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Introduction

In: Hawwa
Author: Laila Prager1
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  • 1 New York University Abu DhabiAbu DhabiUnited Arab Emirates
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From the 1960s onwards, women in the Arabian/Persian Gulf—with the exception of Iran—were hardly visible in public spaces and were mostly relegated to the secluded domain of the domestic household, where they were bound to fulfill their primary roles as wives and caregivers to the children (Moghadam 2013). Higher education and the practising of a profession—if available at all—were the exclusive domain of men, who were considered the major breadwinners, responsible for the economic survival of the household and its associated members.

While Gulf women in the pre-oil period were invested with a considerable degree of autonomy and agency and made important contributions to the household income by engaging in various economic outdoor activities (El Saadi 2012; Sonbol 2012), the image of the non-working woman and stay-at-home mother became prevalent, particularly in the wake of the oil boom (Moghadam 2013; Ross 2008). Due to the prosperity achieved by the emerging rentier economies, women’s employment was considered unnecessary for sustaining the family income, and the notion of the non-working and secluded woman eventually became an emblem of wealth and moral standing (al-Rasheed 2013). Women’s seclusion from public spaces was further marked by a strict form of gender segregation, which until recently had found its most severe expression in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Le Renard 2011), and the expectation that women should, when leaving the house, cover their body with an abaya and a veil/shayla (or the chador in Iran). Women as custodians of the house, and men as the breadwinners—in the early decades of the post-oil period, these gender role expectations were also strongly promoted by most local governments and the Islamic authorities, in order to bolster the ideal of the “national family” as the major locus of social, biological, and religious reproduction and as a fortress against the threat of cultural “infiltration” from the West and an influx of migrant workers from Asia and Africa (Hasso 2010; Longva 1999; al-Rasheed 2013; Tétreault 2000). Gender inequality was further buttressed by conservative family legislation subjecting women throughout their lives to the authority of a male guardian, among other restrictions, thereby strongly curtailing women’s agency and mobility (Welchman 2007). In Iran, similar laws were introduced only after the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, during which women had continued to enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy and freedom.

Even though the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)—and Iran remain among the most conservative Islamic countries concerning women’s rights, gender segregation, and repressive politics towards women activists and groups, thus often having been scrutinized in terms of the “neopatriarchal state” (Haghighat 2005; Moghadam 1992; Sharabi 1988; Willoughby 2008), from the 2000s onwards, particularly in the GCC region, there also have been remarkable sociocultural transformations, pointing to the emergence of changing conceptualizations of female employment, women’s empowerment, and the political and societal representation of women in general, (Forster 2017; Haghighat 2010; Metcalfe 2011; al-Sabah 2013), with Kuwait being at the forefront of these developments (Tétreault 2000).

Beginning in the 1970s, the Gulf states deployed some of their oil revenues to promote women’s education, with the result that nowadays the number of women enrolling in and graduating from secondary and tertiary education by far outnumbers that of their male peers (Davidson and Mackenzie Smith 2008; Doumato 2011; al-Khouli 2012; Ridge and Steiner-Khamsi 2014; Vora 2019). During the last years, highly educated women have ventured into a great variety of professions that previously were considered the exclusive domain of men. Today, one encounters women as artists, in academia, the media, technical occupations, business, and the military, and in many other high-profile jobs, though female participation in the workforce is still modest in global terms (Forster 2017; Metcalfe 2008). Particularly in the GCC states, Gulf women are increasingly considered a largely untapped human resource in the local job market, whose potential is hoped to be mobilized to counterbalance the foreign labour force, framed by terms such as “Emiratization,” “Qatarization,” and “Saudization.” Also at the level of political representation, most Gulf states have instigated changes, in that women are increasingly appointed to high-profile political office, both locally and internationally.

These changes as regards women’s representation in politics and in the workforce have been initiated and framed by what has been conventionally labelled “state feminism”—that is, political measures and legislation introduced by the governments from above to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment (Doumato 2011; Pinto 2012)1—only to the extent, however, one deems such changes to be culturally and religiously “appropriate.” The aspirations and motives of individual women activists and women’s rights groups usually do not play any part in such state feminist interventions, and grassroots initiatives campaigning for women’s emancipation and bottom-up feminism have been quickly silenced in the recent past, such as in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Iran (Karolak 2013; Sedghi 2007; Tétreault 2011). The various women’s organizations present in each of the Gulf states have been mostly co-opted by the state and are apolitical, being concerned mainly with questions of women’s health, marriage and employment counselling, child-rearing, and women’s literacy (Krause 2009). Topics such as (neo-)patriarchy, women’s liberation, and emancipation are usually sidelined.

