National policies and their impact on women’s identity and gender issues in the Gulf



The society in the Gulf is pervaded by a patriarchal philosophy as well as conventional religious and cultural norms that determine the rights of men versus women in the region. Notably, the family and personal status laws are informed by the Islamic Sharia law which legitimizes a broadly accepted definition of women status where they are not entitled to fundamental equal rights and having less participation in political and social spheres (Al Fassi, 2016). Women in Iraq and Iran, in particular, have endured significant setbacks to their freedoms and rights under hostile regimes, for instance, Shah and Saddam’s era. Sharia is the primary basis for setting laws in the two countries. Therefore, the currently prevailing clerics openly assert that women are less equal as compared to men. The gender-based discrimination is laid down by law such that there are severe restrictions on women’s public appearance and their rights and freedoms. Furthermore, there are restrictions on their individual development. Notably, recent regimes have shown tolerance towards women, and seem to be adaptable and pragmatic. In this case, despite the glaringly cultural, institutional and gender discrimination, the participation and contribution of women to the public spheres has developed at an extraordinary pace, particularly in the entrepreneurship and business fields.

Literature Review

The weak link leading to discrimination

According to Al Fassi (2013) in the Journal of women in the middle east and the Islamic world, women have always been the weak link in the power equation between Ulama and the state. The power imbalance has led the society to follow the strict interpretation of Islam which limits and controls several rights of women’s freedoms such as movement, appearance, education, and employment opportunities among others. The discourse condemns their public participation while continually striving towards having the women stay at home. Modernity has introduced specific issues and has caused discomfort in the male circles, a notion that has led to more policies towards women empowerment. The religion does not restrict women’s rights or curtail their freedom in the dominant Muslim world. It is the administrative interpretation of the Quran that pushes women further into an abyss of confusion and discrimination.

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According to Mir-Hosseini (2006), Muslims hold the belief that equality and justice are the cardinal principles and intrinsic values in the sharia and Islam. It, therefore, begs the question why women remain discriminated against and curtailed by certain freedoms that their male counterparts enjoy. It is such treatment of women as second-class citizens that has informed a repeal or change of several policies to allow women to, for instance, go to school, be represented in authority bodies or have a right to employment. Despite the several progressive steps towards empowering women, it remains a far reachable dream that women will one day enjoy all the rights and freedoms of a male-dominated society. The Quran, which is a guiding principle should be interpreted and applied logically such that women are uplifted to become significant game changers in the Gulf region. At the moment, they remain second-class citizens, just like their young children who remain under the supervision of their male members in the family.

In Saudi Arabia, Sharia is used as the basis for controlling women’s rights including mobility. Albeit being a common characteristic among the Gulf countries, its application in Saudi Arabia is considered extreme (Moghadam, 2003). There are numerous restrictions on women’s liberties that lead to limited rights and opportunities.  Despite their remarkable achievements in health and education, only a few professions were deemed appropriate for them until recent times. Their journey to professional empowerment has been slow and arduous.  Current policies appear to be on a course of last reform as internal and external pressures on the government rise. In this case, there are apparent signs that the effect of the Arab spring and the renaissance of religious extremists have led the Gulf countries to reconsider their socio-political organization including involvement in empowering women and improving their rights and freedoms. The process is underway in Saudi Arabia as well as in other GCC states.

Scholars argue that the oil-rich countries of the gulf cannot sustain long-term growth if half of the population remains marginalized or sidelined in individual rights and freedoms (Kelly, 2009). Therefore, the GCC countries should consider reforms and policies that guarantee women their right to political, social and cultural rights, equal to men. It is worth noting that the countries are making slow strides towards recognizing women’s rights. For instance, in 2014, Bahrain signed a UN convention to show that the country knows equal rights for women under the law. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates announced a military service law that allows women to join the Emirate armed forces. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is now spearheading a campaign aimed at empowering women into business arenas as well as in politics. Notably, unlike in the past, women in the Gulf countries are slowly becoming business owners and traveling overseas to acquire a further education (Kelly, 2010).

The new shifts and policies towards women empowerment

New shifts have not made a significant change since most of the new and well-funded government initiatives to encourage the education of women and enhance their rights are not likely to bring forth significant change. Albeit the fact that government-led efforts have succeeded in making education better, female adult literacy rates are now at an all-time high, and the number of women graduating from universities is higher than men in all the six GCC countries, they have still sidelined women politically and economically. It is apparent that Gulf Arab women remain financially marginalized and the existing policies restrict them from entering significant occupational careers, and they are underrepresented in the legislative and decision-making bodies. In this case, the efforts are discouraged since, despite the many degrees, women of the gulf remain sidelined in economics and politics. In Oman, there is gender parity as lesser women are educated as the men when compared to the other GCC states (Charrad, 2011). Notably, the governments have also continually encouraged women to join the public sector where they can contribute to the economic growth, however minimal. Women are known to receive lesser pay as compared to men in the private sector jobs. Moreover, they at times fail to enjoy specific work benefits and perks which men possess. The feminism groups are gradually gaining a footing in the region as well as international bodies that continually fight for equal freedoms.

