The struggle for gender equality and participation in the Gulf states

 07 Jan 2018 - 10:16

What role should women play in society, political, and business leadership is a question at the center of controversy in the conservative Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) where religion, customs, and traditions strongly influence the role of gender in society. Yet there is a growing recognition that to develop the GCC states and overhaul their economies to remain prosperous in the post-oil era, women must be increasingly involved in more areas of life.  

In a watershed last month, Qatar appointed women to the Shura Council for the first time in the Arabian emirate’s history. Four women will participate in the 45-seat council, which will discuss the bills passed by the Cabinet after approval, the government’s general policies, and the state budget draft. The important step came two days after the Qatari Foreign Ministry appointed a Qatari woman to be Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, marking a first in the country’s history. Shortly before that, the UAE appointed a Minister of State for Youth Affairs to be the youngest woman minister in the UAE. In Kuwait a female MP elected in 2016 serves in the 50-member National Assembly.

A file photo of Qatar's Shura Council. 

Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to allow Saudi women to drive has received substantial international attention because Saudi Arabia was the only country that prevented the woman from doing so. However, the Saudi Shura Council in the latest decision before the end of 2017 rejected the recommendation to empower Saudi women to leadership roles in the Kingdom’s embassies, consulates, and attachés.

Since 2003, women in the GCC have participated more in public life, education and business, particularly in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The struggle for suffrage in Kuwait reached a watershed in 2004 when Kuwaiti women gained the right to vote and run in elections. Despite more than a decade having passed since women entered Kuwait’s political arena, many female candidates in Kuwait remain unable to secure enough votes to qualify for appropriate representation in parliament. 

In terms of the workforce, the gender ratio remains highly imbalanced. Of the GCC’s population (54 million in 2016), more than 52 percent of them are women who make up no more than 29 percent of the workforce in these countries.

The recent study by the International Labor Organization revealed that women’s participation in the labor force was 28.6 percent in Oman; 39.4 percent in Bahrain; 43.4 percent in Kuwait; 46.6 percent in the UAE, and 50.8 percent in the Qatar. Qatar ranked the highest among the six GCC states while Saudi Arabia ranked the lowest at 18.2 percent, indicating that women in the Gulf still occupy low levels, despite promises by Gulf regimes to enact reforms aimed at empowering women. In reality, gender disparities continue to plague institutions in the GCC including educational ones. Political and economic reforms in the GCC countries have not fundamentally changed the role of women in the Gulf because such reforms have failed to overcome cultural barriers and values rooted in hearts and minds of GCC citizens.

Eleven Arab countries, including the GCC members, have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But none have put in place effective mechanisms to implement their provisions. For example, in Saudi Arabia every Saudi woman has a male guardian (usually her father or husband, but in some cases her brother or even her son) who has the power to make many important decisions for her from renting an apartment to filing legal claims and accessing health care to working a job. All women in Saudi Arabia, regardless of socio-economic status, are subject to this guardianship law. 

Long-term human development in the GCC can only become a reality when women are empowered in all fields. As all of the GCC states’ visions for economic diversification realise, women in the Gulf need a voice to defend their interests and the right to participate in decision-making and change.

The writer is Director, Gulf International Forum.