In early 1998 I embarked on a month long sojourn to Saudi Arabia. In many ways this journey shaped my early perception of the Arab women which later researches and in-depth studies only reinforced.
Riyadh Intercontinental where I was staying was buzzing with activities. Along with the men delicately dressed in white robes Saudi women attracted my attention as they were a beautiful mix of tradition and modernity. Underneath the veil or the abaya were women dressed in western garments. This explained to me why there were so many branded stores in the Saudi capital selling western outfits. And there was another, frightening experience. One day when I was moving through the shopping malls a group of Mutawwa (religious police) approached me. ‘Ghat, Ghat’, they demanded. They insisted that I cover my face. On subsequent journeys when I had more time for interacting with the Saudi females; visiting their homes and partaking of their kind hospitality my understanding of Saudi women deepened.
Back home in India when I was planning to do a Ph.D. my inmates suggested that a Ph.D. in Arabic literature should be a natural choice for me as I had an M.A. in Arabic. Should I select a less known or forgotten poet for my research? The idea did not interest me. I felt more inclined towards contemporary Arabia which I had seen with my own eyes and which since then had become a passion for me. It was a major decision to switch over to a cultural study. In fact, my academic interest had already taken a new turn during my Saudi trips which I might not have noticed then.
After my registration for a Ph.D. program at the Center for West Asian Studies, subsequent trips to the Kingdom were however not so interesting as I started looking at things with the eyes of a researcher. The vastness of the subject made me feel very small and timid. I had chosen a huge subject. At the King Faisal Foundation which houses a very impressive library and which has an exclusive women section I was handed over more than a dozen microfiches of PhDs about various aspects of women life in the contemporary Gulf. Some of the PhDs were done by women themselves and some specially focused on women participation in modern Arabia.
Women education in the Kingdom and in the neighboring countries has created a new breed of Arab women who appear no inferior to their male counterparts. But an impartial survey was not possible in a system that did not allow any formal research without prior permission from the concerned ministries. And the people I randomly met at Saudi homes or in academic and market places may not be the sole denominator of the social reality. Nevertheless, with the arrival of internet and the popularity of Blogs yet another window opened on me to see how the educated women in the GCC see, feel and sometime even act on issues of vital concern.
In the Middle-East the veiled women may not be so visible but they are making headlines throughout the world. The world media is no more talking about the semi-exposed western women; instead, the hidden Middle Eastern women have become topic of juicy gossip. For the western audience an aura of mystery surrounds the Middle Eastern women who are not only hidden, and thus unexplored, but also seen in the West through traditional stereotypes. However, with the rapid globalization and the increasing impact of information technology, the bombardment of visual images through TV and cyber-screens, the real women in flesh and blood have now become subject of serious academic research. The image of Muslim harem infested with a troop of young women has diminished, yet there is much confusion about what really goes on inside the boundaries of Middle Eastern homes. The outside world is not willing to accept that the Arab women too live an ordinary life and have the same aspirations as creating a strong family, raising their children and aspire for social, political and intellectual recognition. What Muslim women have achieved in a relatively shorter span of time as compared to others – especially after the flow of oil money and the establishment of modern educational institutions, is only a pleasant shock. This is again because there is a general perception that before the oil money the Muslim east was a barren land populated with only some camel driven nomads, knowing nothing about the delicacies of civilization. This is purely a colonial approach that looks at the entire world of pre-westernized phase as less civilized. This approach either arrogantly ignores the achievements of other civilization or effectively dismantles them by judging them from the western yard-stick.
Over the course of my research it has been difficult finding appropriate and authentic data as in most of the GCC countries the governments do not publish statistics on women issues. Hence, we have to rely, in most cases on international agencies. This is primarily because the overwhelming amount of research done on women’s issues either relate to human rights or education of women in the Middle East, and not on emergence of women as a person, as a full-fledged citizen with an identity and name. The collection and dissemination of statistics by Government on women’s participation in decision-making tends to be ad hoc and in response to specific demands. As a result monitoring and analysis of women’s participation in decision-making has been largely focused on the public sector and in national politics.