(Kelly, 2010) Posits that the world advocates for education as a way of achieving female empowerment. Notably, the GCC state governments have made it a priority to provide education as a long-term development plan. It is worth noting that that was not the case in the past for the Gulf states. Before the new education policies, retrogressive legislation put in place by traditionally conservative regimes reduced the status of women in the society. Legal barriers still diminish women’s rights for instant legislation about occupying the same public space or those that restrict women from accessing various forms of transportation. In this case, such legislation needs to be repealed if women are to acquire the same political, social and economic rights as those of the men. The space in which women can advocate for change are limited, and their status in politics, economics, and society have not evolved simultaneously.

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According to the World Economic Forum report on Gender Gap in 2013 stated that albeit the Gulf states reduce the gender gap on attaining education to be at par with the developed nations, they are still poor in women development in politics and economics. The major concern is that even though women continue to receive education, they are not allowed an opportunity to acquire the skills such that they can meet the demands of the local market. The gulf is an oil-rich region and therefore, the in-demand jobs based on an oil-driven economy require candidates with a background in engineering, science, and technology. In the gulf, the job generating disciplines are conventionally considered as culturally acceptable for men only. Women are not allowed to pursue such subjects as they are a reserve of men according to the culture. Markedly, the issue of attracting women to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a global phenomenon. Moreover, there is a surge of segregated schooling systems often with biased admission policies as well as limited career guidance. Such systems limit women to careers deemed safe for the female population. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, 95% of women occupy the public sector, and 85% of the women are in the education field. Such norms and policies compress women’s chances for employment, and the result is that almost double of the women remain unemployed as compared to men. The international labor organization in 2008 reported that 21.8% of women in the Gulf faced unemployment while the number of unemployed males stood at 7.9% (Mahfoudh, 2016).

Women Representation in authority bodies and employment

Away from the classroom, various organizations and institutions continue to enhance and support policies that limit women’s ability to become productive members of the society in regards to careers. For example, there are set time limits for women in Kuwait and Oman which prevent women from working early in the mornings or late at night. Moreover, there are limitations on transportation such as driving which further deters women’s effort to get to work. Notably, the average GCC workplace is not family friendly or oriented. Many organizations fail to provide benefits such as flexible working hours, maternal or parental leave as well as lack of child care programs for the female workers expected to fulfill their duties at work and as mothers and wives. Furthermore, facilities that accommodate cultural and religious demands such as female-only prayer rooms or cloakrooms are minimal and inadequate. Women are employed in non-strategic positions with minimal decision-making authority and job autonomy. Combined the conditions only worsen the hardships that working women in the GCC are faced with.

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In the political realm, women policymakers could strive to change certain policies that restrict freedoms and rights for women. However, women in the Gulf region are politically marginalized where they remain grossly underrepresented in elective positions, institutions, and ministries. Women in the Gulf states are eligible to vote and run for public office except for Saudi Arabia.        There is a lack of gender-based quotas however which keeps female political participation low. Markedly, in Saudi Arabia, it is the only state in the Gulf where women are represented in legislative bodies, but they have zero rights to vote. In 2011, the country introduced a 20% quota where women are described in the Shura Council. The Shura is an advisory body with members directly appointed by the king. The king had promised that there would be more grants for women and they would be given the right to vote by 2015. The intentions serve to underscore the women’s subordinate status in the region. It is worth noting that the Shura council’s political authority is limited in that it only advises the king and his ministries being strictly gender-segregated. In this case, powerless committees such as the Shura and other similar institutions that impose gender separation can never pioneer female political engagement.

It is possible that gender quotas once put in place can empower Kuwaiti women which have a vibrant parliament with actual legislative authority and leverage versus the executive. However, Al-Rasheed Madawi, (2013) asserts that most GCC states are likely to involve a similar misleading veneer regarding female empowerment as is the case in Saudi Arabia. In the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, participatory institutions do not enjoy legislative authority against the male-dominated ruling families. The Federal National Council in the UAE, for instance, exists as the only legal institution but the king appoints its constituent members and that they are unable to pass or propose legislation. In Bahrain, the forty elected members of the Chamber of Deputies do not have any authority to introduce any legislation. Moreover, the committee can easily be dissolved by the king.

Moghadam (2007) points out that participatory decision making across the gulf is only a façade as the legislative bodies remain as consultative authorities and politically powerless. As such, the idea of expanding female representation in such councils has little effect on women empowerment in the same manner that the governments fail to empower individuals in general. However, the process of increasing women’s representation in the councils is not pointless since they elevate the status of a few women in the society. It is apparent that the countries are still far from advancing the economic, social and political rights of women in the entire GCC.

