Expat women embarking on a new journey in Qatar will encounter a society rich in tradition and rapidly modernising. This small but wealthy nation on the Arabian Peninsula offers a unique blend of cultural, social and economic experiences, influenced significantly by its government policies and the broader Gulf region’s social customs.

The initial adjustment to life in Qatar is a multifaceted experience. From navigating the nuances of local customs and laws to understanding the social dynamics and opportunities available, expat women will find that living in Qatar is a journey of discovery.

Qatar’s government has been making strides on the tightrope of establishing inclusivity and modernisation while preserving its cultural identity. Whether in the professional realm, where women are increasingly visible, or in the social sphere, where multicultural interactions are commonplace, the experience of expat women in Qatar is marked by a blend of local traditional values and global norms.

Women’s rights in Qatar

Compared to other Gulf states, women have somewhat progressive rights in Qatar. Significant legal and social advancements have been made over the past few decades, including the appointment of female ministers and members of the Shura Council. Women vote, run for municipal elections and participate freely in all parts of public and social life while enjoying some equality in professional and educational settings.

Following the lead of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser (the chairperson of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, and also one of the wives of the previous emir), women are employed and educated at all levels of society.

Qatar practices religious tolerance, with its constitution enshrining equality among citizens. However, the legal system in Qatar is based on Sharia law, meaning that a conservative interpretation of Islam informs laws regarding women’s place in Qatari society. 

Qatari society is engaged in a constant balancing act between the traditional and modern. This means that values like the importance of gender-segregated schooling environments are still upheld and considered core to national identity. Similarly, males are considered the natural head of the family, and Western expats should be prepared for a typically patriarchal society.

Although women can work and are respected in the workplace, women under a family residence visa sponsored by their husbands will likely need their husband’s official approval. The LGBTQ+ community also undeniably faces multiple challenges, given Qatar’s conservative societal attitudes and the fact that homosexuality is illegal under Sharia law.

Dress for women in Qatar

hijabi woman putting on sunglasses

While non-Qatari women are not expected to wear the abaya (a loose robe-like covering), expat women should dress conservatively in public areas such as shopping malls and markets. This means covering the shoulders and wearing dresses, skirts and trousers that cover the knees.

Conservative dress in Qatar also makes it less likely that expat women will be stared at or attract other unwelcome attention from men while out in the city. Due to the country’s massive migrant labour force, men vastly outnumber women in Qatar.

Hotels are generally more permissive when it comes to dress and can be an enclave for expats, but keeping the culture in mind while en route and when leaving the hotel is essential. A good principle for the expat woman is to always have a shawl in one’s handbag or car to cover up if needing to get out of the car in public unexpectedly or for chilly air-conditioned interiors.

Making friends in Qatar

women laughing and talking

Many of the expat women in Qatar are homemakers who have travelled for their husbands’ jobs and have suddenly found that they don’t have to ‘make home’ in Qatar. Domestic help is widely available at a reasonable price – one of the great benefits of living here, particularly for those with young children. As a result, expat women may find infinitely more hours to spend with their family and friends, working or on hobbies.

The transition can be challenging at first, when women left at home alone must find ways to fill the time. Those living on compounds are lucky in some ways, since the compound can act as a safety net for first-time movers. These instant communities have welcoming neighbours and usually a central swimming pool or clubhouse. Another pre-made circle of friends is the network of spouses and kids of work colleagues. 

Although these ready-made relationships are often necessary and welcome, newcomers may eventually want to branch out, as expat communities can feel claustrophobic with the same people living and working very closely together.

As there are many others in this situation, there is a varied social scene in Qatar, with writing groups, book clubs and other interest groups generally open to all women. Activities such as salsa and creative writing have sprung up in recent years. Notices about their meetings are posted regularly in local magazines and on social media platforms such as X (Twitter) and Facebook.

Due to the somewhat transient nature of expat life in Qatar, expats stay for an average of only three years. Most groups (and people in general) are used to welcoming new arrivals and are superb at making fresh assignees feel welcome. If a new arrival can’t find a group for their particular interest, starting one is relatively easy.

Work-life balance in Qatar

Those who move to Qatar as single working women will find the elusive work-life balance all the more essential to establish. Spending all one’s time doing business can get lonely. Start-up companies that demand long hours and companies that uphold the working days and times of Western countries often monopolise their employees’ time and commitments.

Those who take time to explore will find opportunities to explore the city and establish relationships outside it. It’s essential to make this effort, and there are networks related to professional working women that could be useful in helping to meet other women who can’t develop friendships over coffee mornings.

Those looking to make connections in the local community or outside the bubble of their living/working conditions may find this takes a fair amount of determination, but it can be done. The transient nature of the expat community means that those who stay longer than average – Qatari and non-Qatari alike – can be wary of the steady stream of inquiries by newcomers and may be reluctant to make new friends. The best way to break into these communities is to get involved in meaningful activities, like volunteering and participating in charity work, and to give friendships time to develop.

Can women open a bank account in Qatar?

Banks in Qatar are slowly beginning to understand the commercial benefit of having female account holders, and most of the local banks now have designated Ladies’ Accounts and offer female-only bank branches. These accounts may offer exclusive benefits, financial counselling services by female professionals and discounts on products and services to empower and support women in their financial journeys.

As an expat woman, it is relatively easy to open a bank account in Qatar, and with more than three million expats in the country, local banks understand the financial needs of expats. That said, most expat women in Qatar are trailing spouses, so their husbands must sponsor them in order to open a bank account. Rather than having a separate account, many couples choose to have a joint account.

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