For more than two decades, Qatar has sought regional influence and global prominence through an ambitious project of rapid modernization, including its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Central to Qatar’s nation-building ambitions is an “empowered woman” narrative that positions female progress as a state imperative. For example, a 2016 development report avowed, “Empowering women in various social activities has become one of the main areas of concern in the Qatari society, where the leadership has focused over the past four decades on promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment.” The empowered woman narrative features prominently in several areas that are fundamental to Qatar’s development, including post-secondary education and workforce participation.
Qatar also relies heavily on sports to disseminate the empowered woman narrative, sending female athletes to compete in international sporting competitions, creating government entities dedicated to the advancement of female sports, erecting state-of-the-art athletic facilities for women, and holding exhibitions dedicated to female athletes. For example, in December 2020, Qatar hosted a friendly match between the Qatari National Women’s Football Team and the Washington Spirit, a professional women’s team from Washington, D.C. Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, the Qatari ambassador to the United States, called the event “an example to girls in Qatar and the U.S. of the explosive potential of empowered women.” Sports are a popular site of nation-branding because they allow countries to align themselves with esteemed values such as teamwork, goal attainment, and personal effort.
Qatar’s empowered sportswoman narrative emphasizes agency, equality, and liberation for females, a reversal of the “oppressed Gulf woman” stereotype. Qatar’s empowered sportswoman motif is echoed by local and global media outlets and is also repeated by the athletes themselves as well as Qatari citizens and expatriates living in Qatar, and even scholars. For example, a case study of the women’s national football team describes the players as “agents of change, using persistence and persuasion to change negative attitudes towards women’s participation in sport.”
The empowered sportswoman narrative acknowledges the hard-won battles of Qatari female athletes and fitness enthusiasts, but such motifs can also obscure the underlying realities for women. A number of recent studies find that the day-to-day circumstances for Qatari females engaged in fitness at all levels is sometimes less than rosy. While Qatar offers encouragement and financial support to aspiring sportswomen, overall rates of physical activity among Qatari females remain low due to a confluence of institutional and cultural barriers.
By painting an overly positive picture of female athleticism, narratives of empowered sportswomen can reinforce the very inequalities they aim to reduce.
Article by Geoff Harkness, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rhode Island College.
Geoff Harkness is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rhode Island College. He is the author of two books, including Changing Qatar: Culture, Citizenship, and Rapid Modernization (New York University Press 2020). Harkness’s scholarship includes ten journal articles, book chapters, and invited essays based on fieldwork he conducted in Qatar and Iraq.
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