Women of the Gulf and Yemen: Rights, Religion, and Islamism

Published: January 03, 2015

Front-97-550-201x300The ninety-seventh edition of Al-Mesbar’s monthly book series — Women of the Gulf and Yemen: Rights, Religion, and Islamism — addresses the latest developments, ongoing challenges, and new opportunities for the advancement of women in Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council member states. It is a collection of research papers that compare and contrast conditions for women within the seven countries, arising from a combination of longstanding traditions and present-day social trends. The book also highlights the many contributions women now make to these societies, and the nature of their struggles to realize the rights that are due them.

Al-Mesbar aims in publishing the book to support the cause of women in the Gulf and Yemen as they campaign to attain equality in patriarchal societies. The book also sheds light on the legal, political, economic, and social consequences women face in attempting to do so.

This frank and introspective examination of women’s status, primarily by scholars indigenous to the countries under scrutiny, recognizes that the struggle for women’s rights remains ongoing not only in developing countries but also in developed democracies. Though women have made great strides in the West, for example, they still have not achieved full equality. Lingering patriarchal strands in the culture, as well as economic and political obstacles, continue to impede their progress, and consistent vigilance is required even to defend those rights which have already been attained. In France, women were not granted the right to vote until 1944 — nearly 155 years after the French Revolution of 1789, which promised equality between men and women. Progress over the past century and a half has been steady but gradual.

In the Arab world, the challenges women face are political and cultural, and rooted in the religious traditions that permeate the society. In recent years, wrenching political and economic upheaval has further exacerbated the problems Middle Eastern women face: In societies wracked by war and instability, people and their leaderships fall back on patriarchal axioms which are detrimental to women’s advancement. Despite these challenges, the book provides cause for optimism about the incremental progress women have been achieving in the Gulf — both in terms of their own empowerment, and in terms of the growing support they enjoy among men.

Ongoing and — in some cases — increasing physical violence against women is tragically unsurprising at a time of radical transition in the likes of Yemen, for example. A hopeful reading of the situation would also suggest that as upheaval begins to ebb, so will the assault on women — provided a concerted assault on the culture of impunity that enables it.

Conditions of women in the Gulf states and Yemen are similar to those of Arab women elsewhere in the region — largely a function of mores brought to bear by traditional family values and popular readings of religious law. Women in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Lebanon, for example, have come further toward achieving their political and legal rights than those in the Gulf, but the latter have begun to move forward at an accelerated pace. A striking trend in the GCC states today is that, while women remain politically weak, they are rapidly gaining in economic power.

In recent years, women in the Gulf have made significant strides in literature, media, civil society, charitable works, and the private sector. This volume presents examples of Gulf women’s literature which both reflects the struggle for women’s advancement and is also a manifestation of it.

The most demanding challenge facing Arab women in general, and Gulf women in particular, is the political discourse adopted by Islamists, which seeks to heighten religious taboos. This tendency varies among differing strands of Salafism and political Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In seeking to instrumentalize women, ”political Islam” calls for regulations and laws which allow women to play a role in politics — as voters and as figureheads — but not in actual decision-making. Some of the Salafi trends, for their part, view women as a tool for their educational and social outreach projects. The latter movements seek to enshrine the limitation of women to traditional social functions, as well as intensify impositions on women in terms of “public modesty” and other social constraints. All of these Islamist trends are essentially similar in viewing women as political tools and opposing attempts to elevate their status.

The center would like to thank all the researchers who contributed to this volume, with special gratitude to our colleague Rita Faraj, who coordinated the contributions.