributed to me. That’s when I started a hashtag campaign #IamhalfQatari, and it took a life of its own in 2014. It resonated with so many people, it even included those whose mothers are Qatari and then it expanded to those with travel documents in place of a passport. We got to uncover cases of untold injustices in society even at my age I didn’t know these things happened. We all lived in bubbles, and as an academic, I lived in the biggest bubble of course. All of these experiences, along with who I am, led to the establishment of the Translation and Interpreting Institute (TII) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU). I have a Master’s degree in linguistics and translation, as I am made from two languages. TII offers two unique Master’s programs in Translation and Audiovisual Translation, the later has a concentration on Accessibility- making information/different experiences accessible to people with special needs. With what I have gained from my Master’s, I created a language center that now runs twelve language programs that promotes multiculturalism. This led to the deanship which is new and recent, where I got appointed in 2016 and I will complete five years in this position in December 2020. This position is very political, as I have to abide by certain rules. My activism had to be watered down, but I am still vocal though as I still speak truth to power. I discovered I could do well with power, I don’t like power struggles and I understand that my role has put me in a decision-making position. It is a position where I can shape higher education in Qatar, which is absolutely amazing. The first thing I did as a dean was to design two Master’s programs: Digital Humanities, which has a focus on digital interactions including activism; and the second is the only Women Studies program in Qatar.
You started a podcast on Middle Eastern women, what was the purpose behind it?
I authored a book called Arab Women in Arab News: Old Stereotypes and New Media, and it took four years to be written. My co-author David Kaufer, who was the head of the English department and my mentor as well, brought the American perspective to the piece because I really wanted the book to be a comparative study. The book took a life of its own. I remember sitting down and holding thousands of articles to uncover how Arab media represented women, then our research team came up with a digital tool to find what we were looking for. The process was very long, that’s why the book is really big as well, and we have written it in two parts. This book meant a lot to me, and it was a bestseller for some time. Yet, the book does not cover the repercussions of the Arab spring, not that women’s statuses changed, but many historical turns took place between that time and today. I really wanted to find a way of updating the book, but in a manner that is accessible to everyone. I am very well connected because of age, experience, and position, and I know that one of the things that I talk about is leadership in the Gulf state, specifically women’s leadership. There is a difference between strategic and individualized role models, strategic role models are the ones who made their path to success visible from which the younger generation would learn. It is important to note that no role model is to be out on a pedestal, we learn from every single person, good or bad. I have seen how women are used in political agendas, and how they have been used superficially just to portray a progressive image of a country or institution. Personally, I know women who work hard and women who have something to say, and I wanted to uncover that and communicate those voices. This is where the podcast came from, and I have to be thankful for COVID-19 and for the fact that I was able to sit at home and work on this project. By nature, I am a very creative person, I like change and creating new things and new spaces for myself to think and be productive. In order to do what I wanted, I saw that podcasts were the perfect medium to achieve what I had envisioned. So far, I have four episodes out, and I believe that this podcast will be appealing to many people and students. It is for those who want to understand more, and cannot bring themselves to believe the media, and who want to get to know people without the hurdles. This is my new project about which I am very excited.
Could you tell us about a memory or an experience that stands out to you?
Many people work and produce without being grounded, and we see them every day and we are surrounded by them. Unfortunately, I feel that humans have lost their calling and cause.For me, my cause presented itself in a book that I edited back in 2011 that was published by the Ministry of Culture. I worked on it when I was pregnant with my first child, and the book was a collection of essays written by my students covering several creative writing genres. One of those genres was on oral history, which is very important as we all know is the state narrative and these oral narratives allow us to dig deeper into history. So, when I submitted the book, I had to write a dedication and for the first time, I had a cause. The dedication was “Dear Najla, my baby, everything that I do is for you,” and there it hit me. Yes, everything that I do is for a generation that I do not know, she was not born yet, and when I said Najla it represented many other unborn girls and women. If there is something I want to do, it is for women.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Let me share with you something that happened to me the day before, a journalist called me and told me that he talked to someone and they guided him to me to talk about “Qatari feminists.” I had just finished a panel discussion and I wanted to check on my girls, but I told him sure what do you want to know? I believe that it is my obligation to answer any questions surrounding feminism, although it does put me in tricky situations because people misquote me and take things out of context. I have to be more careful yet still truthful to myself because of my position. It turned out that the man is not affiliated with any news agency and might have a hidden agenda. Still, I don’t regret the seven minutes that I gave him to explain the history of feminism in the Arab world and to defend those who are calling for social justice and gender equality. Either way, this will not stop me from writing about what I believe in; I believe that what we are doing is pioneering. Every woman can be a pioneer, can break stereotypes, can do something that has never been done. To these women, I tell them I have done it, it’s not easy and you will need a support system. I was very lucky to have one in my family. If they happen to need a support system, I would love to be their support system. There are pioneer women who fought and are still trying, look at them, and never give up knowing that your cause is bigger than you. I always say that education is the path to change, it is the battle that no one can argue against. Essentially, education is your winning card. Through it, we work within our societies instead of working outside our society. There should not be an intention to work outside our society, it is not that we are condoning those that did as everyone has their own cause. My cause, and the cause of those young women who struggle on a daily basis, is to change society from within. This way, society would accept us and our new role. We work with society because we care about our country and our families, and if anyone for any reason tries to fight us, we must be brave enough to stand and tell them what we stand for. Do not give up; giving up should not be an option at this point. Our societies progressed, our kids graduated from American universities, traveled, and did everything. Our women are doing amazingly, our law is still static though because there are no women up there to talk on our behalf. We are here though, we will talk to the government and the decision-makers, we are women and these are our demands. We are not against the structure, nor are we against family or religion. On the contrary, I hope they return to religion. We are against traditions imported from the outside like the ones we adopted in the eighties from the neighboring countries that were politicized, and we are against conflating between religion and traditions, as our religion has given us value as human beings.
- Interview written by Al Anoud Al Kuwari.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.