Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:52 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:52 | SYDNEY

Women in Arab politics (part 3)


Rodger Shanahan


2 July 2009 14:09

(Part 1 here; part 2 here.)

In the last of these posts, we look at the situation for women in politics in the most conservative area of the Arab world, the Gulf. In many instances only urbanised in the 20th century, maintenance of strict implementation of Islamic dress codes for Muslim women and the conservative nature of the societies have led people to believe that women here enjoy the least political freedom in the Arab world. As with all generalisations this is only partly correct — in some circumstances it is true, while in others, women's political development is more advanced than many assume.

The nature of Gulf politics, with its emphasis on hereditary male rule and polygamous marriage, ensures there are fewer high-profile female political role models than in other Arab countries. The only equivalent in the Gulf to women like Syria's Asma al-Assad and Jordan's Queen Rania would be Qatar's Sheikha Mozah (pictured), the second of three wives of the Emir of Qatar and his consort. Not only does she have her own stylish website, but she has forged a public role for herself as a social activist and education advocate, with her chairing of the cashed up Qatar Foundation for education giving her the power to put her advocacy into practice.

While Mozah's high public profile as a Gulf leader's wife is unique in the region, a few others have been able to make their mark in politics. One who will be known to Australian audiences is the UAE's Minister for Foreign Trade (and formerly for Economics and Planning) Sheikha Lubna. Appointed as the first female minister in 2004, she has engaged closely with Australia on the proposed Australia-UAE (and now Australia-GCC) Free Trade Agreement. Another is Sheikha Haya in Bahrain, a former ambassador to France, who became the second ever female chair of the UN General Assembly on Bahrain's accession to its presidency in 2006.
While accomplished in their own right and laudable as role models, these women owe their status to their links (either through marriage or birth) with ruling families. The ability of other women to advance politically through parliament or cabinet is constrained by a combination of cultural norms, the lack of political parties (or associations) willing to place women on electoral lists, and a lack of organised female lobby groups. 

Some Gulf rulers have appointed women to ministerial positions to create role models and a more liberal veneer for their government. But broader political empowerment of women requires equality of political participation and it is here that Gulf women have been constrained. Universal suffrage (where it exists) is a recent phenomenon. It began in Bahrain in 2002, in Oman and Qatar in 2003 and in Kuwait in 2005.

But voting and participating can be two different things. Bahrain had one woman elected in 2006 by default after her male opponents both withdrew prior to the election; Oman had two elected in 2003, both of whom were defeated in 2007; while Qatar has had a single woman elected in general municipal elections in 2003 and 2007. One glimmer of hope about a possible broadening in women's participation came in Kuwait's 16 May election that saw the first four women elected to the parliament only four years after they gained the vote (though their election was not readily accepted by all losing candidates).
In that most conservative of Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, the political emancipation of women has proceeded slowly to say the least. After the accession of the reformist King Abdullah in 2005, the first tentative step towards including women in the political arena began with his 2009 appointment of Dr Noura al-Fayez as the Deputy Minister for girls' education. In  a country where women are still banned from driving, this was a bold move, although her level of influence is still in question. Women have also been appointed to the Shura Council (not as members, but as advisors on women's issues), although they are as yet unable to vote. There are claims this may occur in time for the next municipal elections, but the same claims were made five years ago.

I suspect that in another five years, Arab women in the Gulf may not have made too many more advances.

Photo by Flickr user QatariyaaH, used under a Creative Commons license.