In the past 20 years, Qatar has witnessed remarkable development in various aspects of the country. Some of these concrete developments are well documented; we have yet to document social developments properly. Many people might think that social development was a natural side effect of those various aspects, except that it was not an organic outcome. Social changes were driven by people who worked relentlessly to highlight sensitive issues that were rarely discussed before. Noor Abdullah Al-Maliki Al-Juhani is one of those people who pushed society to change. She has contributed significantly in highlighting women and some of the problems they may face. So, who is Noor Abdullah Al-Malki Al-Jehani?
I am a Qatari Muslim woman, a patriot, and I have been privileged to have had the opportunity to contribute to highlighting social issues and advocating for them, more specifically issues related to human rights and women’s rights. I have had a long career trying to contribute to finding solutions to those issues. Although I have retired now, when I think about the journey that I had and reflect on it, I feel that my career can be divided into different stations, and each of them paved the way to the next station. I think that Allah has organized my life so that I get to experience various positions in my career. When I first started, I was the secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs, and then I became the Executive Director for Doha International Family Institute at Qatar Foundation. I was also a founding member of the National Human Rights Committee between 2002-2009. I had the honor to represent Qatar on many committees. At the international level, I was an elected member of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). I was the first woman from the Gulf to be elected for it, and I remained a member of the Committee from 2021 till the end of 2013, when I resigned from it. I was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Fund on Human Trafficking. These positions are not the only ones I have held during my career, but they are the most important stages in my career. I resigned 3 years ago, and contrary to the common belief that retirement is the end of giving, I think of it as a crucial stage in life. It is the stage where you feel you have given everything you can through jobs, and now it is the time to find another way to give to the community. Retirement does not mark the end of the journey; it is a door to many more opportunities to give back.
What inspired you to dedicate your career to social issues?
Everyone has their own interests that motivate them to work in certain fields. I have always had a keen interest in social issues, especially issues related to women. And I think my interest started as a result of the Qatar that I grew up in, which is completely different than the Qatar we have today. For example, as women, we did not have a lot of options to major at university, so we were limited to a few options in education. I majored in English, and even though it was not the major I wanted to study, I chose it due to a lack of options. However, today there are a variety of majors for women to choose from at the university level in Qatar; all praises be to Allah. I was a bookworm in university, and I believe that we are what we read. I loved reading so much that I have read Arabic, English, and Russian literature at an early age in my life. Reading made me gain a new perspective on life; it made me different from others, gave me new interests, and broadened my mind. One of these new interests that I gained from reading was issues related to women. But in our time, there were no social discussions or discussion spaces about issues related to women. My main concern was violence against women. It is an issue that I have witnessed its traces in the people around me at a very young age. Others might have thought it was fine to deny its existence, but I have always denounced it in my heart, and I fostered this concern as I grew up. After I graduated from university, I wanted to complete my master’s and doctoral studies in linguistics because I loved it so much, but fortunately, I could not do so for familial reasons. I say “fortunately” because if I continued on that path, my life would be very different from what I have lived. So, I believe that Allah will not put you on a path, even if it is not the path you want, without guiding you to something better than you dreamt of. I worked as a researcher at the Documentation and Humanities Research Center at Qatar University after graduating, and that was a very important period of my life. It was an opportunity to get to know my community more and expand my knowledge about our heritage. My passion for Qatari heritage began during working at the center. I also worked on translating articles on heritage for QU’s heritage magazine, and I wrote a book on foreign words in the Qatari dialect. It was a wonderful stage of my life. Then I worked for the Supreme Council for Family Affairs when it was first established in 1999. This was a big shift in my life as it was completely different from the work I was used to doing as a researcher. I was one of the first employees of the Council, and I was honored to work with Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, who was the president of the Council at that time. During that period, the Council was the driving engine of social change. Unfortunately, that important stage in Qatar’s social history has not been documented! But I thank Allah that I worked at that time in the Council, so I contributed to this change. These are the most prominent reason why I was interested in social issues. I want to emphasize an important point: we, as a society, have gone through a very rapid phase of change in Qatar, and there has been a great development in regard to women and their issues. I even see the impact of this rapid change in my life. I moved from a period in which women were not allowed to do many things to the period where I represented my country at an international level, and all this in 10 years!
What social changes have occurred since the establishment of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs?
