Women in the Gulf must not rely on the state to win their rights.
Women in the Gulf must work to win their own rights
The question of how the Arab uprisings have and will affect the lives and rights of women in the region is particularly significant in the Arab Gulf states.
Women in this part of the region find themselves faced with two challenges: the efficiency of state-driven feminism on one side, and their struggle to push for their rights in the public arena on the other. Both the state and social forces often fail to prioritise women's rights with the result that women are compelled to negotiate their rights within these two spheres.
In Kuwait, educated women of the upper and middle classes have fought for decades for their rights to vote and to run in parliamentary elections. In 2005, they were granted those political rights despite opposition from Islamists. Throughout their struggle, those activists recognised the state as their supporter.
Elitist rights activists in Kuwait continue to reproduce a stereotypical image of feminism as a struggle for the rights of certain women. Female politicians and activists, until the Arab uprisings, had not campaigned for the rights of Kuwaiti women married to foreign men. They failed to highlight issues of women who are not educated, do not have jobs or come from marginalised and underprivileged groups. They continue to view gender equality in terms of having more official posts and power sharing. They do not ask how society can support these women while being dependent on the state.
In Saudi Arabia, the struggle for women's rights has been dominated by those in the upper and middle classes. In 2011, Saudi women campaigned for the right to drive cars. Islamists were not alone in trying to silence them; the state arrested some of them for driving.
Although both forces stood against this basic right to mobility, women continue to seek support from the state. Just like their Kuwaiti counterparts, those Saudi women do not make efforts to support other groups.
Recently, 30 Saudi women were appointed in the advisory Shura council, a step that was widely celebrated. In 2011, King Abdullah promised to allow women to participate in the municipal elections. In both cases, political participation of women has been seen as fragile and meaningless. If the system of male guardianship is still in place, how can women make political choices?
Saudi feminist scholar Madawi Al Rasheed has consistently criticised those developments as examples of a state-driven feminism that does not take women anywhere. In her recent book A Most Masculine State, Ms Al Rasheed sees no progress for Saudi women if they continue to see their struggle as separate from those of other groups.
Similarly, women in the United Arab Emirates continue to move within the space given to them by the state. They have served in various official posts, including the Federal National Council. We continue to see faces of Emirati women in business publications, illustrating how female activism in the UAE is limited to a certain class. A recent point of progress for Emirati women married to foreigners is the right to naturalise their children, though the applications are subject to review. The right to pass citizenship to children continues to be denied to women in other parts of the Arabian Gulf.
In Kuwait, the presence of women in politics faces a similar issue. After winning their electoral rights, Kuwaiti women started advocating for a quota system that would grant them a certain number of seats in parliament. The proposal did not pass in 2006 or 2008. When four women were able to win seats in the parliament in 2009, the discussion of quotas had been already forgotten. Yet, those women activists did not rethink their position towards society and their dependence on the state despite the public support that took them to the parliament.
As a result of the recent clash between the opposition and the government in Kuwait, women did not win any seats in the 2012 elections. Many blamed the performance of the four female members of the parliament.
In a panel organised by the Kuwaiti Graduates' Society in May 2012, the academic Lubna Al Qadhi objected to this criticism saying: "Women are asked about their political achievements yet men are not asked the same question." Ms Al Qadhi's objection is important as it highlights the sexist criticism made against the first four women parliamentarians. But this does not change the fact that three of those four members stood with the government against the opposition instead of being independent.
This year, Kuwaiti women were brought to court for the first time for their political involvement.
The three activists Sarah Al Drais, Rania Al Saad and Rana Al Saadoun faced charges for protesting against the amendment of the voting law. Mothers of political detainees organised sit-ins and criticised police oppression. For those women, gender issues are never brought into discussion as they believe in reforming the political system before speaking of their rights.
As the examples from Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia show, the role of state in granting access to women in education, government posts and social services is clear.
In some cases, the state has pushed for necessary legislations, even if the intention was to appease women and foreign critics. But at the same time, on-the-ground participation and presence will enable women to function in their society without the guardianship of the state. Fighting on two fronts can be beneficial but women need to realise that their struggle cannot be separated from those of other groups and that their political independence is necessary.
Mona Kareem is a poet and author from Kuwait currently completing her doctorate in New York
On Twitter: @monakareem