The progression of women in GCC countries: The road to empowerment

The progression of women in GCC countries: The road to empowerment

Although the journey along the road to the empowerment of women in the Gulf region has sometimes been slow, it is now surely under way, through forward steps of positive reforms, as more female voices are being heard. These voices reflect the motivation, determination and ambition of all those women who are striving to become active members in society and in building their country. Today, women in the GCC region are taking on increasingly prominent roles, becoming decision-makers, participating in the public field as educators, professors, university deans, businesswomen, bankers, medical professionals, scientific researchers and government ministers. Through their achievements, they are exerting a positive influence on society and moving beyond the traditional confinements of home and family.
Major positive changes and development have occurred during the past decades in the status of GCC women. The education of women and their expanding presence in the labor market provide some of the best measures of progress in the region.
Education is one of the most powerful tools for the empowerment of women and a catalyst for economic and social change. Investment in educational opportunities for girls will give us the best returns, especially when the focus is on the quality of that education, the methodology and the training provided to young women throughout their life.
GCC governments have invested heavily in education, which as result has became widespread, and significant progress has been made toward achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. They have made commendable efforts to achieve gender equality among school students and provided considerable financial assistance to female students in all areas and stages of education.
According to UNESCO, in 2009, the net enrolment ratio — that is, the ratio of girls of official school age in primary education — reached 97 percent in Bahrain, 87 percent in Kuwait, 77 percent in Oman, 93 percent in Qatar, 85 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 89 percent in the UAE. Similarly, the net enrolment ratio in secondary education also increased and reached 91 percent in Bahrain, 81 percent in Oman, 96 percent in Qatar, 76 percent in Saudi Arabia (2007) and 84 percent in the UAE.
In 2009, Bahrain achieved 100 percent literacy for young women between the ages of 15 and 24, Kuwait achieved 99 percent, Oman and Qatar 98 percent, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE 97 percent (2005). Universal literacy for young women is projected for all of the GCC countries in the next five years.
Young women have been enrolling at all levels of higher education in numbers that even exceed male enrolment. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women represent almost 60 percent of the total number of university students. Princess Noura bint Abdul Rahman University for Women, launched in May 2011, is one of the largest centers of higher education for women in the world, with 15 colleges, 12,000 employees, and the capacity to enroll more than 40,000 female students.
Investing in women's education has been crucial to the social and cultural development of the GCC countries, helping to bring about a reduction in fertility rates and infant mortality rates, an improvement in health and nutrition, an increase in life expectancy at birth, and a boost to greater female participation in the labor force.
GCC countries have adopted many positive steps to promote gender equality and the advancement of women in the labor market. At the international level, all Gulf countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (although with some reservations on marriage, divorce and family relations which are based on Shariah compliance). Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also ratified the International Labor Organization Convention (ILO ) No. 100 on equal remuneration for men and women, which establishes the principle and practice of equal pay for work of equal value. Five of the GCC countries (the exception is Oman) have also ratified the ILO Convention No. 111 on job discrimination.
Although there is still a significant gender gap at all ages, women's participation in the labor market has increased considerably in all GCC countries, doubling and even quadrupling in some countries over the past 20 or 30 years. According to the International Labor Office, in 2010, women's participation in the labor force reached 39.2 percent in Bahrain, 43.3 percent in Kuwait, 28 percent in Oman, 52.1 percent in Qatar, 17.4 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 43.7 percent in the UAE. Women are predominantly employed in the public and the services sectors.
Women hold legal rights that are basically established by Islam. They have the right to own and manage their assets before and after marriage and a husband has no right to the personal wealth of his wife without her consent. She has the right to keep her maiden name after marriage, the right to inherit and divorce, get an education, work and participate in government. Women can make financial decisions for themselves and their families. Using their own wealth inherited from their family, they also hold the same rights as men to conduct business transactions, to manage companies and to own assets independently from their husbands. Businesswomen in the GCC have a strong influence in the business community and have been extremely successful. The UAE has the largest number of businesswomen in the region but in all the countries entrepreneurship is increasingly in demand as it provides social flexibility between a woman's traditional role at home and her emerging career aspirations.
GCC women hold also social power because of their important role as mothers, and educators of future generations. This has a value that cannot be measured in financial terms. Women also play a major role in community development by improving the lot of other women of lower income through capacity-building and vocational training.
Societies for the welfare of children, the poor, and those with special needs have been organized and presided over mainly by women. In the UAE, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, supreme chairperson of the Family Development Foundation, holds the title of Umm Al Emarat (Mother of the Nation) for her numerous achievements on behalf of women and for her leading and pioneering role in supporting Emirati women and their empowerment.
Five of the GCC countries have adopted new codified personal status laws that govern issues such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, and Saudi Arabia is considering codifying a family law document. These codifications are important because they constitute a basis for defining and protecting the rights of women and children in family law and they reduce the scope for judicial decisions unfavorable to women's rights that are mostly based on patriarchal attitudes.
