Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004, page 87

Diplomatic Doings

Personality: Awatef Al-Dafa

  • Awatef Al-Dafa, wife of the ambassador of the State of Qatar (photo Lili Iravani).

AWATEF AL-DAFA has packed and unpacked many times since she and her husband, Qatar’s Ambassador Bader Omar Al-Dafa, first lived in Washington, DC in 1975. Their diplomatic posts have included Spain, Egypt, France, and Russia. Al-Dafa was non-resident ambassador to Greece, Switzerland, Finland, Latvia, and Estonia. Her son, Mohammed, 26, a graduate of George Washington University in the nation’s capital, now works for the Qatari Gas company. Her 18-year-old daughter, Maria, attends Georgetown University, and 10-year-old Maram is a student at Rock Creek International School in Maryland. Everyone in the family speaks Arabic, English, French, and Spanish fluently.

Thankfully, Mrs. Al-Dafa has had no problems raising a family on the move. “Each society has positive and negative effects on children,” she observed. “We raised our children drawing from the positive cultural and social experiences available wherever we lived. They enjoy living here. The United States has a culture and environment that is very different from back home. The children also manage to be very attached to their own country.

“Being the spouse of the ambassador of the State of Qatar is a full-time job,” she continued. “I organize the steady stream of diplomatic events that take place almost every day in our residence.”

That residence has a stately, yet homey feel to it. The walls are adorned with modern paintings by leading Qatari artists—including her husband. Handicrafts from Qatar and Persian carpets capture the visitor’s eye. One could entertain heads of state or curl up with a book in this delightful home.

There isn’t much time for that, however, as Al-Dafa participates in various social functions that are an inevitable but necessary part of her job. “Spouses are also diplomatic envoys for their countries and cultures,” Al-Dafa noted, “and part of their job is to establish contacts.”

Judging from her animation and the glow in her eyes when Al-Dafa describes her work with the Mosaic Foundation, she has a deeply fulfilling outside job in addition to her family and diplomatic commitments.

The Mosaic Foundation is a charitable and educational organization founded by the spouses of Arab ambassadors. Board member Al-Dafa currently is the secretary, and chair of the fund-raising committee. Funds raised by MOSAIC improve the lives of women and children in the United States and around the world. “The money we’ve raised through our bazaars and dinners has help build schools in Yemen, Djibouti and Egypt,” Al-Dafa said. “We’ve also helped American charities like St Jude’s Children’s Hospital, Martha’s Table, Wednesday’s Child, and Race for the Cure.”

At the same time, the organization works to foster cultural, educational and professional dialogue between people of the Arab world and the United States. Plans are in the works to build a MOSAIC Foundation Cultural Center in Washington, DC. The Center would offer Arabic lessons, art, photo, and costume exhibitions, as well as music and lectures to foster intercultural understanding. “That way Americans can learn about the rich history and beautiful traditions of our Arab culture,” Al Dafa said. “It is vital for us all.”

Through their work with the MOSAIC Foundation, Al-Dafa and the other ambassadors’ wives accomplish another essential task: They dispel the negative stereotype that many Americans have of Arab women. “Some people think we are backward, uneducated, and controlled by men with no freedom or rights,” Al-Dafa said. “But when they see us participate in different activities and organizations, and talk to us, they find out that, to their surprise, a large portion of Arab women are educated and modern. They work in hospitals, schools, or the government, and many have their own businesses. Arab women attend universities, and teach in universities all over the world.

“Since the stereotypes are often perpetuated by the media,” Al-Dafa continued, “I think Arab women can do a lot to change and dispel negative stereotypes by actively making social contacts, and speaking out to the press. We should arrange regular visits to Arab countries for groups of American women working in the media, in order to help explain the reality of life as an Arab woman. Arab oganizations such as the Mosaic Foundation and other Arab-American associations can play a crucial role in changing and eliminating those stereotypes.”

Visitors to the State of Qatar will see women dressed however they choose, driving, working and learning together with men. “Women have the same rights as men in Qatar and are able to run for municipal elections and vote,” Al-Dafa pointed out. “Qatari women work in the fields of women’s affairs, education, health, charitable work, law, arts, literature, journalism, politics, finance, investment, tourism—and even represent Qatar in the U.N.”

Her Highness Sheikha Mouza, wife of the emir, has helped Qatari women attain the prominence they enjoy today, Al-Dafa explained. Her Highness is an excellent role model for women, the ambassador’s wife said, and her achievements in improving education in Qatar are phenomenal.

“Education is undergoing big changes in Qatar today,” Al-Dafa said. “Every school has computers. Computers make learning fun for children and give them access to modern ideas and technology,” she noted. “In fact a good portion of our GDP—revenue from the sale of our natural oil and gas resources—goes directly into educational development. We realize that one day our natural resources will be gone, but the knowledge and skills we obtain today will have value that will be passed on for generations.”

In her role as head of the Qatar Foundation, Sheikha Mouza has spearheaded the development of Education City, a haven for innovative thought and research where intellectual exchange and constructive dialogue are encouraged.

Some of the finest degree programs in the world are now available in Qatar, according to Al-Dafa. Cornell Medical College, Texas A & M, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Carnegie Mellon University all have set up university branches in Education City. They offer the same degree programs in Qatar which have brought them acclaim in the United States. Plans are under way for Georgetown to do the same.

Leading U.S. companies also are involved in collaborative research into technology at Education City, including Microsoft, Shell, Exxon, Mobil, European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS). Others, like RAND and the Brookings Institution, assist local leaders and scholars with regional policy issues.

Mrs. Al-Dafa extends an invitation to Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, readers to visit Doha and discover its glorious blend of new and old buildings and culture. Americans who meet Qatari men and women will be in for a delightful surprise.

—Delinda C. Hanley

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