Our study of the GCC women began with the assumption that western observers usually miss the true nature of burqa-clad Muslim women. We made it clear at the outset that woman empowerment in the Arabian Gulf or the GCC countries was no new phenomenon. Islam had given them the right to be on her own and accepted them as complete individuals. Those who benefited most from the revolutionary and empowering message of Islam were basically the two sections of the society; the slaves and the women. In the early era of Islam we find women actively involved on the economic social and political spheres. Syeda Aaisha, the beloved wife of the Prophet Mohammed, became a role model for later day women educators and the women of Aale Bait became symbol of political opposition against operation and injustice. In the introductory chapter an attempt has been made to show how the ideological seeds of women empowerment have impacted the destiny of Muslim women throughout the ages. From Prophet’s time down to the emergence of Muslim feminist like Fatima Mernissi and Amina Wadud and the traditionalist revolutionaries like Zainab Al-Ghazzali and others it is mainly the ideology of Islam that has been responsible for so diverse kinds of movements for women empowerment.
It was against this background that when we started our study of women in the GCC countries what we had to discover as a result was natural and logical. But we live in a world where western propaganda made us believe that the burqa-clad women are an oppressed lot and that they have been denied any significant role in the society. Western parameters of educational development and progress have also made us believe that before the arrival of modern schools and urban infrastructure the GCC was a barren land without any civilization. This is also because when the UNDP or other foreign agencies talk of literacy in traditional Arab societies they do not take into account the age-old institution of kuttab found everywhere, attached to almost every mosque throughout the Arabian peninsula. Judged from the western standard the Arab men and women appear as uncivilized before the arrival of the West.
This study has been in many ways pleasantly shocking. Contrary to common perception, today the veiled women in most of the GCC countries are more educated than their co-sisters in other parts of the world. As the world media still projects the veil as symbol of oppression, it is difficult for the common people to believe that the gender scenario in GCC tells an altogether different story.
This study has shown that women empowerment lies at the heart of Islam, the official religion of the GCC countries. Impact of alien ideologies and the influence of other cultures did at times overshadow the pro-women slant of Middle-Eastern milieu but women were never completely stripped off their Islamic citizenry. During the declining days of Islamic empire however there has been a general trend to discourage women from assuming social and political role. But this was individual opinion of scholars of the time. It never changed the general Muslim perception about women who always took to the social and political responsibilities in the peninsula and beyond. However, after the discovery of oil, the entire Middle East found itself at the threshold of a new era. There was now plenty of surplus money to materialize any project. And women benefited from this opportunity more that their male counterparts. They not only swept the schools and university campus, they also took their due share in economy and politics.
The new educational opportunities in the GCC countries, which include free education and alluring scholarships, have in fact fostered a whole new breed of Arab women who are confident to take up any challenging role. The ‘new women’ as they have been called, are a continuation of their traditional role models. They are new only in the sense that they have reclaimed their social role and reinvented themselves for the 21st century milieu.
The New Woman may appear admiring much of the West, the majority do not yearn to become more like their Western counterparts. While they favour gender parity, the New women of the GCC want it on their terms and within their own cultural context. While the Westerners still often see the veil as a symbol of women’s inferior status in the Muslim world, to Muslims, Western women’s perceived lack of modesty signals their degraded cultural status in the West. To quote Kaltham Al Ganem, a sociology professor at Qatar University: “Muslim women believe there in no need to copy the Western cultural values to have progress in their society and in their conditions. They believe they can have change on their own terms, while preserving their cultural and religious identity.”
Women in this region do not necessarily want to change everything of their current status. On the contrary, they want to progress in society while preserving their traditional roles in the family and society. True, the New Women have their ambitions and aspirations, but for them their fulfillment does not mean to break away from their traditional role.
Each country that we studied at length, we found that the social and political roles that women have reclaimed in recent years, have not destabilized the traditional religious mode of the society. Yes there and some tremors and some murmuring oppositions but they are quite natural reaction of the sections of the sicity that feel affected by new role of women. This is because when women reclaim their role they have a precedent in history of Islam and hence not violating the basic values of the society.