In providing social and economic opportunities for women, Gulf countries have also granted political participation (even if limited) in high-level decision-making. Today, there are female ministers in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. In May 2005, the Kuwaiti government extended political rights to women by amending the election laws and in May 2009 through general elections; four women won seats in the Kuwaiti Parliament marking a historic landmark in the political empowerment of women in the region. According to United Nations data, the percentage of parliamentary seats occupied by women reached in Bahrain: 4; Kuwait, 8: UAE, 23; In Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah announced in September 2011 that women would be allowed to become members in the Shoura Council for the next session and to nominate candidates and run as candidates for public office in the next elections for the municipal council.
Other signs of progress for women leadership appeared with the appointment in 2003 of Mariam Abdullah Al Jaber as the first district attorney in Qatar and the Gulf region, and, in March 2010, Sheikha Maha Mansour Salman Jassem Al Thani as the first female judge in court. In 2006, Bahrain appointed the first female judge (Mona Jassem Al Kawari) at the Grand Civil Court. In March 2008, UAE lawyer and Shariah specialist Kholoud Ahmad Al Daheri was appointed as primary judge at the Abu Dhabi Judiciary Department. In February 2010, Saudi Arabian justice minister announced that the government is planning to allow female lawyers to begin appearing in court to represent women in matters related to divorce, child custody and other family issues.
Into the future: We can say proudly that women have achieved gains, but more needs to be done.
Today, in order to face the new challenges of globalization, and to be able to compete in a modern global economy, more measures should be adopted and implemented so as to promote the advancement of women in the region.
Despite the benefits that women in the GCC have achieved, a mixture of local norms and traditions emanating from the patriarchal system still exert pressure on women, limiting their opportunities in education, employment and participation in the public sphere. Change and modernization can only come gradually from within our society, but the cultural constraints placed on women should be removed through education and public enlightenment that promotes a view that accepts women as equal partners with men in society. Social and cultural patterns should be modified according to a more tolerant interpretation of the values of our society. These reforms should start at home with the education of the mother and father and with the upbringing of the present generation of children, initiating them into an open culture based on tolerance and understanding.
More can and must be done in the Gulf region to provide women with equal opportunities in education, starting with a new educational reform strategy for young women, that includes major structural changes in the school system that will respond to the demands and priorities of a dynamic society. We need to redefine the concept of girls' education and to define what role it should play in reshaping a modern society.
We need to implement a new educational policy for women which takes into consideration their social and economic needs, and that is responsive to the needs of the local market by providing them not only with basic educational skills but developing curricula that include mathematics, sciences, engineering, computer skills, and foreign languages, with additional emphasis on health, business administration, politics, law, physical education, community service and environmental education. Our focus should be on good learning techniques and skills for the future, including: the development of cognitive and communicative skills; innovative, creative and critical thinking; information analysis; teamwork; ability to take the initiative and take responsibility; all of which will develop women's self-confidence.
GCC women represent an important source of energy for the economy. This is why our governments should work to develop this most valuable resource of human capital and seek to incorporate women fully into the labor market if the Gulf countries are to transition to a knowledge-based economy.
Women's employment should be a crucial element in a larger macro-economic policy designed to foster equitable social and economic development. It should be part of a national vision supporting the active role of women in the development process.
We need to raise awareness about the vital and positive role of women not only as mothers but also as active agents in society and in the labor market by focusing on their rights, opportunities and successes. Special policies should be implemented to create employment opportunities for women and create institutional mechanisms that promote women's well-being and success in the workforce.
A system of infrastructural support for working women should be promoted and implemented such as family -friendly policies including flexible hours, parental leave and the establishment of nurseries in workplaces and child care facilities to help working mothers. A life-long learning system of training and guidance should be established to promote entrepreneurship and self-employment and women should have access to professional development in areas that are most effective in a knowledge-based economy.
GCC governments can play a major role in helping and encouraging the private sector to support women's integration in the economy. Private institutions and funds can support women's economic development through loans and grants. Cross-sector partnership should be encouraged as a key strategy in the promotion of women's role in the workforce. Women's programs should be developed to promote entrepreneurship, professional advancement, and relevant skills. Entrepreneurship can be stimulated by the development of microfinance programs to help low-income women start their own businesses by providing them with loans, insurance and money transfers.
Channels for funding should be established to provide women at all stages of business development with the capital necessary to increase the efficiency of their economic activities. In addition, training programs aimed at empowering women with confidence, skills, and technical know-how will allow them to advance to managerial, decision-making positions. Women should be encouraged and prepared to assume highly visible positions, and should be selected to represent their countries at regional and international meetings. Empowering women and providing them with equal access to opportunities will allow them to emerge as social and economic actors, in influencing and sharing in decision-making policies. They should also be given the opportunity to express their full potential and be an integral part of the socioeconomic society. We need to strengthen the legal protections for women and enforce the implementation of laws preserving their rights.
Finally I would like to stress that the success of our society depends on how it invests in all its members, women as much as men, because women are a most valuable potential resource in the development of our region, and investing in women will yield great rewards, both today and in the future.

Dr. Mona AlMunajjed is a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view