Women in the Gulf
Exploited and Patronized

States in the Gulf like Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi-Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are nowhere near achieving the implementation of equal rights for women in society. Foreign female workers in particular are almost treated like slaves

. Petra Tabeling reports

logo Amnesty International campaign
This discrimination of women starts in the constitution: either the rights of women are hardly mentioned or they are not mentioned there at all, the Amnesty report asserts

​​A woman from Sri Lanka has been working in Kuwait for 18 months without being paid. When she becomes pregnant, her employer reports the young woman to the police.

When Amnesty International gets to speak to the 26-year-old woman, she has already been living in the deportation camp for several months. She was not able to return to her native country because her employer refused to return her identification papers.

A 50-year-old Filipino woman cannot defend herself in court because she does not understand the Arabic documents. She has no legal representative and has no opportunity to make contact with her family. To date, Kuwait and other Gulf states have not signed any conventions governing the protection of foreign workers against exploitation.

Realistic impressions gathered in the Gulf

The human rights organisation Amnesty International has recorded these and other horrifying examples of the reality of women's lives in the Gulf states in its most recent report entitled "Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Women deserve dignity and respect".

In July and August of last year, observers from the organisation travelled to the Gulf States to talk to women from the region, humanitarian aid workers, lawyers, judges, and government representatives.

However, because the delegation was not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia, the human rights organisation had to draw on information from indirect sources.

Discrimination in many areas in real life and on paper

And the report shows the fundamental problems with which women are confronted. Amnesty International concludes that women in the Gulf region encounter multiple forms of discrimination in most areas of their lives.

This discrimination starts in the constitution: either the rights of women are hardly mentioned or they are not mentioned there at all. The paragraphs about equal rights are vague and do not differentiate between men and women. In Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, the role of women is not even mentioned in the constitution.

Some states make heavy weather of ratifying international agreements. With the exception of Oman and Qatar, all Gulf States have signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW for short). Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi-Arabia did so with provisions.

Violence as a trivial offence: what the authorities tolerate

Meanwhile, the day-to-day reality of women's lives in these countries is sobering. Take, for example, marital violence: The law considers it an injustice for a husband to hit his wife, but there is no further differentiation between the sexes. Women told Amnesty International that the police do not even consider day-to-day violence to be a crime because the women is considered to be under the authority of her husband.

But women are not only potential victims of their husbands' violence, but also of their families' violence. Many girls or women who have suffered maltreatment or discrimination at the hands of male family members flee into marriage to escape the violence.

But when violence is a part of marital life too, these women often find themselves in a vicious circle. This vicious circle is also made possible by the fact that little attention or significance is paid to the maltreatment of women in society.

Senseless attempts at mediation

Instead of taking adequate measures against marital violence, authorities and police try to get the women who flee these situations to return to their husbands or families, criticises Amnesty International.

The fact that the authorities react in this way sometimes can lead to more maltreatment of women, because if women cannot expect protection, men have little to fear.

Moreover, the human rights defenders found out that none of the women they interviewed who had suffered from violence in their families were given the option of medical treatment, a court case, damages, legal assistance, or accommodation (e.g. in a women's refuge).

The (in)justice of marriage

While Islamic Law allows women the right to choose their husbands, their choice must be approved by a male member of the family, a so-called "wallis" (guardian). Amnesty International has documented the stories of many women whose choice of husband was rejected by the family and who had to suffer severe penalties as a result.

While there is such a thing as pre-marital contracts in Islamic Law, the women's rights they contain are often refused women. According to the "Talaq", men can decide to divorce their wives at any time. They also often get custody of the children.

Many women have hardly any choice at all for economic reasons: only 29 per cent of Arab women in the Gulf States work. While in theory, all Gulf States with the exception of Oman have signed the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) convention concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation, the reality is very, very different.

In the Kingdom of Bahrain, for example, women are not permitted to work in the evenings or at night. In Qatar, women are more highly educated than men, but they are not permitted to work in the so-called male careers of engineering. The general attitude in the Gulf states is that a woman's place is in the home.

While there are women Ministers in Oman, political participation of women in other Gulf states is not very advanced at all. It is worth noting, however, that since the publication of the report in May of this year, women's suffrage has been introduced in Kuwait.

In January 2005, Amnesty International organised the first anti-discrimination and anti-violence conference in the Gulf States in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Various representatives presented recommendations on how to improve the situation of women and passed them on to the relevant people in the Gulf regions. However, according to Amnesty International, there has been no response to date.

Petra Tabeling

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan


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