Arab Women Gaining Rights in Gulf States



Arab women in the Gulf States have made small but notable gains in the past five years, according to a new Freedom House study of women's rights in the region. The nongovernmental organization conducts studies and creates programs to promote freedom and democracy around the world.

The title of the new Freedom House study sums up its major finding. It's called "Gaining Ground: Women's Rights in the Arab Gulf." Senior researcher Sanja Kelly says it updates a similar study the organization conducted five years ago in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Kelly says the results of the study were quite encouraging.

"Even though this is still perhaps the most restrictive region in the entire world in terms of women's rights, we are noticing that women's rights activists have successfully pressed for change in many instances."

Women in Kuwait make significant gains

Some of the most visible changes for women, Kelly notes, have been made in Kuwait. Women there, she says, have gained many more rights and opportunities in terms of their economic empowerment.
"We have seen 5 percent improvement in terms of working women in Kuwait. In 2003, only 46 percent of working women were employed, whereas now 51 percent of working women in Kuwait are employed."

Kuwaiti women have also made significant political gains. In 2005, after a three-decade-long struggle, Kuwaiti women finally won the right to vote.

Dr. Lubna Al-Kazi is a professor of sociology at Kuwait University and a key activist in her country's women's rights movement. In her section of the Freedom House report, she says getting the right to vote was a big accomplishment for the women of Kuwait.

"There's so much that has been done as far as having a women's committee, women now as ministers in the municipal council, which is also very important," she says. "So you've seen that representation has increased after we got the right. Laws - some laws - have been put on hold or even revoked when we have lobbied enough, and I'm sure if we didn't have the voice we wouldn't have been able to do that."

Running for office in Oman, limited voting in UAE

Oman is another Gulf country where women have recently achieved basic rights according to journalist Rafiah Al-Talei. She notes that despite ongoing discrimination, Omani women have still managed to make gains in higher education, the work force and the political arena. She herself was a candidate for Oman's Parliament in 2003 and lost by only 100 votes.

"It was [a] very empowering experience for myself and also for other women who were encouraged for [the] next time, too," she says. "We were only 15 women candidates in the entire country in 2003, and there were 20 women who ran for the next elections."

Women in other countries, notably Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, are also enjoying new rights, says Sanja Kelly.

She says that while women in the UAE are still very restricted in terms of their political rights and civil liberties, the country has introduced a very limited voting process where women, for the very first time, were allowed to vote for elected bodies in the Federal National Council.

Women still fighting for basic rights in Saudi Arabia

Despite these gains, the contributors to the Freedom House report conclude that much more progress is needed for women in practically all aspects of social, economic and political life in the Arab Gulf states.

This is especially true in Saudi Arabia, where women are still fighting to receive basic rights.

Dr. Eleanor Doumato, a widely published expert on the country, says that while women in Saudi Arabia have made some progress over the past five years, they still have a long way to go.

"At the end of 2007, the longstanding bans on women checking into hotels alone and renting apartments on their own were lifted by royal decree, and at the same time a woman-only hotel was opened in the far, far outskirts of Riyadh, but women still have to produce a guardian's permission before they can board a flight for international travel."

In terms of judicial rights, Dr. Doumato said that despite repeated announcements of judicial reforms, access to justice "remains a problem for both men and women, but it's a bigger problem for women."

Doumato added that women "still don't have the right to drive a car."

But despite continuing inequalities, Sanja Kelly says she remains hopeful.

"Overall, we do see a lot of discrimination and unequal treatment. However, we are pleased and encouraged with the progress that has been achieved so far, and we hope that women's rights activists - now that they have gained momentum - will have tools and opportunities to push for further reform."

While the new Freedom House report focuses on women in the Gulf States, Kelly points out that women's rights issues merit attention far beyond that region. Part two of her report, which will focus on women's rights in the Middle East and Africa, is scheduled to be released this fall.

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