Gulf women: "Modernisation" vs "marginalisation"

Mariam Mecky , Sunday 7 Dec 2014

Arab Gulf States are among the worst ranked countries worldwide in terms of gender equality, though some progress has been made alongside modernisation

Mariam al-Mansouri
Major Mariam al-Mansouri of the United Arab Emirates' Armed Forces in her fighter cockpit (Photo credit: Youtube screen capture)

Arab Gulf women are usually perceived by many feminists and commentators as one homogenous group.

However, despite certain common conditions for women in the region, rights enjoyed by women differ from one Gulf country to another.

Lujain Al-Hathlol, a Saudi activist, was arrested Monday night at the Saudi border after she arrived driving from the United Arab Emirates, in defiance of a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the UAE celebrated its first female F-16 fighter pilot, Major Mariam Al-Mansouri and Kuwait has Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi holding the post of minister for foreign trade.

In contrast, Yemeni women need the permission of their husbands or guardians to travel.

Ahram Online examines the diverse realities of Gulf women.

Variance in women's status

Even though Gulf States share many socio-political characteristics — they are Muslim majority, oil-rich monarchies or authoritarian states — the status of Gulf women varies from one state to another.

Reem Al-Harmi, a Qatari feminist and writer at Al-Raya, argues that the most important determinant of women’s status is the extent of the government's support; whether they grant women the same rights as their male counterparts, and whether women have access to the same opportunities and chances to climb the professional ladder, in governmental or non-governmental institutions.

According to the Global Gender Index 2014, Kuwait is the highest placed country in the MENA region, followed by UAE and Qatar. In fact, Kuwait has the highest percentage of local female labour participation in the Gulf, up to 53 percent. This is much higher than the MENA average of 21 percent, and slightly above the world average of 51 percent, according to International Monetary Fund statistics in 2013.

The UAE, at rank 115th, achieved progress compared to its past performance on economic and political participation and remains the second highest ranked country in the MENA region.

Adding to Harmi’s argument, Ali Al-Ahmed, the director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, told Ahram Online that variations in the status of women are linked to the policy goals of each of the ruling Gulf monarchies.

“The status of women is used as part of regime security. The variation of women's status is an expression of who a given government is trying to please from the political/social fabric,” Al-Ahmed said.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen are ranked among the lowest ranked Arab Gulf States in the index. Yemen, which is ranked 142nd, has languished at the bottom of the index since 2006.

Regarding women’s status in Saudi Arabia, Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher focused on the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, asserts that the root cause of the marginalisation of Saudi women is both societal and political.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. The ban was reinforced with a fatwa, or religious ruling, in 1991, as Human Rights Watch reported.

In light of the ban, Begum highlights that women are effectively rendered legal minors in Saudi Arabia. She states that the restrictions on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have existed for decades and authorities enforce the guardianship system through policies and practice.

“Under the strict male guardianship system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian — usually a husband, father, brother, or even a son,” Bengum elaborates.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Marwa Shalaby, programme director for Women and Human Rights in the Middle East at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, attributes progress and improvements of women’s status to civil society and strong activism.

Despite strong women's movements in Kuwait and Bahrain, and significant improvements undertaken by these monarchies in the education and health realms, Shalaby argues that a considerable gender gap still exists in most Gulf monarchies.


As oil-rich countries, Gulf countries have attempted to industrialise and modernise society in recent years. Thus, the question arises: Does this modernization process incorporate women's empowerment?

Ahmed responds: “Generally, modernity does empower women, but in certain cases we see modernity used to keep women behind.”

Begum told Ahram Online that Saudi authorities have been keen to modernise society, looking at new modern technology. Yet when it comes to women’s rights, there is a lack of political will.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appointed 30 prominent Saudi women to his advisory Shura Council. Yet, in 2014, women are denied notary positions in the Ministry of Justice with the justification that notary licenses are within the general judicial competency in which women are ineligible by law, Al-Hayat newspaper reported.

Such legal setbacks reflect on society. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2014, Saudi Arabia is among four countries in the world with no female ministers and the 10 lowest-performing countries on the economic participation and opportunity sub-index.

Curbing female activism is not restricted to Saudi Arabia. Bahraini activist Zeinab Al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years in jail and fined around $7,950 dollars last Thursday for insulting the Bahraini king by tearing up his photograph, Reuters reported.

Nonetheless, progress has been made. Through the modernisation and development process, women have been given access to previously male dominated arenas, such as education.

While some argue that the culture hinders full empowerment of women, Harmi believes that “many Gulf countries embraced modernisation without losing their identity and culture.”

With Qatar as an example, Harmi says that it flourished in around 10 years: the people, women included, progressed in various ways and different areas, while preserving the country's traditions.

She adds that through the opening of world class universities in Qatar, women were given the chance to get the best education without traveling abroad.

Shalaby contends that modernisation actually helped women empower and overcome cultural barriers. “Women in the Gulf States have embraced technology and see it as a way to be active in the workplace, the classroom, and the public sphere as a whole while maintaining their modesty,” she told Ahram Online.

Shalaby adds that there has been quite a bit of evidence lately of an increase in women's entrepreneurship and involvement in the science and technology fields. In Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, university enrolment rates for women are higher than those of men, as the Gender Gap Index indicated.

“The Arab Spring has already transformed the societal fabric of Arab societies and there is no way to stop it now. Women will continue to be powerful agents of change, especially younger, well-educated, tech-savvy girls and women. These new generations are determined to push for genuine reforms to promote women's social status," Shalaby concludes.

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