Call for Quotas for Women as Qatar Holds Rare Vote

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Qataris will have a rare chance to vote Wednesday as they choose candidates to sit on the country's only directly elected body, with calls growing to ensure more women are selected.

Only one woman was elected onto the 29-seat municipal council at the last vote and out of 118 candidates this time, only five are female, one fewer than the number who stood in the first such election 16 years ago.

Although the electorate of more than 23,000 people is split almost equally between men and women, the gender imbalance between the candidates is striking.

"It would be very disappointing if again only one female candidate won this time," said one of the hopefuls, Amal Issa al-Mohannadi.

Wednesday's vote is only the fifth time there have been direct elections in Qatar, with elections to the council taking place every four years, beginning in 1999.

Election fever is hardly sweeping the country, but in the streets of the capital Doha the candidates' posters are hung on hundreds of lampposts, alongside promises to improve services in their respective constituencies. 

Wearing a niqab covering her face, Mohannadi added: "I am running for the second time despite all the challenges."

Mohannadi, a computer engineer who is studying for a PhD in public administration, said she is motivated this time because at the last vote she outpolled more than seven male rivals, but lost out to an eighth.

"I came second," she said. "If it were not for a tribal meeting in which they decided to vote for the male candidate, I would have been the winner. Without a quota for women, the challenge is huge."

Qatar, she added, is "a conservative society still inclined to vote in favour of the candidate son of the tribe and believes a male candidate is best able to deliver a voice, no matter if he is efficient or not".


- 'Need quota for women' - 

Fatma Yusuf al-Ghazal, a retired school principal who is running for election for a second time, said the problem was not in getting women to stand, but the traditional way of voting along certain allegiances.

"There are no political barriers to run for the election," she said.

"On the contrary, the country encourages women to practice their political right, but the problem is in the tribalism and voting for the family.

"We need a law amendment to allow a quota for women," she said.

When the elections were first established, the Qatari authorities also set up a committee to look at ways to encourage women to vote and stand for election.

One woman who has broken new political ground in that time is Sheikha Jufairi, the only female candidate elected last time round who first won a seat on the council in 2003.

She has managed to hold onto it ever since, but plays down the role of gender.

"It's not a matter of male or female, it depends on one's efficiency and continuous contact with people," she said.

"I keep contacting people to encourage them to go to the polls and vote, it's a national duty."

Voting may be a "national duty" to Jufairi but poor turnout -- last time it was a little over 43 percent -- suggest other Qataris do not share her view.

Voting is limited to Qataris aged 18 and over, even though locals make up just over 10 percent of the population (around 280,000 people). There have been some calls to increase turnout by extending the franchise, though Mohannadi says the vote should be kept to Qataris.

One reform that could increase voter participation is to give the council powers as it plays only an advisory role, making recommendations but having no legislative authority.

"The Municipal Council needs more executive powers," said Ghazal.

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