Amal al Malki, Qatari woman in a man's world

The portrayal of Arab women in the Arabic media is very different to the West, says the only female professor at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar.

DOHA // After earning her doctorate in comparative literature from the University of London five years ago, Amal al Malki arrived at a career crossroads. She returned to Doha and came across an advertisement for professorial positions at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar, which had just opened.

"I always planned to be a writer, a novelist, but I said I'm going to try for a year and see where I go from there," she said. "It was only when I started teaching that I realised, 'Oh, this is where I should be.'" In late 2005, Prof al Malki accepted a full-time position at CMU-Q, becoming the first - and to this day, the only Qatari faculty member out of nearly 300 professors within the six American universities of Education City, the showpiece of Qatar's higher educational system.

"It's very prestigious and a privilege, but it's a great responsibility," she said. "I would like to model myself as a good example, someone who is educated, who is modern, who is tolerant and flexible." Born and raised in Doha, Prof al Malki earned her bachelor's degree from Qatar University before heading to the UK for further studies. Upon accepting the job at CMU-Q, she received no local opposition, in part because Qatari women have a long history in research and education. That history is continued today by the Qatari first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, the chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation and the driving force behind Education City.

Prof al Malki's forthcoming book, The Veil in Arab Media, extends that legacy. For more than three years, she and several colleagues studied the portrayal of Arab women in English and Arabic language media. Their findings suggest that Arabic language media portray Arab women as modern and active, while English-language media appears biased, extending stereotypes about the oppression of women in this part of the world.

"'Any woman who is veiled is most probably oppressed by her religion or her culture,'" said Prof al Malki, parroting the western perspective. Her own view is that the hijab, which she wears, is rooted in religious custom, while the abaya is a cultural or tribal tradition. "Their reduction of women into one single heterogeneous entity is wrong," she explained. "There are other factors that determine who we are, it's not just religion. Just being labelled a 'Muslim woman' reduces us, in a way."

Prof al Malki, who recently married, believes Muslim women should be seen as equals to men in business, politics and society. She teaches a course on Islamic feminism, a movement that grounds its ideas about female equality in the Quran, which has predominantly been interpreted by male scholars. "They are men, interpreting verses about women," she said. "So each one would interpret reflecting his own prejudices and his era's prejudices against women."

This era is not free from those prejudices. Of 134 countries ranked in the World Economic Forum's latest Global Gender Gap Report, which measures opportunity for women in health, politics, business and education, all 14 Arab countries included placed in the bottom 30. Hissa Hilal, a Saudi mother and a poet, earned death threats for calling for greater freedoms for Arab women on the popular television show Million's Poet. Many Arab women have a different perspective.

Last month, hundreds of Yemeni women marched in opposition to a proposed law banning child marriage. In Syria, an all-female Islamist group, Qubaysiyat, promotes piety and conservative Islam in its popular and well-funded schools, mosques and nurseries. Prof al Malki sees progress in the Gulf - where Saudi Arabia is building a top-notch university for women and Kuwait recently elected its first female parliamentarian - but acknowledges that challenges remain. Even in Qatar, with Sheikha Mozah as a role model, young women have difficulty finding their way.

"Our female students are going through an identity crisis because they see western education in a very conservative, traditional setting and they don't know how to negotiate between both," Prof al Malki said. "There's no need to be one or the other - there's nothing wrong with being hybrid, being a fusion of different cultures." Prof al Malki hopes to draw more students, male and female, towards careers in higher education, and has spoken with the Qatar Foundation about creating a process to funnel more Qataris into teaching at Education City. But each American university there - Texas A&M, Georgetown, Carnegie-Mellon, Weill Cornell, Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth - is responsible for hiring its own faculty, independent of the Qatar Foundation.

Robert Baxter, communications adviser for the Qatar Foundation, said: "We have chosen our university partners because they apply such high standards in all their activities. The young people currently passing through our universities are gaining an education upon which they can build an academic career, should they choose to do so." Prof al Malki is optimistic about Muslim youth, but she worries that too few young people in the Gulf appreciate their own culture and language. She hopes that, like her, they might learn from the West, take what they need and return home.

"It's really nice to be modern and educated but you have to still have some grounding and know where you came from," she said. "It would be really sad if we have a generation that has no history."