Today throughout the GCC more and more Arab women are in leadership positions. Except in Saudi Arabia where women have recently been inducted as advisors to the Majlise Shura, the political role of women have been widely accepted by the people and the establishment. Although in a non-democratic setup these appointments can be seen as tokenism, nevertheless, the very fact that some women are given such important portfolios at least speak of the fact that accepting women in such roles is very much part of male psyche in the GCC countries. Businesswomen are often from privileged backgrounds and rise through family businesses. But their emergence reflects a broader trend of growing participation by women in the formal economy. And there are more than this symbolic presence in higher echelons of the society. There are women Ambassadors, women CEOs, women officials, women professors, women engineers, women run e-businesses and financial institutions.
In fact the GCC women have come a long way. Today they are playing an increasing role in the development of their societies. They are showing marked presence in the private and public sectors of the economy while maintaining their traditional roles as homemakers. Every day we read in the Arab press news of important breakthroughs about Arab women’s development and their increased participation in private and public life.
For all those addicted to the Western media reportage of secluded women in the GCC, the fact below might be astonishing:
- There are four women ministers in the UAE and another four in Oman. Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, each country boasts two women ministers.
- Laws and degrees are being passed to grant women more equal rights to participate in local councils, in consultative councils, in municipality councils in many Arab countries notably in the Gulf States of Qatar and Oman as well as in Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where three women have been appointed as advisors to the Shura Council.
- Women are heading Diplomatic missions as Ambassadors in countries such as Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait.
- The Arab parliamentarian’s have declared 1st February of every year as Arab women’s day in acknowledgement of women’s role in Arab society.
- Women in business in the Arab world are increasing in numbers and influence. They are setting up local businesswomen’s associations in their countries. A Council for Arab Business Women has been set up under the umbrella of the League of Arab States in 1999, with the objective of strengthening the role of Arab businesswomen in their local economies as well as in the Arab Common Market as a whole.
- Women in the GCC have an estimated $40 billion of personal wealth at their disposal. Most tellingly, in the Arab world overall, 70 percent of university graduates in 2007 were female.
The women issue has been at the center-stage in the GCC countries since the reorganization of the region as specific gulf identity. The oil money has in fact catalyzed the process of development. What other countries could achieve in 100 years or more the GCC women have done it in a relatively shorter span of time. The overall pace of change and development was fast and women took extra advantage of the changing world around them.
The Emergence of the New GCC Woman
The western stereotype of the Middle-Eastern woman is now a worn out concept. The new educational infrastructure in the region and the arrival of prestigious western universities right in their courtyard as also the active cooperation of girl’s colleges like Iffat College in Jeddah with reputed universities in the US has created a whole new breed of Middle-Eastern women. And if we believe the data, today, the female participation in education in some of the GCC countries, surpasses even the United States. The figures are astonishing.
According to a UNESCO data, and contrary to Media image which depicts them as an oppressed and illiterate lot, today women in the GCC have gone far ahead of their Western Sisters in Science Education. Muslim women in science have become leaders in their fields, receiving awards, earning patents, and yet in the western media these women get no projection as they do not exist.
The fact is that the United States falls behind some GCC countries in the percentage of women graduating in science to the total science graduate population. The countries whose ratio of women science graduates exceeds that of the United States are Bahrain and Qatar. The data for years 2002/2003 contained in these tables describes the percentage of women graduates in science and engineering out of the total science and engineering graduate population in respective countries:
Woman Graduates in Science
(Statistics from the “Global Education Digest” report released from UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2005)
Despite the fact that the Muslim Women share a single faith, even the GCC Muslim Women are no monolithic unit. While in Kuwait and the UAE women enjoy more political and social role, Saudi Arabia still debates on the participation of women in politics and is hesitant to accord the woman right to drive.
There are also a few paradoxes that, at first, seem baffling. Despite the fact that job avenues are available to women in most of these countries, women do not feel enthusiastic about jobs. It is partly because of cultural norms and partly due to better economic conditions where one breadwinner suffices the small family unit. The same is true about the Saudi women who though feel cultural prohibition for driving but at the same time enjoy the facility of a chauffeur driven car and do not want to forsake it for freedom to drive.