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|Women around the world have used civil society as a tool to hone their organizational skills, mobilize likeminded people, and deliver social change. Yet authoritarian regimes often repress civil society through legal and extralegal tactics. This repression can be even more pronounced in the oil-rich Arab monarchies in the Gulf, which use their wealth to block the creation of independent civil society groups and develop state-run programs and organizations that crowd out nongovernmental institutions and herd people into groups with politically sanctioned end goals and messages.|
However, there is one area of society that is relatively protected from government interference in the Gulf states—the semi-private, semi-public sphere of the majlis (plural=majalis). This paper focuses on the more private majlis gatherings that are hosted within the home or within a circle of known family, friends, and acquaintances. These “protected spaces” are “physical domains and the social organizations within them that institutionally, legally, and normatively are off-limits to state intervention” (Tetreault 1993, 277). Although men’s majalis have been extensively researched, women’s majalis (majalis al-hareem) have been largely overlooked in the literature, with existing research tending to focus on elite women’s gatherings instead of the daily gatherings of ordinary women.
This paper’s argument links together the theoretical framework of civil society with the specific gathering place of the majlis al-hareem to explore how female participation in these gatherings affects social, economic, and political opinions and behaviors. From March 2014 to the present, a research team of six faculty and fifteen female student researchers (twelve of whom are Qatari) has investigated this topic through both qualitative and quantitative methods: two professionally-administered surveys of the Qatari citizenry; ethnographic subject-participant observation of approximately 30 majalis al-hareem; individual interviews; and photography, audio recordings, and videography.
Our results indicate that majalis al-hareem do indeed function as important sites of civic engagement for Qatari women, in which participation provides opportunities for skill building, networking, and information gathering akin to civil society organizations in the Western world. Further, Qatari women who participate in these majalis are significantly more likely to be socially and politically engaged in their broader communities. These results raise intriguing possibilities for the study of female engagement and empowerment in authoritarian and oil-rich regimes.