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Intersections and Divergences of Gender Norms and ‘Modernity’ in the Arab Gulf States


October 9
9:00 am - 5:00 pm


GIF Headquarters
1275 K St NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20005


This workshop will raise questions regarding the changing role of women in the Gulf by elucidating ways in which these women situate themselves between modernization and tradition, forces often assumed to be in direct opposition. Modernization has manifested itself in the Gulf in a variety of forms, including technologies, (such as social media), economics, (such as neoliberal development discourse), and representative politics, (such as more equitable gender representation). While variables of modernization are certainly not limited to these categories, they speak to the unexpected consequences for the societies of the Gulf and the conceptions of modernity and gender roles within those societies.

Much work has built a corpus of knowledge regarding the tension between the lived realities of women in the Arab world, and the neoliberal growth discourse that assumes that the introduction of programs emphasizing women’s economic development will lead to strictly benign outcomes. Examinations of so-called  ‘gendered paradoxes,’ ultimately show that the Western world’s categorization of concurrently increasing rates of women’s education and birth as a ‘paradox’ ignores the ways in which the proliferation of public education has served as a new means for the state to reify it’s authority in shaping and implementing attitudes regarding women’s role. Similarly, studies of entrepreneurship in the cases of Oman and Qatar show that patriarchal state-led initiatives of women’s entrepreneurship and innovation gloss-over inequalities women face attempting to gain employment in the pre-existing private sector, and reinforce gender norms. In each of these cases, the consequences of the imposition of ‘modernization’ on gender inequality evidences how dominant discourses obfuscate the possibility of alternative measures of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘modernity’. This assumption complicates the experiences of Gulf women who must balance modern precepts with their specific societal norms. An example of a Gulf social norm is ‘wasta,’ the familial relationship network utilized by many Gulf women to gain certain career opportunities and access to resources, thusly reifying a woman’s reliance on her male relatives as career interlocutors in the Gulf region.

Related to programs, such as gender quotas, aimed at decreasing gender inequality are the widely publicized efforts to increase women’s participation in government. Recent decades have seen women in nearly all of the Gulf states rise to visible positions of power, whether in elected parliaments, appointed cabinet positions, or ambassadorships. While some feminists may highlight this as a nominal good, the fact that Kuwait, (the most democratic of the Gulf states) has a lower level of elected female representation relative to the other nations’ appointed female representation speaks to the possibility that certain aspects of Gulf society continue to see government office as existing outside the scope of women’s traditional and institutional norms. Women’s appointments in politics are often state-led, which can raise questions of the possible reassertion of the state’s patriarchal authority and if these are signs of tokenism.

Finally, one aspect of modernity that was initially thought to exist outside the paradigm of the patriarchal control of the state was the advent of wholly modern technologies, such as social media. Many have written regarding the ways in which social media platforms have challenged the control of the Gulf’s traditionally conservative media institutions. However, others have argued social media is not necessarily a liberating space free from the top-down imposition of standards and norms that characterize governments, but rather is a space where users disseminate, absorb, and reproduce various standards related to women’s gender norms.

While economics, technology, and politics are but three lone examples of how ‘modernity’ has manifested itself in the Arab Gulf states, their unexpected consequences on gender inequality when intersecting with traditional institutional norms leave women balancing these two dynamics, often perceived as paradoxical. This panel will be assembled to explore how gender inequality and the role of women in society is affected by the interplay of both traditional norms and modernity in the Arab Gulf States.

Workshop Participants:


Dr. Dania Thafer

Executive Director, Gulf International Forum


Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum. Her area of expertise is on the Gulf region’s geopolitics, US-Gulf relations, and the political economy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. She is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

Dr. Thafer been widely published on matters concerning the Arab Gulf states including several articles and publications. She has co-authored two edited books “The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States: Trends and Implications” and “The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region”. Dr. Thafer is currently writing a book focused on the effect of state-business relations on economic reform in the GCC states. Previously, she worked at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.

Dr. Thafer has a master’s degree in Political Economy from New York University, and PhD specialized in the Political Economy and International Relations of the GCC states from American University in Washington, DC.



