Dr. Selwa Al-Hazzaa

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (WOMENSENEWS)–Saudi Arabia began its third National Dialogue on Reform yesterday, and the high beams will be turned on women: their rights, their work, their social role and their education.

Specifically, should women gain the right to drive? Should they serve on the king’s governing bodies? Should they expect their career horizons to be far wider than the standard female occupations of nursing and teaching?

Sixty academics, writers and journalists, half of whom are women, will examine these issues through Monday in the latest in a series of reformist symposia set up by Crown Prince Abdullah last year. The topics have never before been raised in such a high-profile way in the kingdom. The simple fact of the conference–never mind its findings–is a sign of the swift progress that women have been making in the Gulf States, some of the most conservative and male-dominated societies in the Arab world.

Before 1999, women did not have the right to vote in any of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members. In two of these states–Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates–neither men nor women can vote, so it was never a gender issue. (In Saudi Arabia, citizens air grievances in palace assemblies and the rulers of the seven emirates set policy in the United Arab Emirates.) But in the past five years women have broken voting barriers in the other countries. They have voted and run for office in Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. Now, Kuwait’s parliament faces a vote on a bill conferring voting rights on female citizens.

Women Gaining More Say

Women’s rights activists in the region say such changes are the combination of natural social progress and international pressures, including last weeks’ G-8 summit, an annual meeting of leaders from the largest industrialized nations, in which Arab reforms were high on the agenda of countries such as the United States. With the spotlight glaring on the region as a result of post-Sept. 11 world events–Saudi Arabia has been particularly jolted, suffering a string of attacks and shootings–women are getting more attention and more of a say.

“The region is fully aware of what’s happening internationally, and this has helped advanced women’s role,” said Haifa Al Kaylani, chair and founder of the Arab International Women’s Forum, a nonprofit group based in London. The growing role for women in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries is something all are very proud of, she said. “There are more of them in business life, more in the public sphere and more taking leading roles in institutions of civil society.”

In addition to more widespread education, Al Kaylani said leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council–created in 1981 to spur cooperation on matters as economy, trade, tourism and education–have begun to recognize the importance of investing in human capital, rather than relying solely on natural resources. “Women of course are half and a very important part in this human capital,” she said.

Just this month, the Saudi cabinet, chaired by King Fahd, allowed women to open their own businesses. (Previously women could only apply for commercial licenses in the name of a male relative.) The cabinet also ordered government entities to create more jobs for women and said it will allocate land for the establishment of industrial projects to employ women.

Bahrain a Regional Standout for Women

Beyond Saudi Arabia–the big attention-getter in the region–women have been making and consolidating remarkable gains.

Bahrain, the oil-rich, comparatively progressive kingdom that gained independence from Great Britain in 1971–was singled out for praise on its standing on women’s rights by the 2002 Arab Human Development Report. In 2001, when women gained the right to vote, more women than men voted in the country’s municipal elections. In another encouraging sign, last April a woman, Dr. Nada Abbas Haffadh, was appointed health minister, becoming Bahrain’s first female cabinet minister.

Being the first Gulf country to discover oil, Bahrain benefited from early development in education. Munira Fakhro, who teaches social development in the Gulf States at the University of Bahrain, said the first public school for girls was opened in 1928 and the first women’s activist group was started in 1955. Women started participating in political movements early on, including a general uprising in 1965 calling for freedom of speech, the right to form trade unions and other demands of social justice.

“Because of the early discovery of oil and the prominence of trade, there was a kind of openness in the society,” Fakhro said.

Broad Employment in Kuwait

In Kuwait, women, with a literacy rate of 83 percent–versus 94 percent for men–benefit from fairly extensive education and make up almost a third of the labor force. Although Kuwait women have been fighting for suffrage for the past 40 years, they are still denied the vote.

Lulua Al Mulla, general secretary of Kuwait’s Social Cultural Women’s Society, an activist group, said she has hope that the current bill to enfranchise women will pass. “Lately women’s issues are becoming a major issue in Parliament. It used to not be mentioned. The government is taking it more seriously because of the pressure inside and outside Kuwait,” she said. Rejected twice by Parliament, the bill last in 1999 failed to pass by two votes.

Like Bahrain, Oman and Qatar are also regional standouts on women’s voting rights.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad, a Western-educated reformist leader, introduced the country’s first popular elections in 1999, in which both men and women could vote and run for office. He and his wife, Sheikha Mouza, have also encouraged reform of the country’s educational system. They have helped set up local branches of well-known American universities like the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University. Women now make up almost 70 percent of the country’s university students.

In Oman, Sultan Qaboos began a liberalization program after he ousted his father in 1970. He introduced education to women in a country that had only a few schools. In 1997, Qaboos issued a decree allowing women to stand for election and to vote for the Majlis As-Shura, an advisory council. In 2000, Omani men and women elected 83 candidates, including two women, to seats in the advisory council.

Political Rights Lag in U.A.E.

The U.A.E.’s constitution, adopted when the federation was founded in 1971, states that women are equal to men before the law, and they have the same right to access to education. In 1975, Sheikha Fatima, the wife of President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, created the U.A.E Women’s Federation with the primary aim of promoting education among women.

Dr. Rima Sabban, professor of sociology at the United Arab Emirates University, said she has seen an increase in the number of women graduating in professional positions, earning degrees and going into the labor market. The majority of students at U.A.E. University and the Higher Colleges of Technology, for instance, are women.

“I think we’re going to see an increasing number of women in higher positions,” Sabban said. “It’s going to be a women’s era in the coming 10 to 20 years.”

Nada El Sawy is a freelance writer in Dubai. She has worked for The Associated Press in Los Angeles and Newsweek magazine in New York.

For more information:

Arab International Women’s Forum:

The Economic Commission for Western Asia–ESCWA Centre for Women: