Over the past few years, the topic of women’s rights in the Gulf has attracted much attention in the region and beyond. It has become a favourite subject of public forums, conferences, academic scholarship and the local and international press.
Even those who are most concerned about women’s rights in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula cannot deny the fact that much progress has been made in the area over the past two decades. The movement for women’s rights, which has been joined by men as well, has sought relentlessly to empower women and to secure the same opportunities in education, work and other aspects of public life afforded to men in the region.
Although empowerment has been achieved at different levels in Gulf countries, given the difference in local political and social circumstances, there are a number of remarkable achievements that have to be highlighted.
Education was the key that opened the door to women’s participation in public life. The first girls’ schools in the region were established in Bahrain and Kuwait in the 1920s. By the 1950s, educational institutions for girls had been founded across the region.
Education slowly started changing traditional perceptions of gender roles and women’s position in society. In the following decades, women secured not only the right to higher education but also the opportunity to pursue studies abroad, eventually supported by government scholarships.
Although the Gulf was relatively late in introducing women’s education compared with the rest of the Arab world, over the past 60 years it has not only managed to catch up with other Arab countries, but has even overtaken them.
The region now boasts the highest education rates for women in the Arab world. Gulf women are also more educated than Gulf men. In Qatar, for example, 54 percent of university-age women are enrolled, compared with just 28 percent of men; in Bahrain and Kuwait, women also outnumber men in institutions of higher education.
Gulf women also enjoy higher labour participation rates than women in other Arab countries, with Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar leading in this statistic. Growing access to work and business opportunities for women has also increased their personal wealth. According to a 2012 report, enterprises managed by Gulf women hold assets worth $358bn. Last year, two Saudi women made it to the Forbes’ most powerful women ranking: Lubna Olayan and Rania Nashar.
Being increasingly more educated and active in the labour force, Gulf women have also sought political empowerment. Their attainment of political rights has not lagged too far behind men’s given the constricted political space in the region. In the early 2000s, Gulf countries finally started allowing women to pursue and occupy political posts (in some instances, these rights were given at the same time as men).
In 2002, Bahraini women were given the right to vote and run in elections for the first time; four years later Lateefa al-Gaood became the first Bahraini woman elected to parliament.
In 2005, Kuwait also allowed women to vote and stand for election. Four years later, four Kuwaiti women were elected to the parliament: Massouma al-Mubarak, Salwa al-Jassar, Aseel al-Awadhi and Rola Dashti.
In 2003, the Gulf also witnessed the appointment of its first women ministers. In March of that year, Sheikha Aisha bint Khalfan took charge of the National Authority for Industrial Craftsmanship in Oman and in May, Sheikha Ahmed al-Mahmoud became Qatar’s education minister.
Now, a decade and a half after this modest political opening, there have been more steps made forward and a few backward. The speaker of parliament in Bahrain and the vice chairperson of the state council in Oman are both women (Fawzia Abdulla Yusuf Zainal and Suad al-Lawati respectively).
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also started to give opportunities to women to occupy important government posts. In 2013, the late King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council and last year King Salman entrusted the post of deputy minister of labour and social development to Tamader bint Yousif al-Rammah. In the UAE, Amal Abdullah al-Qubaisi became the first woman to hold the post of speaker of the Federal National Council in 2018.
There are still many challenges ahead. Some achievements in the political arena, especially in Bahrain and Kuwait, have been rolled back. Women face a lack of social and financial support that makes it difficult for them to run for office. Various levels of political repression across Gulf states have also affected women and women’s rights activists. And despite appointments to official positions, political decision-making largely remains in the hands of men.
Large sections of the Gulf societies are still dominated by views that reduce the importance of women’s participation in the public sphere. These are very much reflected in various provisions of family and personal status laws, which can restrict certain social and economic activities of women and put them at a legal disadvantage to men, with Saudi Arabia still retaining a strict guardianship law.
Although Bahrain (2006), the UAE (2008), Qatar (2010) and recently Kuwait (2018) allowed women to become judges, the judiciary and the interpretation of the law is still very much dominated by men.
Despite these major challenges, it has to be recognised my generation witnessed the transformation from “ground zero” to the impressive level of public participation Gulf women enjoy today. The struggle of the next generation will indeed be difficult and change will be slow, but they will be aided along the way by the established consensus in the Gulf that women’s socioeconomic empowerment has to be part of any comprehensive development strategy and any “future vision” plans.
Policies on women’s participation are no longer just a bunch of nice words that grace reports of international organisations; they are real and tangible despite all the remaining political and social barriers. Indeed, the difficulties that were surmounted to get us where we are today are considerably bigger than the ones that lie ahead.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.