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Women’s Rights in Gulf Countries

Women’s Rights in Gulf Countries

By- Aditya Anantha Krishnan Iyer

We have repeatedly heard or read about the siege of women in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in other countries, confined by religious norms. These affirmations are based on certain grounds. Women in the Gulf Countries are often labelled as second-class citizens, due to curtailments in personal legal status, nationality laws, limited participation in political life, etc. The Global Gender Gap 2012 ranks Saudi Arabia and Oman among the ten countries with the widest gender gap.[1]

Human Rights Watch World Report, 2013[2] highlights that in Saudi Arabia millions of women and migrants live and work under an oppressive system. There is a system which Saudi Arabia implements called ‘guardianship system’, in which women are constantly dependent on their guardian, a male relative or the husband during married life, to take decisions. As a result, women are not allowed to drive, to work in certain jobs – that of a judge for example or to undergo certain medical procedures without approval from the male guardian, or for that matter even travel alone without the approval of her guardian.

In all the Gulf countries, the personal status laws rely upon the jurisdiction of the Sharia’h, which is a mix of religion, or what is considered divine law and juridical interpretation. The penal codes do not competently tackle violence against women. The laws, in the form they are, do not prevent sexual harassment or domestic abuse. Under this framework and discretionary, power of the male judge the wide gender gap becomes obvious.

Another important issue which is raised when it comes to gender is the political participation of women in the region. Women tend to be given either the minimum quota or least influential positions; this is justified through a variety of arguments, including appeals to religion, tradition, or claims regarding lack of qualifications and experience while the actual reason is to keep women under control, or within specific limits of political space. Decorative participation – without real power – is also often all that is granted. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that there are genuine steps forward in the region, such as moves in the United Arab Emirates to populate their ministerial cabinet with women, appoint women to the Federal National Council (FNC) to compensate the low number of elected women [3], and appoint one of these women as the speaker of the council [4].

The lack of women’s integration is not from malicious intentions; rather, the status of women comes from regime security. Director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs Ali Al-Ahmed said, “variations in the status of women are linked to the policy goals of each of the ruling Gulf monarchies. The variation of women’s status is an expression of who a given government is trying to please from the political/social fabric.” In today’s globalized world, the status of women in the Gulf is less religious and cultural rooted and instead the result of fears and security measures stemming from the past 50 years, which molded different groups, and stakeholders with varying experiences to form conflicting views. These fears, old generation’s lived realities, competing strategies, and traditions have all led to a seemingly lethargic domestic policy, and unfortunately women have been at the expense of this.

Empowering women and prioritizing their inclusion will dramatically shift economic development away from natural resources and into the region’s vision for a sustainable front founded on human capital. For the UAE, which is similar to its neighboring Gulf states, raising female employment to male levels would advance their overall GDP by 12 percent, due to a productive national workforce that would grow twofold in size. The gap between economically inactive and economically active populations is the widest in the Gulf region of the Middle East, so inevitably, we find that if women — who compose half of the population — are given more opportunities and platforms to create, the whole economy will grow and innovate off their successes. It is important to note that the Gulf States are the most resilient to instability in the Middle East, therefore they are the optimal actors to change women’s inclusion for the better, and transfer it to the broader Middle East region.

Women are not only transforming their own roles in society, but they are also actively leading their nation into some of the greatest development feats. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi is UAE’s Minister of International Cooperation and Development and among the world’s most powerful philanthropists and businesswomen; she propelled the UAE’S rapid growth and had a key role in distributing billions to international projects on improving quality of life. In Saudi Arabia, Dr. Yasmin Altwaijri is among Saudi’s top senior scientists leading one of the most extensive studies measuring obesity, diabetes, mental health issues and decreasing the sense of taboo from seeking treatment. She is reshaping the health sector in the region, which has a paramount effect on society’s perception. Dr. Hessa Al Jaber is Qatar’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology; she is the force behind the creation of Qatar Assistive Technology Center, a successful organization dedicated to connecting people with disabilities to the world of technology and equipping them with tools to participate in international markets. She holds the fifth spot on Forbes list of Most Powerful Women in Government in the Middle East for 2014.

While women are increasingly receiving positions in government, whether appointed or elected, it is still uncertain as to how much influence these positions wield on the ground. Most positions for women have been in ministerial cabinets, shura councils, or municipal councils, where they are appointed or elected, yet do not have substantial influence in policymaking. The Saudi and Omani shura councils may however be exceptions, as they are ostensibly open to those who prove themselves qualified, with recommendations based on research.

As governments are revising their policies, Women are climbing the ladder to leadership, and possibly crossing the well-known glass ceiling. The international community can play a role of vital importance to push women empowerment forward by focusing on giving recommendations to the governments and helping them build strong institutions that would ensure women’s development and progress. As the Gulf States are situated in a vulnerable neighborhood, the government needs to be receptive to the rising generation’s requests, they are the majority and they will lead. Alienation of participation and unequal sectors of society will only lead to turmoil. Today, we see the Middle East experiencing a bitter taste of the repercussions of domestic alienation.

The international discourse of women has had a significant impact on women in the Arab region, from credible UN conferences, international forums to scholarship exchanged through cyberspace. All of the above have positively helped women and their families to become empowered. International efforts play a key role, however ultimately the greatest steps are in the hands of the governments in the Gulf.

One should not undermine the capabilities of the Gulf woman, nor hold a narrow perception that women are not empowered. The region is in a delicate time, inundated in rising threats and various stakeholders lobbying for conflicting policies. Unfortunately, at the moment there’s a significant amount of people who view the empowerment of women as a Western value. Additionally, it does not help when international actors attack the Gulf region in a crass manner, as then reform would be interpreted as an intrusive demand of the West. Adversely, this has led a segment of society – and within it stakeholders in the political fabric – to impede efforts for positive women’s inclusion. Remaining diplomatic and constructive is fundamental for the progress of women and the rising generation propping them up.

There is a great need politically and economically, for international actors to invest in the GCC away from natural resources. For this to be a success, the Gulf should take proper measures of inclusion for literate women, a demographic that is suffering from tight job markets and gendered occupations. If half of the population of the Gulf can be equally incorporated into the economy, it would create a greater reassurance to foreign investors as well as ultimately, lead to the happiness, prosperity and growth of their country.



Aditya Anantha Krishnan

Student of Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar