Brochure title page from the Her Majlis exhibition, Hamad bin Khalifa University Art Gallery, September 2015. Full brochure accessible here


Authentic learning is a teaching approach that gets students involved in real-life experiences to promote active involvement and intrinsic motivation. This kind of learning makes students excited because they see the real-life implications and results of their research and efforts! One of my favorite authentic learning experiences at Northwestern University in Qatar was leading an undergraduate research grant on Qatari women engagement and empowerment. Along with the five other faculty mentors, we created three classes for our undergraduate research assistants, who applied their learning to create a nationally representative public opinion survey, 100 ethnographic reports, a set of short documentary films, and a museum installation! As all of our undergraduate researchers were women (and most of them were Qatari), it was truly a joy to watch each of them become more engaged and more empowered through their work on this grant.

The authentic learning experience started with a Research class. Together, we gathered essential data on how women engage in their communities here in Qatar through their private majlis gatherings. Ten students each contributed a series of ten ethnographic reports that described a world that many in the outside world never get to see—the interactions of Qatari women within their majlis spaces. Students helped write (and translate!) the survey, which was conducted professionally by Qatar University’s SESRI and reached a nationally representative sample of over 1700 Qatari men and women. Our research began attracting positive media attention and interest, such as this write-up in The Foundation Magazine.  

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Statistics from our public opinion survey of Qatari women, displayed in the Her Majlis exhibition


Many of our students expressed how interesting it was to study their own culture through an academic lens. And several students presented and published their own work from this grant, showing their ownership of this learning experience! Tamador Al Sulaiti published her paper in the Northwestern Undergraduate Research Journal, exploring how family norms and structures impact the engagement and empowerment possibilities of the women’s majlis. Nayla Al Thani and Noor Al Tamimi presented posters of their original research at the Qatar Foundation Annual Research Conference. Nayla’s research explored the link between majlis participation and increased feelings of political effectiveness and freedom of speech for both Qatari women and men. Noor’s research explored the underrepresentation of Qatari women in the political arena and argued that social and cultural norms pressure women to avoid political careers. Noor’s research was then chosen for a three-minute flash presentation competition, and she was awarded the 2nd Place Prize! A big congratulations to all three students for joining the academic conversation and sharing their work with the research community!

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Ethnographic quotes from student interviews, displayed in the Her Majlis exhibition


Our next class was a Production class, where the students translated our research findings into artistic creations and multimedia productions. This class created three five-minute documentaries that were displayed in the museum exhibit. Then, a group of students, led by Najla Al Khulaifi and Sama Abduljawad, turned these clips into a 10-minute film that was shown at the Middle East Studies Association international film festival in Denver, Colorado! Here, an international group of scholars and policy-makers was able to learn from the visual narrative the students created about “Her Majlis.”

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Audience members watching one of three short documentaries, displayed in the Her Majlis exhibition


Our final class focused on creating a multimedia Exhibition to communicate our research findings to a general audience. Here, the students developed an understanding of the elements of a museum exhibition and worked collaboratively to create exceptional visual communication that shared our research results with the Qatari and global academic community. The “Her Majlis” museum exhibit opening reception far surpassed the previous attendance records of the HBKU Art Gallery exhibitions—by about three times the number of people! By visually representing our research through beautiful photography, a well-designed “stats wall,” carefully chosen majlis furniture and quotations, and an interactive wall, our visitors were immersed in a fantastic environment of knowledge and beauty. Even the logo itself was a work of art, as well as the beautiful brochure displaying additional original photographs and student-written text. The exhibition was such a success that it was extended due to popular demand, and had several glowing media write-ups (e.g., in Qatar Today, Agence Global, Doha News, and Gulf Times). All the students involved did an incredible job with the exhibition, and it was truly a wonderful way to end an authentic learning experience!


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Interactive participant wall (“To me, a majlis is…”), displayed in the Her Majlis exhibition


The most special part of the experience was watching our students learn, change, and grow through their authentic work as researchers and equal partners on this grant. In their final reflections, the students shared beautiful thoughts about how this research was truly meaningful and empowering for them. Reflections (anonymized) included:

  • “I am proud of what we were able to achieve in a short period of time. I think this documentary made me realize how special the Majlis is and how lucky I am.”
  • “I truly appreciated working on this research experience because it taught me valuable skills. I also learned how to accurately involve human subjects in research while still taking into consideration the importance of keeping people emotionally and physically unharmed. Overall, the project definitely reminded me of the many unique perspectives and identities existing everywhere around the world, especially those of women.”
  • “One of the major opportunities was meeting amazing and accomplished women. It was a very inspiring experience being able to meet these women and for them to offer their time and effort to our interviews and documentary. The women I met were all wonderful and incredible, and it really opened my eyes. I also learnt that I could have a bright future if I work long and hard, and that makes me excited for the future.”
  • “I am a firm believer that females in Qatar will have a huge and vital role in the development of Qatar’s society in the near future. I would love to be a pioneer of that new age.” 
  • “I have benefited greatly from the grant because it allowed me to develop research and communication skills, and to discover a field relevant to my culture: female empowerment in the Middle East. It gave me the inspiration for future research projects and allowed me to share my work around the world.”
  • “This experience really inspired me as a person to strive for goals after seeing a lot of inspirational women who achieve their goals with the support of the family.” 
  • “My involvement in this research project not only gave me insight into my own society and gender, but also an insight into the world of academic research. It gave me the perfect platform by granting me, as an undergraduate student, the opportunity to experience practical research methods and understand the procedures associated with it. This research gave me a profound understanding that will undoubtedly help shape my future career paths, especially if I choose academia. Additionally, I always appreciate any instance that will further my knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of Qatar as a country and a people.”

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One of six photographs depicting traditional majlis interactions: here, the host offers golden yellow coffee, flavored with spices, to her guest; displayed in the Her Majlis exhibition 


While the students had an authentic learning experience, we faculty certainly did too! I personally learned so much through this experience, and I am so grateful to all of the faculty and students for their collegiality, hard work, and generous expertise. Thank you to all involved for participating in an incredible journey together!