Gulf women’s political and economic rise highlighted during lit festival

Women in the Gulf have been steadily climbing into more political and economic posts, among other fields, in recent years

Tarek Ali Ahmad

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Women in the Gulf have been steadily climbing into more political and economic posts, among other fields, in recent years. But the progress must go further, especially with a high unemployment rate looming over the region, said Gulf women’s rights expert Dr. Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi.

To discuss the changing role of women in the Gulf, Emirates Festival of Literature introduced Dr. Rafia Ghubash, the founder of the Dubai Women’s Museum and Dr. Fassi, a Saudi historian specializing in Gulf women’s history and rights at Qatar University and columnist for al-Riyadh newspaper, during an open panel discussion on Thursday.

“The achievements that women have in some of those [Gulf] countries did not stop them from asking for more of their demands and rights. That’s also why the way those achievements are reflected and acknowledged, as well as celebrated, in those countries differs nowadays,” Dr. Fassi said.

“I would like to say that women have full rights to those achievements - to play an active role in both the political decision making level as well as on the social and economic level.”

Just last year, Saudi Arabia made history by electing its first female officials into cabinet seats and municipal councils across the country – winning 20 seats out of 2,100.

The UAE is seen as one of the most economically liberal countries in the Gulf, with its female to male participation ration in the labor force being 45 percent to 65 percent, as well as having one third of the country’s federal cabinet occupied by women.

Dr. Ghubaish spoke of this changing mentality towards women within the region; quoting Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid as saying “we are not in a stage of empowering women anymore, we are in the state of empowering the society through women.”

Male-dominated agenda

Even with this progression in equality among gender, Arab women still feel that they are on the backburner.

“What hurts is to say that women’s agendas should be put aside, because it isn’t the priority of any government at the moment to deal with,” Dr. Fassi told Al Arabiya English.

“There is the excuse of waiting for all the security problems to end, waiting for Daesh to end, for wars to end, there is always going to be something,” she said using a different acronym for ISIS, the extremist group which has overtaken swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Dr. Fassi, who is also a columnist for al-Riyadh newspaper, highlighted the fact that women in the Gulf “need more empowerment and more access to power.”

Some countries in the Gulf host several “university and post-degree graduates, PHD holders, just sitting at home” that cannot acquire a job, for the sole reason that they are women, Dr. Fassi said.