Gulf women are pioneering education, but here’s why it doesn’t matter

Female participation in higher education is literally off the charts for Qatar, and the rest of the GCC isn't far behind

Yara al-Wazir

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Statistics about Arab women often make the news. Be it literacy rates, female genital mutilation or our inability to drive and travel freely, the negatives are always highlighted. What is often lost between the lines is an area where Gulf women are pioneering and breaking records, it is a positive statistic that puts the women of the GCC ahead of their counterparts all over the world: enrolment in tertiary education.

The statistics are incredible: female participation in higher education is literally off the charts for Qatar. All the GCC countries, apart from Kuwait, have consistently surpassed the world average by over 50 percent over the past ten years in the ratio of female participation in tertiary education.

Women are thriving, their motivation to educate themselves and learn is growing and the gender gap between male-to-female involvements is growing too. However, this means nothing if they don’t participate in the workforce. Sadly, the rates of participation in the workforce fall as low as 17 percent in Saudi Arabia’s case, compared to the 49 percent average of the rest of the world. Qatar is the only GCC country that has managed to keep up with the world average.

What’s the point of education?

University years are known to be the golden years of one’s life. It is recognized to be the place where students find their purpose in life, discover themselves, their interests and learn the soft skills needed to thrive in life.

However, the point of four years of intense studying is not a piece of paper that allows one to add a few initials before ones name; the point of education is bettering oneself to find an opportunity to participate in the workforce, to improve their country and advance their family. Sleepless nights spent studying are not meant to be preparation for sleepless nights spent taking care of a child.

Female graduates not advancing into the workforce

There is an incredible discrepancy between the growth in female participation in education and obtaining degrees, compared to the rate of female participation in the workforce, which has remained relatively stagnant over the past ten years. The rate of expat population compared to local population of the GCC countries correlates to the rate of female participation in the workforce, suggesting that an increase in participation rates may be led by expatriate women, rather than the locals.

The reasons vary: from lack of motivation, poor job opportunities and the social expectation of women to marry and bear children by a certain age come in to play. Numerous opportunities that keep women from joining the workforce means that there are just as many possible solutions that can drive women to the workforce, regardless of whether or not they’re in a country that permits them driving licenses.

Stuck between promise and progress

Female participation in education is imperative to the development of any country and its local economy. Two brains are better than one, and if the region wants to grow locally and rely less on expatriates, then it must utilize its own people, regardless of gender.

Women in tertiary education is the first step to achieving this progress and continuing the growth, however, babies do not spend ten years crawling, nor should the rate of female participation in the workforce crawl.

For it to rise, the cultural barriers that are associated with women working must relax. The role of women is to be an active member of society, economy, and her family – her role is not limited to her family.

Understandably, there is doubt that Arab women can balance work and family life. But considering the number of nanny’s and helpers that are employed in GCC households, surely there is plenty of help available.

All in all, women should be given access to the workforce, and help in finding ways to put their degrees to good use by providing them with adequate facilities, opportunities and offers. These are factors that can be pushed by the GCC governments. Just as a nationalization policy exists, a feminization policy should also be introduced, ensuring that the percentage of women entering the workforce mirrors the graduating entity. Flexibility towards working mothers is a two-way street, and can be aided by governmental policy and a more supportive culture and accepting society.

Most importantly, the ability of a university-educated woman to balance career, family and life should never be doubted. After all, the greatest thing university teaches is the art of multi-tasking, prioritizing and meeting deadlines; the three traits required for both career and family life.


Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.