In Kuwait, the group "Kuwaitis without Borders" was established in 2011 by women married to non-Kuwaitis. The issue continues to engage the attention of civil rights societies, which organise seminars and media campaigns; they persist with their call for a points-based system, as they have in Saudi Arabia, covering factors such as birth, education, length of stay and so on.
What is bizarre in this case is that women are not allowed to pass on their nationality to their husbands and children at a time when some of these countries are suffering from a decline in the proportion of foreign nationals. At the same time, they are striving to increase the fertility rate among their citizens!
In addition to the issues which Gulf countries have in common, each state has its own peculiarities. For example, Badriya Al Marzouq, chairwoman of the Bahrain Women’s Union, notes: "The priorities for today’s activism include improvements to the Family Violence Law which was passed in 2015 and which was a product of earlier campaigns. One such improvement covers the changes made in the Penal Law which originally pardoned a rapist of his crime if he married his victim. Added to that, there are the issues about the quota in Parliament, the right to work, and unemployment (83% of the unemployed are female)."
In Kuwait, Fajer Al Khalifa says their priorities include the right to marry without the approval of a male guardian, the right to housing, the availability of refuges for abused women, the Family Violence Law, equality in inheritance, and annulling the clause which pardons the perpetrators of honour killings.
As for what’s on the agenda of the activists in Oman, Habiba Al-Hinai sees an urgent need to introduce laws to criminalise female genital mutilation and honour killing. They also need to pass other laws to give women equality regarding the amount of diyya or ‘blood money’, as well as in terms of pension rights.
Meanwhile in Qatar, Esraa Al-Muftah says that their demands focus on improving conditions for women in the workplace through the provision of facilities and flexible working hours to suit women and working mothers.
In Saudi Arabia, the activists’ priority is to annul the system of male guardianship, which hampers the freedom and the movement of Saudi women in so many ways.
Obstacles and challenges
If the campaigners’ demands are similar throughout the Gulf, so too are the obstacles. Most activists complain of restrictions which are imposed by the Law of Associations. As far as Qatar is concerned, Esraa Al-Muftah notes: "The Law of Associations inhibits the formation of new associations, and indeed of any organised social movement."
Fajer Al Khalifa confirms that it is the same in Kuwait, pointing out that the power of the executive envelops civil society which is struggling to fight back. Al Khalifa adds: "There is hardly any freedom, and what little there is, is reducing further. After the protests in 2011, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MOSAL) tightened its grip, and now official intimidation is there for all to see."
As for Nadia Al Maskati, she worries that the younger generation in Bahrain is turning its back on voluntary work. Collective social concern no longer exists among them, and the issues which their society faces do not seem to move them.
Al Maskati observes: "In the women’s associations, we merely hear the echoes of our own voices when we meet or hold symposia about how to tackle crucial issues."
Hessa Lootah in the UAE fears that women’s voluntary work has lost its way and has become hostage to government dictates. Pointing to government control over women’s associations, she adds: "An elected person wants to achieve and increase his gains, whereas someone who is appointed looks only to his own position and to whoever appointed him."
In her opinion, the associations don’t have any fundamental grievances and they no longer have any drive to push for further demands.
And in Bahrain Huda Alsahi sees patriarchy and societal oppression as the biggest hurdles to the feminist movement in the Gulf. She also notes the lack of financial support and media coverage that might otherwise highlight the importance of women’s activism and the influence it can have on events.
Lootah brings up an unconventional challenge, namely globalisation, which could force women into taking a step back and reflecting on their concerns and demands from a wider perspective. This is because globalisation can cause disarray and anxiety, which might lead someone to think more about themselves than about their society.
"It is crucial that we pay attention to the particular character of our societies and move away from the imported image of how the world would like to see us. The latter could prompt decision-makers to take unsound decisions simply to make us look more civilised in the eyes of the world."
Kuwaiti writer Mohammed Al Rumaihi agrees with Lootah on this point in his paper entitled "Empowering Women in the Gulf". On the matter of globalisation, Al Rumaihi argues that: "The issue of empowerment of women should not be looked at in the narrow context of the relationship between the sexes. Rather, it should be viewed in a wider developmental and social context. The aim is not merely to improve the situation of women, but also to make sure this is done through an alternative vision of society that is forward-looking and in a framework that is simultaneously local, regional and international."
Hana Bu Hejji
Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton
Hana Bu Hejji is a writer and journalist from Bahrain. Holding a master’s degree in Economics from Colorado State University, she works as economic and political editor at the local daily newspaper. She has worked as a correspondent for several Arabic newspapers and magazines, including eleven years for Asharq al-Awsat.