Women’s rights in the Gulf countries

Across the globe, the struggle for women’s rights has seen significant milestones, especially over the last century. For millennia, women’s roles were largely confined by patriarchal norms, but the 19th and 20th centuries marked a period of dramatic change. In Western Europe and America, the women’s suffrage movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were crucial turning points, leading to women gaining the right to vote and partake in public life. Since then, the fight for gender equality has continued, addressing issues from educational rights to equal pay and reproductive rights. While progress has been made, many women worldwide still face systemic barriers, and the fight for equality presses on. This context frames the situation in the Gulf countries, where cultural, legal, and social structures present unique challenges and opportunities for women’s rights and empowerment.

Slow changes in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is undergoing a period of state-led liberalization under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aiming to modernize the kingdom and diversify its economy. The notorious guardianship system, which historically required women to seek male permission for basic life decisions, has been relaxed to some extent. Women now can drive, vote, and participate in business without a male guardian’s consent. However, this system’s remnants continue to impact women’s autonomy, and the societal perception of women as dependents persists.

Women’s rights in Bahrain

Bahrain has made strides in political participation, with women gaining the right to vote and stand for election since 2002. However, traditional values and educational barriers limit their economic participation. While the government and NGOs like the Bahrain Women’s Union advocate for women’s rights, progress is curtailed by discriminatory laws and societal norms that confine women to traditional roles. Despite this, the legal framework is improving, with the 2009 personal status law enhancing women’s rights in marriage and family life.

Are the UAE the least restrictive for women?

In the UAE, women enjoy constitutional rights that support gender equality, and the country is often lauded for its safety and respect towards women. However, societal expectations rooted in traditional roles continue to challenge these rights. The legal system in the UAE exhibits a form of duality, where family law is influenced by Islamic principles while civil law strives for modernity. This duality can lead to inconsistencies, particularly in family matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, where Islamic law may prevail, sometimes placing women at a disadvantage compared to the protections offered under civil law. This complex interplay between progressive legal rights and conservative social expectations reflects the ongoing struggle to balance tradition with the country’s rapid modernization and globalization.

Towards gender equality

Qatar is known for high levels of female education and significant freedoms compared to its neighbors. However, despite advancements in women’s rights, there remain significant legal and social barriers that affect women, especially in family law and workforce participation. For instance, in matters of family law, women often face challenges related to marriage, divorce, and child custody. The law may require a woman to have a male guardian’s consent to marry, and in divorce proceedings, women may not always receive equal treatment. In the workforce, while women are highly educated, they may encounter discrimination or obstacles to career advancement, often rooted in societal expectations about gender roles. These barriers reflect a broader struggle to balance progressive changes with traditional customs.

How’s Oman doing?

Oman is relatively more rustic than some of its Gulf counterparts, which have embraced rapid urbanization and cosmopolitan structures. This rustic nature impacts women, especially in rural areas, where they often face greater social restrictions compared to urban settings. Rural women might have less access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. Despite Oman’s advancements in women’s rights, the impact of these developments is uneven, with women in urban areas benefiting more than those in rural communities. This disparity is exacerbated by the country’s focus on economic challenges, which may sideline efforts to address the unique needs of rural women.

Significant differences in progress

In conclusion, while there is notable progress in women’s rights across the Gulf states, the extent and depth of that progress vary significantly. The UAE appears to be the least restrictive, while Saudi Arabia, despite its reforms, has a long way to go in dismantling the patriarchal structures that underlie the guardianship system and other discriminatory practices. Bahrain shows a commitment to political participation but is hindered by societal attitudes and economic barriers. Oman and Qatar present a mix of advancements and ongoing challenges that reflect the broader regional struggle between tradition and modernization.