It is important to mention that the concept of “rights,” or discussions about human rights, were not discussed until the establishment of the Council. It applies to all kinds of rights because the word itself was not mentioned before. The conversations about rights started with the establishment of the Council, so we discussed children’s rights, the rights of Persons with Disabilities, and others. So, Qatar has gone through a period of increased public participation in the different social conversations in the Council’s seminars at that time. And it is only natural that those new ideas were met with rejection from society. The beginning of the social change in Qatar was not easy, and everyone who worked in the Council in its beginnings was criticized. Those people sacrificed a lot to stand by what they believed, which was the social change they hoped for. Despite those difficulties, it was a beautiful and fruitful experience, and if it was documented, we would see that that stage laid the foundations on which all the changes that followed were based. Of course, Her Highness Sheikha Moza played a significant role in driving changes, and I am proud of my role in that stage since its beginning.
How did society react to the issues that the Council raised, such as violence against women?
I believe that any attempt to create social change must be difficult and that there will always be some opposition. Many individuals who work in social change, especially in the field of women empowerment in the Arab world, are criticized, and their intentions are always questioned. Naturally, we expected to be critiqued in Qatar as well. For me, it has increased my strength and determination to defend what I believe in. Also, I am convinced that the laws of Sharia (Islamic laws) are in women’s favor and that those laws condemn violence against them. We need to educate ourselves in our religion and use the Sharia laws to create amending laws and policies. But I believe that there was more space for discussing social issues in the past and that the Supreme Council for Family Affairs had a significant role in stirring the pot. Nowadays, we miss such discussions in which all parties participate and present different opinions. Because change will only happen when issues are raised, and various opinions are presented, we shouldn’t be rejecting opinions without discussion. Today’s discussions are happening in isolated echo chambers between those who share the same opinion. Such discussions do not lead to any change. I think that social media platforms, such as Twitter, are not the right platform for discussion because they have divided people into parties, creating even more disagreements. As for the opposition, there will always be opposing parties to any change and new ideas. For example, educating women and women playing sports has once been considered Haram (forbidden in Islam). This is why I think it is important first to raise issues on religious grounds and defend women from that perspective, not from the perspective of international conventions. Because relying only on those foreign conventions means that we cannot create change without them, and it also reinforces the false claim that Sharia is against women’s rights. Religion should be the first and the most crucial lawmaker to consider, so we must not accept any demand for changes that go against Islam. There is a widespread distorted understanding of Islam that is creating misinformation. I wholeheartedly believe that when we say that Islam honored women, there is no doubt in it. Change is not easy, but we have to continue to persevere and work together, hand in hand.
How was your experience in CEDAW?
I was responsible for the file regarding joining CEDAW When I was the Director of the Women’s Department, and I represented the Council on the Committee that was studying the Convention. I worked very hard to raise awareness of the provisions of the Convention, but I was heavily critiqued for it. In 2011, I was nominated to be a member of the United Nations’ CEDAW Committee that oversees monitoring the implementation of the Convention. Working in the Committee was an important opportunity for me, and it enriched my knowledge of women’s status around the world. And I consider this stage a major milestone in my career. But after a while of working in the Committee, I found myself obliged to resign from it because I could not support the Committee’s views on some issues. It is not only about the CEDAW Committee but also about all the human rights committees. There has been a major movement where the committees were expanding on the concept of rights through the interpretation of previous conventions. Then those new interpretations were extended to match the great social change that the Western communities were undergoing, and those western concepts were being forced on all the countries. In my opinion, the clauses of the Convention do not conflict with Islamic law. Except for a small number of clauses. Most Islamic countries, including Qatar, have rejected these clauses. But many rejections were related to the laws in force and not to Sharia laws, which means they can be reviewed. But some of the new issues and stands on those subjects were in direct conflict with Islam, my values, and my red lines. I think that was a decisive stage in my life. If I continued to work as a part of the Committee, it would be as if I betrayed myself and my values. So I decided to withdraw from the Committee after studying the matter for a while, and it was not a decision I made easily. My withdrawal was not to reduce the effort and work of the Committee, which I considered to have an important role. The world is going through a phase of change that seems, on the surface, to support rights and women’s issues. But, in essence, they are personal issues, and it undermines values and hurts women more than it benefits them. This is a problem because we must draw our boundaries and strive to highlight our true agenda as Arab women so that it is not dominated by an agenda that we have nothing to do with.
Can you tell us more about the book you wrote?
