Gulf Women essay series defines the role of Arab women
Gulf Women is a new collection of essays from leading international scholars aiming to understand the history of the Gulf and Arab world – with a focus on its women. The writer and professor Amira Sonbol, who edited the book, talks about her hope that it will paint a more accurate picture of women in the Gulf.
How did the collection come about?
It was actually the idea of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned. We had a conference in Qatar in 2006 looking at Arab women past and present, in which she was the keynote speaker. She actually challenged us to write our own history, to reclaim the narrative. When you talk about the history of women in the Arab world, what you are going to find is that women did participate in daily life, so we were trying to unlock a history that was based on lived realities. And her Highness must have been listening because she sought me out two days later and we had a “What do we do with this?” discussion.
There is a common theme in all the pieces about rethinking the history of women in the Gulf, isn’t there?
Yes. Once you actually speak to the tribes, the picture that people take for granted – that men are superior and women veiled – is ludicrous. It’s the women who ruled the house, it’s the women who herded the livestock. Tribal laws protect the women, especially those who are herding cattle, as they move outside of tribal territory, which shows you who’s doing the work. If you have to have a law that protects the women, it’s really positive. But if you’re looking at it from a gender point of view, it shows they have to protect her, too.
Where did your interest in Gulf women begin?
There is one thing that has always bugged me – we know nothing about Gulf women, and yet this is where Islam came from and it’s guiding all of our lives.
When I first came to Qatar there was genuinely not enough information for a history class, so I started a different one called Researching Qatar, where we went out to see what sources are available to study Qatar. I’ve studied Middle East history forever, and studied Middle East women’s history, and written about it, edited Hawa, – the first real academic journal for women’s studies. But coming to this part of the world and finally being where Islam started and being in the heartland, my writing, my theories, methodology – everything – has been transformed.
How do you see the future of Gulf women?
I think Gulf women are benefiting very much from Gulf policies. A lot of them are not happy because their social life is not so great, but that’s because of modernity. The older generation actually tell me that they were much better off before, and that actually stunned me when I started researching this as I thought it was going to be the exact opposite. They had more authority within the home. They had their husbands with them more, because now the men are not at home so much. The point is that the women felt that the husbands were much more integrated into family affairs. So there are big problems these women talk about. But the beauty of it is that these women talk about these problems now, they know them. Overall, it’s positive.
• Gulf Women (BQFP) is out now
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Updated: March 27, 2013 04:00 AM