Political Reform in Qatar: Participation, Legitimacy and Security

In a surprising announcement in November 1995, the Qatari regime declared its intention to hold elections for the 29-seat Central Municipal Council (CMC), an advisory body attached to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture. All male Qataris over the age of 18 would be eligible to vote. Then, in an even more surprising move, a reporter with CNN asked Qatar’s emir in 1997 whether women would be allowed to vote. The emir cautiously said that he did not know, but that he saw nothing wrong with their voting.1 Later he announced that women would be allowed to vote and run as candidates. Qatar deliberately set the CMC election for March 8, 1999, International Women’s Day.

Most regimes in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region allow some form of electoral politics within their states. While many of these regimes actually use political participation to avoid democratization2 or manipulate electoral politics to reinforce authoritarian rule,3 political participation in authoritarian regimes, even when not promoting democracy, does open political space within such states. Lust-Okar and Zerhouni, for example, argue that elections in authoritarian states are often fiercely contested by domestic political actors, help lead to the formation of political associations if not actual political parties and can influence decision making. Some Arab Gulf monarchies began to institute some form of electoral politics within their states in the 1990s. Kuwait started holding regular elections in 1992. Oman initiated a Consultative Council in 1991 but only allows each district to submit three suggestions for each seat. In 2003, Oman granted universal suffrage to all Omanis; however, the sultan must still approve each representative.

The Qatari leadership followed this trend in 1995, when they decided to initiate national elections for the CMC. They also decided to take a step that none of their neighbors had yet taken by giving women the right to vote and run for office. As noted earlier, regular elections for the Kuwaiti National Assembly began in 1992.4 Until 2005, however, only Kuwaiti men were allowed to vote and run for office.5 Omani women gained the right to participate in elections in 2003, and Bahraini women only won the right to vote and run for office in 2002. While other states in the MENA region are having far more nuanced discussions about women’s political and social rights (e.g., Morocco, Tunisia), women in the Arab Gulf are only just gaining the right to participate in political life. Women in Qatar, as in most Arab Gulf monarchies, have traditionally been relegated to the domestic sphere and often avoid calling attention to themselves in public. Thus, granting women political rights legitimizes their existence outside the home in a way that is quite revolutionary for the region.

Read the full post at the Middle East Policy Council website

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Foundlings of The FARC?

Conflicting narratives have been emerging regarding the treatment of women and children by the FARC. Both supporters and opponents of the Marxist guerilla movement have been prolific in their praise or condemnation of the movement’s treatment of women and children.

The FARC likes to portray its movement as a healthy crèche of the next wave of Marxist guerillas trained from birth to fight for the people’s revolution.  However, while women in the FARC are supposed to be “fighters as well as mothers,” some have alleged that young mothers have been forced into unwanted abortions in order to preserve their effectiveness as fighters. Male fighters are allowed to fall in love with their female comrades, as long as they continue to perform their duties responsibly.  Through photos, the FARC publicizes the prominent roles that women in children play in the movement.  The FARC aimed to give birth to a “new socialist culture” in the jungle, poised to take the decadent cities.

Nevertheless, women in the FARC have their children stolen away from them to be raised communally, a system that harkens back to Maoist communal childcare. Since Marulanda’s death, there have been increased reports of combatants abandoning their ranks, who complain that cases of rape, boredom and lack of direction in the jungle have led to low morale and defections. Many women get punished, raped and executed, and the romantic idea of female as revolutionary fighters is long gone. If these allegations are true, they raise questions about the long-term sustainability of the FARC, given that a third of the movement’s members are women.

Colombian newspaper El Cambio published an article claiming that the FARC’s new generation of leaders has resorted to kidnapping children as young as young as 8 or 9-years-old to boost the group’s cadre of soldiers.  The daily El Specatador even went so far last January as to call Colombia “The Congo of Latin America,” because of the prevalence of child soldiers employed by The FARC.

If these developments continue, the FARC, already on the wane, will be increasingly marginalized in Colombian society.  The FARC is turning into an example of the insurgent groups that Jeffrey Gettleman described in his Foreign Policy article, groups that morph from national resistance groups into criminal syndicates, movements that prefer hiding in the bush, “where it is far easier to commit crimes.”

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The Miscreants of Taliwood

Last night, Strategic Social screened Geoge Gittoes’ most recent film, The Miscreants of Taliwood, at the Letelier Theater in Georgetown, which was followed by a robust Q/A session.  The movie is about the men and women who try to bring a little bit of art and humor to the divisive North Western Pakistani society in which they live.

So, just who is George Gittoes?

George Gittoes has been described as a war artist – he has been to some of the world’s most dangerous terrain from Cambodia to Rwanda to Pakistan in the pursuit of his art, be it painting or film. Leave it up to this celebrated painter/filmmaker, one of the founders of the unconventional art collective The Yellow House, to decide to make an action film right in the Taliban’s backyard. Gittoes’ Miscreants of Taliwood completes his No Exit trilogy of documentaries covering the War on Terror era.

Miscreants is a look inside the Pakistani low budget film industry, which churns out inexpensive films and DVDs to play on the smuggled flat- screen televisions and DVD players that can be bought cheaply in the bazaars of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I didn’t know what to expect going to the film tonight. Despite the poster for the film showing Gittoes sporting white New Wave sunglasses toting an AK-47 rifle wearing shalwar kameez, surrounded by over the top tough guys and bad girls with hearts of gold, you wouldn’t realize that what you are in store for is far from camp but a documentary that blends broad humor and political and cultural commentary in equal measure.

Gittoes explained last night that this artistic world has sadly all but been crushed recently by the Taliban in their campaign to make Pakistan “a joyless country.”  What Miscreants shows us is an intimate slice of the lives of the artists, academics, working people, and shop owners who are struggling to continue their art in the face of the brutal Taliban repression in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

In the movie, we meet actors like Javeed Mushazi and Tariq Jamal, men who make films as a “plea to Pashtuns not to self destruct,” and academics like Tahrima Abdullah, a gender studies professor who tells us that “just being a woman outside can be enough to get you shot dead!” Sadly most of these men and women who describe themselves as “brothers in art” are now out of work.

Miscreants also showcases the important topic of the selective use of technology by the Taliban. Anyone using cell phones or the internet for entertainment is targeted because they promote decadent and blasphemous anti –Islamic behavior.  The Taliban have, however, hypocritically become adept at using the same devices to coordinate bombings, assassinations and coordinate jihadist activities.

This is a rewarding film, educating and entertaining at the same time. Moreover, its focus on the role of the film industry in NWFP is highly pertinent to the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Gittoes plans to return to Pakistan soon, hopefully to find his friends safe and sound, and to bring back more insightful commentary on a land imperiled but still trying to laugh despite it all.

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