Dr. Sahar Khamis

Associate Professor, University of Maryland


Dr. Sahar Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media, and the former Head of the Mass Communication and Information Science Department in Qatar University. She is a former Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago. She is the co-author of the books: Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Egyptian Revolution 2.0: Political Blogging, Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and the co-editor of Arab Women’s Activism and Socio-Political Transformation: Unfinished Gendered Revolutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).


Dr. Najma Al-Zidjaly

Associate Professor, Sultan Qaboos University

Dr. Najma Al Zidjaly is an Associate Professor of Communication in the Department of English Language and Literature at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. She served as Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University in 2012 and 2018. Al Zidjaly is the editor of Society in Digital Contexts: New Modes of Identity and Community Construction (Multilingua 2019) and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Multimodal Communication. In addition, Al Zidjaly has published articles in scholarly journals such as Language in Society, Visual Communication, Multimodal Communication and Discourse and Society. A sociolinguist and public intellectual, Al Zidjaly published an essay in The New York Times on the Arab Spring (2011) and had a bi-monthly column in Muscat Daily called “We Need to Talk.” In 2015, Al Zidjaly became the recipient of the most prestigious, and competitive, research grant in Oman (Sultan Qaboos Strategic Grants) to investigate the Impact of Social Media on Omani and Arab Youth: A Multimodal Project (2015-2020). In 2016, she won the Best Researcher Award at Sultan Qaboos University. Dr. Al Zidjaly is currently writing a book on women, Arab Islamic identity and social media.


Dr. Bader Al-Saif

Assistant Professor, Kuwait University


Bader Mousa Al-Saif is an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University and a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. He earned his Ph.D. with distinction from Georgetown University. His dissertation is entitled “Reform Islam? The Renewal of Islamic Thought and Praxis in Modern and Contemporary Arabian Peninsula.” Al-Saif focuses on the history and politics of the Middle East (particularly the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula), Islamic thought, intellectual history, and gender studies. Al-Saif is the recipient of numerous awards. He has published several peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and is the founding president of Al-Saif Consulting specializing in public policy research, education, women and youth empowerment, and inter-religious coexistence in the Middle East. He has held senior roles in the private and public sectors in Kuwait. Dr. Al-Saif holds a Master of Education and a Master of Theology, both with honors from Harvard University, and a Master of Law with honors from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Al-Saif graduated summa cum laude from Boston College with a double major in political science and history.


Zarqa Parvez

Lecturer in Middle East Studies, Hamad bin Khalifa University


Zarqa is a PhD 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. Some of her past research projects include: ‘Women and the Status Quo in Saudi Arabia’ and others related to issues of public policy and identity. She has organized academic conferences and lead independent research projects related to the development of education and youth in Qatar. She is the founder of the Women’s Society and Development Club at Georgetown University in Qatar. She is a contributor to Middle East Monitor, where she regularly publishes academic opinion pieces on relevant political, social, and development issues in the Middle East. She obtained her BSc in international Affairs from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, and her MSc in State, Society, and Development from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.


Alainna Liloia

PhD Candidate, University of Arizona


Alainna Liloia is a student in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. She researches gender and politics in the Arab Gulf states, and she has written both academic and popular articles about women’s issues in the Arab world.


Rafiah Altalei

PhD Candidate, Qatar University

Rafiah Al Talei is a journalist and researcher specializing in Human Rights and women’s issues in the Gulf. Most recently, she served as the Senior Producer at the Al Jazeera Center for Public Liberties and Human Rights. Al Talei was offered the Stanford Draper Hills fellowship in democracy, development, and rule of law in 2018, and the Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2006. In 2007 Rafiah became the first Omani to participate in the Leaders for Democracy Fellowship program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. Al Talei has been published in edited volumes,  and various publications involving research on women in the Gulf region, women in Journalism, and women and the media in Oman. Rafiah is a former candidate for Oman’s Majlis A’Shura in the 2003 elections. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, where she focuses on women’s political participation in the Gulf.


This is an invitation-only event and is closed to the public.


October 9
9:00 am - 5:00 pm


GIF Headquarters
1275 K St NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20005


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