I like to remain busy and use my time to create something. When I started working at the Documentation Center, I didn’t have a lot of tasks to perform, and I was surrounded in the workplace by colleagues who were older, wiser, educated, experienced, and who were very interested in heritage. All this motivated me to learn and be involved in the field of Qatari heritage. That is how the book came to life. I did not write it to publish it, but it was an organic outcome of my learning journey about heritage. There was a plan to write a second edition to it as I already have the material for it. But since I left my work in university, my interests and aspirations changed a lot, so I did not return to that project. You mentioned that you were a reader from an early age. Tell us about your journey in the world of books and ideas. I think that the world of books is a wonderful world to which we can return. I always recommend reading and delving into all the issues and opinions, even those that oppose us. Because if we only read what matches our beliefs without exposing ourselves to various points of view, it is as if we are listening to a tape that is stuck in a loop repeating the same message repeatedly. It isolates us from those around us, so I advise people to be diverse readers to reduce the risk of becoming a force of a certain ideology. We need to be brave in choosing what we read, and we need to analyze, critique, and change our ideas if required. It is fine that we let go of beliefs that prove to be wrong. It happened to me as I moved between the different positions in my life. My love of reading is why I love the world of ideas, and I like to discuss and work in a field that utilizes my mind and teaches me new ideas. I’m not too fond of pure executive work, which is why I loved studying humanities at university. I like to go into areas related to human rights, women’s rights, and social policies.
What is your most treasured memory or achievement?
Most people measure success or achievement with the positions I reached, but I do not see it as such. Achievement, for me, is what aligns with my values and goals. When we define our values and goals, we can define what achievement means for ourselves. Job titles are temporary. It is why I measure my achievement with the impact that I was able to create, with the positive changes that I was able to motivate, and with the services that I could offer for my community and country. Based on this personal definition of achievement, I would say I have been able to accomplish a group of things thanks to Allah. My most outstanding achievement was when I raised the issue of women’s equality with men with regards to Diya (blood money in Islam) when I was the Director of women’s management because I was able to create a significant outcome. When I first raised the case, I was told that it was not an important issue, that it affected one or two women, and did not serve most women. But for me, any human rights issue does not need to be a concern of the majority to be important. In the Diya case, it was not a question of the number of victims but an issue that reduced the value of women as human beings. If a man had an accident that led to his death, and a woman had the same incident and died, the woman’s Diya was half the of the man, as if women are less valuable. I learned about this law by coincidence during a discussion with my colleagues, and the matter did not sit well with me. I remember my shock at knowing this information, and I remember that I did not sleep as I tried to think and understand the motive behind this law. Some may think that the debate on this issue is not important, but it is very important for me. If I am equal to a man in value as a human being, my Diya must be equal to a man. As I was searching the matter, I found that one of Al-Azhar’s former imams said that the woman’s Diya was like that of a man, but the subject was not researched further, especially since women, at the time, were working at home, and did not go out much, and therefore her exposure to serious incidents was lower than that of men. However, the world is different today, so the subject had to be raised. I submitted a proposal to the Council to hold a “round table” for discussion between supporters and opponents. Fortunately, we learned that Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi had an opinion in favor of equal Diya for women and men. So, the Council invited him to participate in the event, and he played a major role in its success. After the discussion, the Council of Ministers formed a committee to study the subject, which recommended amending the law. In 2008, a law was passed to equalize the Another achievement I can recall is my contribution to women’s access to the Housing Act, a subject that the Council has worked on for many years. I had the opportunity to participate with others in drafting the terms and conditions for women to benefit from the housing act. The act was passed in 2007, but, unfortunately, this law is no longer enforced. Naturally, enforcing any new law will have its pros and cons and shortcomings when applying it, but it is required to study the matter and make the necessary amends. I hope that the law will be in force again to aid the women who really need it, especially those who are the family’s breadwinners. This is one of the things I see as an achievement, and I am proud of my contribution to this matter. I feel that I have achieved my goals through it, and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had to offer service to my community and all the wonderful colleagues I have worked with to achieve this.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
It is very natural to face challenges and difficulties because it is unreasonable to think that our journey will be a bed of roses. Every stage of my life has had its challenges. The critiques that I received at the beginning taught me to be brave and defend the causes I believe in. I had to learn not to take those critiques personally and to raise the issues and discuss them without fear. This courage comes from believing that we are right, and when we believe that, we can carry our goals with confidence. In hindsight, I can say that the challenges I faced were nothing compared to what I had accomplished. Your end destination is more significant than the challenges you will face along the way. We lived in a time when it was unacceptable for women to present themselves in the media, and my colleagues and I used to run away from the cameras at conferences we were participating in. However, I decided to put an end to it. Today, I am happy that the situation has changed, and it is no longer an obstacle for most women to present themselves.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Express your opinions without fear because each generation is different from the one before it. So, the new generation must express its views and aspirations to shape the future it wants. I advise them to learn and work hard to be in professions, not jobs. The future needs professions. We need doctors, lawyers, and pharmacists. The government sector will not be able to find jobs for all graduates, but the profession provides its owner freedom and flexibility, which is important. In addition, we need Qatari experts and consultants. Most Qataris are reluctant to do such work, and they prefer administrative work. So, creating a cadre of Qatari experts and consultants requires extensive experience, great effort, and specialized knowledge, but that’s what Qatar needs now.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.