Slow but gradual improvements in women’s rights in the Gulf States reflect local activists’ ability to forge alliances and work within and against cultures that are hostile to women’s empowerment, a Washington meeting heard this week. Women’s rights made most progress in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in recent years, according to a new study from Freedom House, but patriarchal laws and customs make the region one of the world’s most suffocating environments for women.
“Women’s activists in the Gulf need support more than ever to transform these gains into real momentum,” said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Gulf Edition outlines women’s rights in the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the study is the first part of a larger report covering the Middle East and North Africa to be published in November.
“Women-to-women transfers of knowledge and power” are vital to overcoming resistance to change, said Houda Nonoo, Bahraini Ambassador to the United States. Bahraini women enjoy the greatest degree of freedom in the Gulf, but Sharia judges are consistently unfair to women, she told a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy which heard regional experts and frontline advocates discuss the report’s findings. Efforts to secure a meaningful Personal Status law that would give women equal rights and citizenship are “currently at a standstill.”
“Personal status laws, which govern family issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, are a pervasive source of gender-based discrimination,” the survey reports.
The survey’s “truly exciting” findings signified a “seismic shift” over the last five years, said Sanja Kelly (above left), the study’s project editor. But political gains were also evident in the extension of voting rights, growing civil activism and women in government (including Cabinet-level) positions. “Women had been in the basement but were now at the first or second floor”, she said.
The study assesses women’s rights in five spheres, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: nondiscrimination and access to justice; autonomy, security and freedom of the person; economic rights and equal opportunity; political rights and civic voice; and social and cultural rights.
Political rights improved the most for women in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, while Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar showed improvement across all five categories.
But women in Kuwait still face a “marble ceiling” when it comes to taking leading positions, said Lubna Al-Kazi, a Kuwait University professor and women’s activist, even though women comprise a majority of university graduates. She was hopeful that some moderate Islamists could be persuaded of the case for women’s rights, but most remained “ill-informed.”
Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for women, the survey finds:
The country performs well below its neighbors in all categories, with women segregated, disenfranchised and requiring male approval to travel and access medical care. Gender inequality is built into Saudi Arabia’s governmental and social structures, and is integral to the state-supported interpretation of Islam. Women’s rights improved slightly, with women now allowed to study law, obtain their own identification cards, check into hotels alone and register businesses without first proving that they have hired a male manager.
Yet even though political advocacy is “risky behavior” for women in the Kingdom, they have “entered political spaces previously considered exclusively male,” said Eleanor Doumato, a Visiting Fellow at Brown University. Saudi women have secured independent civil status as autonomous human beings, representing a “huge cultural shift” in such a patriarchal society.
Women in Oman are playing more important roles in the upper reaches of government, registering to vote and even running as parliamentary candidates. But no female candidates were elected in 2007 and political and civic participation remains low.
Omani journalist Rafiah Al-Talei (above right) narrowly missed being elected as a parliamentary candidate in 2003. She complains that women’s NGOs are limited to charity associations, highlighting the need to demand greater freedom of expression and the importance of networking amongst women within the region and the wider world.
The pace of political change in the Arab world often appears more glacial than gradual. But the progress in women’s rights signifies the benefits of empowering internal voices and actor, said Laith Kubba, the NED’s program director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Divorced from broader issues for political reform, the struggle for women’s rights could lead to tokenism or isolated concessions. “Time is on the side of change,” he said, as global economic and demographic pressures make the regional status quo unsustainable.
The report is available in Arabic here.
Listen to the audio of the National Endowment for Democracy discussion.
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