Event Recap – Women in the Gulf: Between Tradition & Reform


On January 31st 2019, GIF held its first event of the new year, at which a panel of experts discussed the evolving status of women in the Gulf. Such a conversation is important and timely, as recent weeks have witnessed a growing uproar due to the detainment certain female activists in the Gulf. The panel was moderated by Dr. Ashley Ater Kranov and featured Bader Al-Saif of Georgetown University, Dania Thafer of Gulf International Forum, Bina Hussein of the Atlantic Council and Rothna Begum of Human Rights watch.

To set the context of the discussion, Mr. Saif began by giving a brief redux of feminism and gender relations in the Arabian Peninsula. He broke this history down to three trends: ambiguity, animosity and alliance. While feminism may not have been a defined concept until the nineteenth century, Bader emphasized that movements of female empowerment existed in the Gulf well before the term “feminism” gained any significance. While not organized in the traditional sense, these nebulous feminist movements included prominent female leaders including women religious scholars in Oman and Kuwait. Additionally, the Gulf’s status as a hub of the pearling industry allowed many opportunities for women to take leadership roles while many men were working out at sea. As the twentieth century ushered the Gulf into the global system of sovereign nation-states, Mr. Al Saif argued that gender relations shifted to being characterized by animosity. Gendered divisions of labor began to arise in schools, with women being increasingly educated in subject areas that would limit their utility to household roles. In the present moment, Mr. Al-Said discussed the alliance phase, stating that the Gulf is currently witnessing women push for reforms in a more organized and prototypically feminist fashion. This phase includes policy-reforms such as the lifting of the Saudi ban on driving, as well as the appointment of women to positions of leadership. Mr. Al-Saif argued that ultimately the Gulf will have to pursue reforms in line with what he referred to as “Islamic feminism” to ensure that changes resonate with the unique social, political and cultural history of the Gulf region.

Gulf International Forum’s Executive Director Dania Thafer continued the discussion of the present-day by commenting on current issues and opportunities facing women in the Gulf, arguing that women are facing new opportunities as a result of top-down government initiatives utilized to gloss over decreases in freedom; reactions to perceived external threats; or international pressures. Ms. Thafer also commented on reform in Saudi Arabia, arguing that the arrests of prominent women activists are due to one sector of society attempting to hold on to power, and the perception that changes to the guardianship system would reshape power dynamics of the existing political landscape.

Moving forward with reforms, Ms. Thafer argued that the region is at cross-roads as to the concept of reform itself. As history shows, even if it feels like a slow struggle, women ultimately gain increased freedoms. Therefore, governments should put themselves on the right side of history by instituting reforms that speak to the grievances of Gulf’s society’s diverse female citizenry. Ms. Thafer evidenced Kuwait’s general lack of female parliamentarians (in spite of holding elections with zero restrictions on female’s running or voting), as proof that governments are not necessarily the only actors inhibiting changes for women. Ms. Thafer concluded by pointing out that if reforms do not speak to the values and grievances of women, they will receive pushback from the people they were intended to “help,” thereby undermining the purpose of reform.

In a slight change of approach, Bina Hussein spoke to the role of women in the current and future Gulf economy. Ms. Hussein spoke to the levels of education of Gulf women, which surpasses their male counterparts. While there are job opportunities for women to make-use of their education, Ms. Hussein emphasized that these opportunities are still insufficient if the Gulf is to meet its economic diversification standards. Given the Gulf’s petrochemical industry and the job needs that come with it, Ms. Hussein also highlighted the inordinate amount of women in STEM fields compared to Western women, a phenomenon that may strike some observers as surprising.

Joining the panel via Skype from London, Rothna Begum spoke to human rights issues currently being faced by women in the Gulf. Ms. Begum began by looking at the campaign to lift Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban, an effect that took roughly seven years to achieve. In spite of lifting the ban, Ms. Begum shed light on the ways in which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman framed the reform as top-down reform that was not the result of female-led campaigns. To further emphasize this point, Ms. Begum points out that several prominent women who spoke out against the driving ban remain imprisoned. Most significantly however, Ms. Begum spoke to the Guardianship system, iterations of which exist across the Gulf, but are nonetheless most strictly enforced in Saudi Arabia. It was emphasized by both Ms. Thafer and Ms. Begum that the gendered imbalance of power inherent to the Male Guardianship system necessarily leads to abuses of all kinds. Additionally, the laws themselves restrict women’s mobility and access to fundamental necessities – such as healthcare.


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