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The Role Of Women In The GCC Countries
The Gulf Cooperation Council was founded in 1981 with the objective of promoting political, economic and social relationships between the six member states comprising the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Being an Islamic region, countries in the GCC have been known to discriminate against women on the political, economic and social fronts (Doumato & Marsha, 2005). For long, the member states have been reluctant to accept discussions on the status of women, especially about their liberties and rights, as mirrored in their lack of political rights, protection against discrimination, legal rights and autonomy. However, with a globalizing economy, the impact of the GCC cannot be overlooked, since it is also a global power in the oil industry. Further, in a bid to diversify their trade platforms, the countries are individually venturing into other economic activities (Almunajjed, 2011). For example, Saudi Arabia is amomg the world leaders in the production of dates and has lately grown its steel and fertilizer manufacturing industries. Bahrain is investing heavily in the Information and Communication Technology field while Kuwait manufactures building materials and Qatar has greatly expanded its banking sector to become a key economic player in the country (CAWTAR, 2006). With such economic growth, and branching out from the core oil business, opportunities have opened up for women to be included in forefront roles of decision-making and enhancing regional development, increasing their presence in the private sector (Almunajjed, 2011). However, they are still faced by the barriers imposed by Islamic conservatism in the region, making their role in the GCC countries ambiguous and on different levels in different countries. This paper will use statistics, surveys and researches to discuss the role of women in the GCC countries, with a focus on the positive impact they have had on the region as well as the difficulties they face in their role as agents of change.
Because the role of women has taken considerably long to be felt due to constraints of cultural backgrounds, the best way to discuss it would be alongside their achievements over the years, which relate to what their contributions have been. Globalization is by far the single most significant external factor that has contributed towards the rising of the status of women in the GCC countries (Abdulkhaleq, 2006). It has led to empowerment of women in the member states by granting them access to economic, social and political matters. The level of education, as well as rates of seeking to acquire education, has significantly increased among women in the countries, facilitating their access to positions of leadership (Doumato & Marsha, 2005). In some of the member countries, women are actively participating in roles of political decision making; working in institutions of education as university deans, professors and educators; working in scientific institutions as researchers; and medical, banking and business professionals. It is through the initiative of established women leaders that the region’s governments invested in education. This facilitated the enrolment of young girls into primary education, which enabled the GCC to progress towards the millennium development goals of the United Nations in primary education (UNDP, 2005). After being allowed access to higher education, most of them have taken advantage of the Gulf’s globalizing economies and started their own businesses, expanding their activities in entrepreneurship. Their achievements are imparting positive influences on the region, moving them out of homes and traditional, cultural confinements. Using education as their most powerful tool, women in the GCC have influenced and realized changes in the labor market, providing one of the most accurate measures of the region’s progress (Nayereh, 2007). An analysis of a 2010 report by a United Nations body, UNESCO, can quantify the significance of women’s role in the GCC by the achievement of literacy levels in females who enrolled in primary education. Against the set targets, achievement was recorded as percentages at 97, 87, 77, 93, 85 and 89 for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively (Almunajjed, 2011). In the same year, Bahrain had double achievement by recording literacy levels of 100 percent in females aged between 15 and 24 years, with Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE at 99, 98, 98, 97 and 97 respectively.
The gender gap across the entire age continuum may still be considerable, but the participation of women is increasing significantly in labor markets in all the member countries. Over the past two decades, some members have reported two and four fold growths in the presence of women in business, with the exception of Saudi Arabia (CAWTAR, 2006). Their roles are more predominant within the public and service sector, with the private sector still reserved on employing them. Again with the exception of Saudi Arabia, other members have granted women enough legal rights stemming from Islamic law, or Sharia, enabling them to own property and manage assets both in and out of marriage. Their husbands have no right to their personal property without their consent. This has played the role of catapulting them further up the social and political strata, whereby they have the right (though not in all member states) to marriage, divorce, inherit, governance, work and education. They also retain the right to use their maiden names even in marriage, which gives them exclusive rights to make financial transactions or decisions on their own inherited wealth (CAWTAR, 2006). Through these aspects, they have played critical influencing roles as businesswomen, with UAE recording the highest number of women in business in the GCC. Through entrepreneurship, women have crafted and integrated high levels of social flexibility between their traditional domestic roles and emerging professional ambitions that cannot be quantified in monetary terms (Abdulkhaleq, 2006). Such roles as educators and mothers have driven community development by the ability to encourage and support women in the low income social class. Women have achieved this by spearheading welfare societies for children as well as poor women and adults with special needs. They have also established institutions of vocational training and capacity-building.
Among the notable women who have played the role of empowering fellow women and development of their values is Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak who became the chairperson of UAE’s Family Development Foundation, through which she has empowered others to prosperity (Almunajjed, 2011). Following in her inspiration, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain have women ministers who contribute towards policies regarding the welfare of women and the family unit. They pushed for the ratification of the convention to eradicate discrimination against women launched by the United Nations. Although largely successful, Saudi Arabia was reluctant and retained most of the
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