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Moghadam (2007) further asserts that there is a new shift in the Gulf where despite their struggle with work-life balance, social expectations, and career goals, the businesswomen have acquired a different perspective involving their roles as homemakers and in the society. Women in the Gulf can simultaneously hold themselves as the intrinsic part of a collective whole as well as personally as individuals, particularly when compared to women in western countries. In this regard, empowering women requires inclusivity in family ties, the community, and the nation b extension. Moreover, the Arab woman desires to achieve personal satisfaction to feel empowered. The common myths surrounding women in the gulf is that they are not empowered to study or work outside their homes. On the contrary, women are encouraged to go to school, work away from home and to marry like-minded partners whom they share personal and professional goals with. Moreover, they can seek out mentors and leadership opportunities such that they can contribute to the development of their nations through conventional roles as wives and mothers as well as financial leaders and business women.

Ridge (2014) argues that in Qatar, women are allowed the right to negotiate their power and authority in the age-old family constructs. For instance, women entrepreneurs may often refer to their male figures such as father or husband with gratitude, and they realize that they still need to have acceptance as the society is still patriarchal. The man is still the head of the family. However, women have a new economic found power to change gender roles and relationships at home. There are state policies recently made that reflect a modern understanding involving women’s freedom as well as protecting their rights. Qatar’s first lady and other women in authority recognize the need to empower women economically. Therefore, the women are involved in creating forums and institutions such as the Qatar Business Women forum and drafting policies to make way for a widespread social acceptance of women’s equality. Several other leaders have deemed it necessary to enact policies that enhance justice in the society. Ridge (2014) refers to Qatar’s Prophet Mohamed’s wife Khadija who was a successful businesswoman but still supported her husband. The Gulf states must learn to balance ways such that women can be rewarded for working outside the home while still affirming their roles in the family.

Panigrahy & Bhūẏām̐ (2006) say that women have a particular affinity towards their countries. It is worth noting that most of the families enjoy financial successes due to the oil-rich economies. Therefore, women work not due to necessity but because they desire to contribute to the national and economic development as well as to improve the reputation of the gulf globally. Currently, women in businesses or entrepreneurship are regarded as a solution for many things such as women’s financial freedom and independence, growth, and development of the region as well as a chance to create opportunities and revive the image that the world has of the Gulf states in allowing women their freedoms.

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Trofin & Tomescu (2010) assert that it is a cause for worry that the nations discriminate against the rights and freedoms of women. It is because every individual, and not just women will likely suffer from the issue. Empowering women in the economic sense translate to fostering sustainable economic development particularly for the states that rely on non-renewable sources of energy to fuel growth as well as spending. Panigrahy & Bhūẏām̐ (2006) says that the ability to tap into a half of the country’s young talent base develops significant opportunities for economic growth.


Worth noting, the GCC remains immune to the region’s turbulence and still occupies the ideal position in taking the initiative in improving female economic inclusion. The oil-rich nations of the Gulf cannot enjoy long-term prosperity if women who make half the population remain excluded from decision making or developmental agendas. To achieve this end, the GCC states need to repeal certain policies that hinder women growth and development such that women can be allowed equal opportunities to make the region better in their thought processes as well as in work input. The achievements can be achieved from the cause of the problem which is changing the curriculum system such that more women are allowed to take on science and technical subjects that will shape their future into the in-demand jobs, similar to their male counterparts. Organizations as well can be encouraged or sensitized on the need to hire more women as it is essential for the overall economic well-being of the region. Moreover, organizations and governments can create conditions that allow women more excellent opportunities to work from home or venture into businesses. It is apparent that despite the glaring changes such as education for the girls, the region is far from achieving equality between men and women. Women still have a long way to go in becoming equal to their male family members or colleagues. However, the steps are seemingly significant since they are a step towards empowering the women of the gulf. It is only through several policy changes that the women can surely attain equality in the GCC. For instance, changing the causes of the problem by allowing women in school to choose the disciplines they want to engage in rather than basing it on an age-old tradition where only restricted subjects are set aside for women. Organizations need to employ people on merit rather than on gender basis if equality is to be achieved.

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  8. Moghadam, V. M. (2003). Modernizing women: Gender and social change in the Middle East. Lynne Rienner Publishers.
  9. Moghadam, V. M. (Ed.). (2007). From patriarchy to empowerment: women’s participation, movements, and rights in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Syracuse             University Press.
  10. Panigrahy, R. L., & Bhūẏām̐, D. (2006). Women empowerment. New Delhi: Discovery Pub. House.
  11. Ridge, N. (2014). Education and the reverse gender divide in the Gulf States: Embracing the global, ignoring the local. Teachers College Press.
  12. Trofin, L., & Tomescu, M. (2010). Women’s rights in the Middle East. Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, 2(1), 152.
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