Whilst the Abu Dhabi Women’s Association is mentioned as the first such association to be established after independence in 1973, media professor and activist Hessa Lootah asserts that she was one of the founders of the Abu Dhabi Renaissance Association in 1967 i.e. before independence.
Lootah recalls: "I was 12 years old then, but my colleagues and I showed maturity beyond our years, and we were very enthusiastic about voluntary work. For us, it wasn’t a luxury; rather, we focussed on public awareness, education and the fight against drugs. We were also open to joint social activism alongside men in the clubs."
Today, the General Women’s Union, which was founded in 1975 and presided over by the wife of the then ruler of the UAE, as well as other associations that followed in its wake, enjoy the full support of the government. Indeed, they seem more like government agencies than private associations.
Women’s associations with a proper organisational structure were not established in Oman until 1971.
This despite the involvement of Omani women in military struggle and leadership in the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG), both of which had women’s rights high on their agenda.
The Omani Women’s Association (OWA) was formed in Muscat in 1972 by women who had gained their higher education in the Arab world. In its wake, 38 other associations were formed, similar to their counterparts in the UAE and with parallel aims in terms of social awareness, literacy and vocational training for women. The OWA operates in close co-ordination with the Directorate General of Women & Children’s Affairs at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Vocational Training.
Berlin-based Omani activist Habiba Al-Hinai notes: "Right now, there is no genuine women’s activism to speak of in Oman, and the existing associations are more like government departments. There isn’t a single entity that endorses the demands of Omani women. "
Al-Hinai is married to a German and she leads a campaign for the right of Omani women to beget nationality to their children from non-Omani husbands. To this end, she uses the example of her own son as a child deprived of his mother’s rights. Al-Hinai started a group on Facebook in 2012 called the Omani Group for Human Rights. 4,000 members joined the group, but it was later closed.
In Qatar by contrast, there have been no civil women’s associations, despite the formation of the Qatar Supreme Council for Family Affairs in 1998. It was chaired by the wife of the Emir, with a view to promoting issues relating to women and the family. The Council was dissolved in 2014, however. According to Qatar University lecturer and PhD student Esraa Al-Muftah, social media campaigns are the only means by which the public can demand women’s rights.
Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t have any sort of associations or civil agencies for women, a feminist movement emerged. And ‘feminist’ is the most appropriate word for its women’s rights movements. Saudi PhD student at Harvard University Nora Doaiji, who wrote a research paper entitled "Changes in Saudi feminism", explains: "Saudi feminism developed after 2011, and by 2018 it had become an independent movement."
Doaiji goes on to say that although women’s groups in Saudi Arabia lacked institutional form, they did put together campaigns comprised of solid networks of female activists who aspire to full citizenship. In Doaiji’s view, whatever Saudi women have achieved is a result of their campaigning over the years, such as the right to drive and the right to vote and stand in municipal elections. As ever, social media provided the means for these campaigns to give voice to their demands.