Given that state feminist interventions, as promoted and practised in the Gulf, are instruments, in the first instance, of governmentality rather than being driven by a genuine concern for women’s rights and emancipation, scholars working on women and gender in the Gulf region are called to examine whether and to what extent the aforementioned changes pertaining to women’s political representation and participation in the workforce truly facilitate women’s empowerment, and in what instances we are simply dealing with political strategies of nation-branding in order to polish countries’ women-friendly image on the global stage.

In view of these and other questions pertaining to gender and women’s representation in the Gulf, in 2017 Sabrina DeTurk, Laila Prager, and Sarina Wakefield organized a panel, “Gender and Identity in the Gulf: Cultural Constructions and Representations,” at the 8th Gulf Research Meeting in Cambridge. The panel aimed at tackling the ways in which Gulf women in recent years have been represented—and represent themselves—at various political, economic, and cultural levels. Four of the five articles presented in this special issue are based on presentations delivered during this panel; a fifth contribution was written on request of the guest editor. Other articles resulting from this panel—with a special focus on the representation of Gulf women in the media and the arts (museums, internet, comics, novels, paintings)—will be published in a future special issue, under the guest editorship of Sabrina DeTurk and Sarina Wakefield.

The five articles comprising this issue are all based on empirically grounded research. Three articles are concerned with the representation of women in the local labour force, with a special focus on the UAE. In recent years, the UAE government has taken various political and judicial measures to establish Emirati women in the job market, the public/governmental sector still constituting the major field of female employment. As a corollary, the theme of “female leadership,” along with the notion of “women’s empowerment,” looms large in UAE governmental and public discourses (Ministry of State for Federal National Council Affairs 2011; OECD 2017), highlighting Emirati women’s educational achievements and their ever increasing integration into the local labour force. The three articles look at the topic of Emirati female leadership from various sociocultural, economic, and political angles. Based on a newly compiled data set, Müller and Abdulkadir examine the socio-economic and biographical backgrounds of contemporary Emirati women leaders and identify the various social arenas in which they dominate. Rana al-Mutawa’s article, on the other hand, is concerned with female perceptions of female leadership and why Emirati women themselves seem to endorse sexist stereotypes according to which men are better qualified to execute leadership roles. Finally, Laila Prager confronts the polished and self-congratulatory governmental discourses on women leadership with the lived experiences of Emirati women leaders in the cultural sector and examines the problems and challenges they face, both in the workplace and at home.

Magdalena Karolak and Hala Guta focus on the political representation of women in KSA by exploring whether the participation of Saudi women in the first municipal elections (2015) led to any measurable degree of empowerment, or whether we are rather dealing with some sort of symbolic politics deployed by the government to improve its global image.

In the case studies from the UAE and KSA, women’s “advancement” and “empowerment” depend mostly on “state feminist” interventions and top-down policies. Hamideh Sedghi’s article is concerned with grassroots feminist resistance from “below.” Focusing on women activists in Iran, Sedghi explores how the latter try to contest the “masculinist” state and discriminatory laws against women by engaging in various campaigns. At the heart of Sedghi’s analysis is the “One Million Signature Campaign” set up by Iranian women’s rights campaigners in the second half of the 2000s.

To conclude, this issue of Hawwa aims to contribute to the research on Gulf women’s empowerment, female leadership, and political representation, and on women’s grassroots activism in the region.

Acknowledgements

We thank the anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of our articles and their valuable comments and suggestions. Thanks are also due to the Gulf Research Centre, Cambridge, for funding our panel “Gender and Identity in the Gulf: Cultural Constructions and Representations” at the 8th Gulf Research Meeting in 2017 and for providing the avenue for the scholarly discussions leading to this special issue. We also would like to express our gratitude to the editors-in-chief of HAWWA, Rogaia Abusharaf and Randi Deguilhem, for making this special issue possible, and to Daniel Sentance for his invaluable support with all editorial matters. The guest editor also would like to acknowledge the financial and academic support provided by the Humanities Research Fellowship Program for the Arab World of New York University, Abu Dhabi.

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1

For other cases of state feminism in the Middle East, for instance in Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, see Hatem 1992; Marks 2013; White 2003.

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