In the Gulf, Women Are Not Women’s Best Friends

Following in the steps of Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar, Kuwait recently granted women the right to vote and hold public office. The country, however, still faces important challenges in achieving the full and equal integration of women into society. Although women in the Gulf are becoming increasingly visible in businesses, their political rights continue to be restrained by a combination of tradition, religion, and law. Bahrain, for example, granted its women the right to vote and run for office in 2002, but not a single woman won in the ensuing municipal and parliamentary elections. Female candidates were not only seen as incompetent but they also faced difficulty meeting male voters due to social and religious taboos. While the author acknowledges that Kuwait could face similar problems, he hints that it may have a smoother transformation given the higher number of able and ambitious women in Kuwait. Ultimately, says N. Janardhan, the women themselves must fight against the unfavorable traditions and earn a more prominent role in society. – YaleGlobal

In the Gulf, Women Are Not Women’s Best Friends

N. Janardhan
Monday, June 20, 2005

In a climate of gradual political and social change, Kuwait recently weathered a gender-sensitive society and became the fourth Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member country to grant women the right to vote and stand for public office, following similar moves by Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. Four of the six GCC countries, excluding Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have appointed women as Cabinet ministers and some of them have selected women as members of various representative bodies.

While these measures help dilute the "conservative" image of GCC societies and lend relief as well as confidence to those championing women's rights, it is important to look at the road ahead. Will the process of meaningfully transforming the selection of women to the ability to elect them to public office be easy or long-winding, and what are the factors that will aid or hinder this cause?

Take the case of Bahrain. More than half the 51 percent who turned out to vote in the 2002 municipal polls - the first since 1957 and the first with women candidates - were women. Yet, not a single woman candidate managed to get elected. In a survey conducted ahead of the parliamentary elections held less than six months later, more than 60 percent of Bahraini women were opposed to the participation of women in the elections. As a result, not one woman managed to get elected to the Parliament.

A study by the Women Affairs Committee at the Democratic Arab-Islamic Wassat Society identified several reasons for this, as regarded respondents' perceptions: women were not convinced of the ability of other women to run for public office; women lacked political awareness; the influence of religious leaders and conservative figures diminished women's chances to succeed, as did adherence to rigid social traditions; women had an inability to administer public affairs, while men were seen as able to solve social problems; and women suffered from the lack of effective women support forums to help their candidates get elected.

Without underplaying the other obstacles, it is thus no exaggeration to suggest that women in the Gulf are women's greatest enemies.

The reasons in Bahrain are similar to the ones cited in the past in Kuwait, where women were denied voting rights. The students' union at Kuwait University has always been dominated by Islamist groups. The fact that there are more female than male students implies that the Islamists are supported by women. Despite this, Islamists cited religious and social factors in voting against any parliamentary bill that sought to address the issue of political rights for women, even though women helped the Islamic Union sweep the seats in the 2004 elections of the executive members of the National Union of Kuwaiti Students.

These dynamics indicate that political rights of women in the Gulf are conditioned by a combination of tradition, religion and law. Women's issues are politicized not only because of their intrinsic importance, but also because of the way they intersect with other political issues and the role they play in defining the relationship between religion and politics.

Gulf women are increasingly working alongside men in banks, universities and public offices, but age-old traditions and preconceptions about the role of women still hold sway. Women are still socially and religiously restrained in the region. For example, if a household wants to get any government work done, the woman usually turns to a male relative. In many cases, for example in Kuwait, the leadership may be progressive, but the society lags behind.

However, women's rights issues should not be viewed from the social perspective alone, but ought also to be seen from a religious standpoint. Islamists argue that women are not ready for voting rights because they are not "politically mature in a traditional society" and would neglect their families. The proponents of such an argument have recourse to the Sharia to suggest that men and women are unequal and that women are incapable of assuming an independent political stand; if they were enfranchised, they would be liable to manipulation by the men of the family.

The elections in Bahrain yielded interesting findings. Some voters believed women were less competent than men, and others refused to even meet women candidates for religious reasons. The study pointed out that one of the main obstacles cited by women candidates was the difficulty to contact men voters due to "social restrictions," an issue that might resurface in Kuwait since efforts toward segregation in academic institutions continue and the new election law requires women candidates and voters to abide by Sharia.

Among the suggestions to overcome these obstacles and achieve meaningful rights for women are empowering them economically by training and integrating them into the job market. It also requires making them a part of the decision-making process and incorporating them into the judicial system in order to modernize laws so that legalized gender discrimination can end.

The crucial difference between Bahraini and Kuwaiti women, however, is the presence of a relatively higher number of able and ambitious women in Kuwait. Kuwaitis began educating women as early as the 1930s and provided scholarships for girls to study in universities abroad. They were also among the first in the Gulf to employ women in both the public and private sectors. The urban families in particular saw no contradiction between Islam and economic and social progress. Their forward-looking mentality was the basis of progress in Kuwait until the early 1980s, after which a new set of rigid values was presented by Islamist groups, who claimed that they were championing "true Islamic values."

The spread of education among members of formerly disadvantaged groups in Kuwaiti society promoted the development of a new class of competent Kuwaitis who did not belong to the hitherto powerful families. Competing against the latter was the merchant class, which pushed for gender equality to maintain its own class dominance; it felt it better to have women from the merchant class take over prestigious positions than allow men from other social classes to rise up in the hierarchy. Thus, education and class competition have ensured more liberal values in Kuwait - a fact that could throw up surprises in the 2007 elections.

Nevertheless, overcoming discriminatory attitudes and achieving political rights is only a beginning in an incomplete transformation process. Though selection serves its purpose for now, real transformation will come only when women are elected. It is women themselves who have to fight against the prejudice and weight of so-called Gulf traditions.

N. Janardhan is editor of Gulf in the Media at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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