The “social distancing” prompted by the pandemic can be seen as a massive psychological experiment, one that will reveal and highlight inequalities across societies. It has already illuminated severe social disparities. Men and women have been affected by the pandemic differently depending on the intersection of their gender, class, culture, and other social indicators.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ ambiguous response to gender violence has neglected to address its root causes and consequently the effectiveness of the protective measures cannot be determined. The issue of gender violence remains an understudied, underdiscussed, and undermined topic in the Gulf and cannot be separated from the larger societal fabric. Most countries in the region still do not criminalize gender violence; laws to protect women either do not exist or are extremely vague and rarely implemented. Now more than ever, we have to deconstruct the patriarchal discourse on culture that mixes tradition with religion and question the society’s overarching hierarchical structures.
Global Rise in Gender Violence
One of the most pronounced and concerning effects of the pandemic has been the significant surge in violence against women. This is evidenced by the rise in domestic and gender violence globally. Gender violence has increased by 25% globally and various countries around the world have taken measures to combat the situation, with the starting point being an open acknowledgment of the escalation.
The global increase in gender violence will indeed affect the Middle East unequally and more intensively. According to the United Nations, around 37% of the married women in the Middle East face physical violence. Given the political nature of such statistics, there is a good possibility that the actual rate is much higher.
Evasion of Root Causes
Gender equality as a concept and goal is likely to suffer significantly due to the current social crisis caused by the coronavirus. Although the term “gender equality” is a loaded term, it implies equality in opportunity and balance between rights and responsibilities. Currently, there is no country where such balance and equality has been fully achieved.
In the Middle East in general and the Gulf in particular, policymakers often tackle the issue on the surface but avoid the foundations of gender inequality. When it comes to the Gulf region, we should abstain from regional exceptionalism in explaining gender issues but equally important is to be vigilant of contextual understanding. Many explain the reasons for the increase in gender violence is that women are forced to stay home during lockdown with their abusers or the increase in socioeconomic pressures. The result of such frivolous treatment of the issue has led to extreme cases of abuse survivors from the Gulf fleeing to seek asylum in the Western countries. The framing of gender violence as separate from the larger socio-political setting, through the rigid lenses of religion and tradition has systematically reproduced violence and discrimination.
Instead of addressing the core causes of gender inequality, the issue is further complicated by treating women as tokens of progress, modernity, and traditional values. Gender equality should be undertaken by an assessment of how women are continuously abused due to gender differences and how patriarchy determines their position in society. However, the discourse remains one of protection rather than of prevention. Policymakers are not addressing gender violence as a major social crisis. Protection measures, healthcare centers, and shelters cannot address the sources of such violence, nor can they provide long-term solutions.
Patriarchy: From the Familial Sphere to State-Society Relations
Intersectionality is crucial. Not all women will be affected by this ubiquitous social shock proportionately. Patriarchal practices in the Gulf and the politicization of the familial sphere still leave women at the mercy of men who are responsible for her well-being. Gender violence is, therefore, considered to be a “family” issue. Concepts like “honor,” “shame,” and “obedience” influence gender relations, which leave women vulnerable to systematic violence perpetuated through everyday practices. As a result, domestic and gender violence is often normalized.
The association of women’s issues with the familial sphere is tied to the larger schema of state-society relations in the Gulf region. This framework establishes a barrier between women and the state but also defines her place in the society vis-à-vis the private sphere with clearly established hierarchies. This configuration is connected to the exclusive and fragile national identities, based on rigid ideas of loyalty. As a result, any alternative approach to women’s issues or questioning of the existing discourses on gender violence is perceived as an attack on the dominant narrative on identity, leading to defensiveness.
Adding on a layer of complexity in the Gulf is the issue of domestic female workers, who are most likely exposed to increased abuse and violence. In fact, there is little to no reporting on their situation at the moment. This is a prime example of intersectionality in gender issues. Therefore, when we talk about violence against women in the Gulf it is worth considering those regarded as worthy of receiving help as well as those who are invisible to discourse on violence.
Gender Violence Reforms Instituted
In the Gulf states, even though the official statistics and reports have not been issued, there has been a clear indication of the rise of gender violence during the pandemic given the increase in protective measures and coping mechanisms. For example, the UAE set up a hotline for reporting gender violence, and there have been a series of social media campaigns in Qatar and Kuwait to raise awareness on the issue. The women and children’s protection center in Qatar, AMAN, recently went through a series of changes including the appointment of a female leader, launching a series of online campaigns, and announcing a policy reform. This was both a direct response to recent cases of Qatari female asylum seekers and the increase in violence during the pandemic. Once again, these reforms were not publicly discussed and will most likely be announced at a later stage. Therefore, it is too early to analyze their efficacy and influence on violence against women.
Similarly, an online discussion entitled “Responding to Domestic Violence in Quarantine” was held in Qatar to discuss the global increase in gender violence and response strategies. However, throughout the discussion cases in the Gulf region were only briefly and diplomatically mentioned. Even though some realistic solutions were discussed, the true causes were not addressed. There seems to be a stigma around discussing issues of gender violence. The ambiguity around the statistics makes us question the credibility and effectiveness of any protective measures against the victims.
Coronavirus is not the only life-threatening adversity in the Gulf. There are more and equally pressing issues at hand, such as deep-seated inequalities and gender violence. The pandemic is a wakeup call for action. The starting point should be constructive discussions on resolving gender violence with a reevaluation of the existing laws and policies in order to measure their effectiveness with transparency.
Zarqa is a Ph.D. candidate at Durham University, where her research focus includes: Nationalism, National Identity, Women, and State and Society in the Gulf Region. She is currently a lecturer in the Middle Eastern Studies department in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.