The inclusion of three personalities from the Gulf in Forbes's Most Powerful Women List should challenge perceptions about the role women fill in a region passing through profound change.
Strong Arab women in vanguard of battle against sexism
A discussion of women's issues in the Gulf is likely to invoke, at least to outsiders, images of oppression, subordination and helplessness.
However, the recent inclusion of three leading Arab personalities from the Gulf region in Forbes's 2010 Most Powerful Women List will hopefully begin to challenge perceptions about the role women fill in a region passing through a period of profound socio-economic and cultural changes.
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE Minister of Foreign Trade; Sheikha Moza Al Misnad, the wife of the Emir of Qatar; and Maha al Ghanim, the vice chairman and the managing director of Kuwait's Global Investment House, have each, in their own way, taken massive strides in advancing women's issues in this part of the world.
The publicity from the Forbes list provides an opportunity to enlighten a misinformed world public opinion, not only on how powerful certain female individuals in the Gulf have become, but also on the influence they increasingly exert on the political landscapes of their countries.
Yet, as much as this development marks a positive change for the region, it also raises the question of how this empowerment can transcend elitist parameters to include women in general. This achievement certainly provides further evidence of the growing influence of women in the region's affairs, but negative attitudes towards the very notion of female power remain the most significant obstacles that GCC societies have to overcome.
For outsiders, the development in women's issues in the Gulf region has always been intriguing. Realities on the ground clearly show that women enjoy impressive access to education, health care, cultural development, business initiatives, politics and the workforce. Across the region, women's university enrolment has reached record levels even in fields traditionally dominated by men. Female physicians, engineers, media professionals, business leaders, politicians and IT experts are no longer exceptions.
In most of the GCC states, championing women's causes has become central to national, cultural and political discourse. Observing the work of the Arab Women Organisation, it is clear that first ladies in Arab countries in general, and in the GCC in particular, are extremely enthusiastic about advancing women's causes.
The rising number of women's organisations in the Gulf states highlights a commitment to female empowerment as key to the region's sustainable development. According to a survey carried out by Freedom House in Washington in 2009, positive transitions in the roles of women in the GCC reflect sustained efforts on the parts of governments to efficiently integrate them into public and professional life.
Considering the steps that GCC states are taking to enhance women's participation in all walks of life, it is puzzling why such positive advances continue to be overshadowed by outdated, negative stereotypes.
To clarify this incongruity, the following needs to be considered: GCC governments are indeed doing their best to empower female populations to the best of professional and social standards. In order for such initiatives to take on a more lasting and substantive character, they should be considered alongside well-entrenched negative attitudes towards women as powerful figures in society.
Unfortunately, misogynistic attitudes remain commonplace among segments of the Arab world, where for many the idea of having a woman as a boss, a professional partner, or an equal-pay colleague is totally unpalatable. While the rise of a small number of accomplished Arab women in the region may be possible in the next few years, the evolution of a culture that supports women as powerful players in their societies is more likely to take decades.
The inclusion of the three women leaders in Forbes's 2010 most powerful women list is a good reason for all of us to believe in a brighter future ahead. Changing cultural attitudes in the Gulf region and in the Arab world at large is a long-term process that will be enhanced by individual and collective women's empowerment initiatives.
In two weeks, Arab first ladies are scheduled to meet in Tunis as part of the Third Arab Women Organisation summit. The initiatives expected to be launched at this summit should serve as building blocks for the region's future vision of gender equality.
In the final analysis, however, what is important is not how many women will benefit materially from such projects, but rather how effective those initiatives prove to be in fostering a culture that promotes genuine empowerment. Forbes's recognition of the contributions of three leading figures in the Gulf region strongly suggests that women can make a difference in their communities. What we now need is for this potential to be recognised by those very communities themselves.
Muhammad Ayish is a UAE-based media researcher and adviser