60 years of Activism: Women build their society with one hand and challenge its injustices with the other
Gulf society made sure to keep its womenfolk in the background, at times using traditional values as a pretext, and at other times using religion or the claim that human nature gives men physical and mental advantages over women. This form of social discrimination extended to law-making, where many women’s rights as supposedly full citizens were dropped.
By Hana Bu Hejji
When one speaks about women of the Gulf and their role in building family and society, it would be unfair to liken them to the pioneering movements which first appeared in the 1950s.
From before the dawn of formal education, Gulf women looked after themselves and their families economically, performing many roles from their base within the home behind society’s curtains. Such a society glorified its men by virtue of their engagement in arduous work outside the house in order to make a living, whilst its women worked silently, fulfilling the stereotypical role of housewife, taking care of the children and the family. Aside from all this, they did engage in some income generating work that helped raise the family’s standard of living, such as sewing, basic trading and simple cosmetic services typical of the time.
In spite of this, Gulf society made sure to keep its womenfolk in the background, at times using traditional values as a pretext, and at other times using religion or the claim that human nature gives men physical and mental advantages over women. This form of social discrimination extended to law-making, where many women’s rights as supposedly full citizens were dropped. In some countries, a system of guardianship was imposed on them for life, as if they were minors who had not reached adulthood and who were unable to make decisions on their own.
As a result, women had no choice but to rise up in order to gain their rights, the first spark of feminist activism being ignited in the mid 20th century. Bahrain led the Gulf in this by establishing the Bahrain Young Ladies Association in 1955 as the first officially licensed organisation to campaign for women’s rights.
The fierce resistance that women face in their demands for change, both from legislators and decision-makers, reflects the fear felt by men of potentially losing control of the imbalance that currently exists between the sexes. It is the fear that every gain for women represents a loss for men; it is a far cry from notions of modern social development that emphasise the contribution of everyone according to his or her abilities. It is also the fear that any move to limit the social potential, be it of women or men, will constitute a loss for society, not just a loss for the women who may be subject to this discrimination.
The growth of female activism
The next step for Gulf women was to organise themselves institutionally in order to open up their efforts to similar contributions by women across the Arab world, where such endeavours had begun at the end of the 19th century.
Women’s activism took shape more clearly in Bahrain and Kuwait, because these two countries were the first to begin educating girls and because they were influenced by the writings of Arab feminist activists, women and men.
In Bahrain, for example, this left a mark through the establishment of an active class of young women who made social advances at a much greater pace than elsewhere in the Gulf. The first non-governmental school for girls was opened in 1899 by Ms. Zwemer, a vicar’s wife. Despite its missionary nature, a number of girls took places there, long before public education kicked off in 1928.
By the mid 20th century, Bahraini women had come a long way in terms of social development, and they were immersed in particularly influential roles, including in the media and press, which were influenced by the Arab media at large. The book “Bahraini women in the 20th century” by Sabika Al Najjar and Fawzeya Matar records that “In the 1950s, Bahrain awoke to the Arab feminist movement in Egypt and the Levant, and to the writings of the leading intellectuals of the time, such as Rifa'a al-Tahtawi and Qasim Amin, as well as to pioneering feminists like Huda Sha'arawi, May Ziade and others, who played a role in the movement. In this way, the feminist community in Bahrain interacted with the movement abroad, as was reported at the time in the weekly al-Qafila: “the trip of three young ladies abroad during their summer holidays was to learn how collectives and cultural establishments are organised, in order to start similar ventures in Bahrain.”
The media was known at the time for its fearlessness, and it did much to portray women as individuals with views to be reckoned with. For the first time, the door was opened to daring articles by women who tackled issues about marriage and the family. The writings addressed women’s status and the way society viewed them. They also criticised traditions and the use of religion as a pretext by religious leaders to repress women.
During the same period, two sisters, Badria and Shahla Khalfan came to the fore, alongside Moza Al-Zayed, as leading examples of women writers who interacted with and influenced people, not only in Bahrain, but in other Gulf states where the newspapers which published their writings were distributed. The Khalfan sisters were courageous in addressing the political and social rights of women, as well as their right to work. Badria was the first to call for the introduction of family law, or what she referred to as ‘divorce law’, to protect the wife and children. She also called for equality between the sexes. Meanwhile, her sister Shahla’s writings revealed her Marxist beliefs about women, and her articles called for equality; they also sought to raise political awareness in other women, with the aim of engaging them in the national movement. Moreover, Shahla called on the Bahraini feminist movement to forge links with other like-minded movements across the world.
In contrast, the writer Moza Al-Zayed came from a much more conservative background. She was the classic case of a woman torn between her own liberal tendencies and a highly conservative upbringing. Sometimes she would call for the liberation of women through education. At other times she would resort to calling for women’s education to be rationed to basic elements that might sustain a woman in day-to-day life, leaving politics, education and philosophy to men. At yet other times, she would warn men of the danger of depriving women of their rights, which she believed might lead them to revolution.
The 1950s women’s movement coincided with the nationalist movement, and women tried to keep pace with the latter, albeit with leaden feet, always looking for a way to cut the shackles of tradition and society. In the schools, the first seeds of organised women’s action sprouted with the help of visiting female Arab teachers, and the “Orphans Association” was established in the first school for girls.
Founded in 1953 by women of well-to-do and educated backgrounds, the “Bahrain Ladies’ Club” was the first women’s collective. But the fact that the Club was headed by the wife of Sir Charles Belgrave, an adviser to the ruling family, was seen as a symbol of colonialism, and therefore many nationalist leaders felt aggrieved. The nationalists led a staunch media campaign against the Club, and they called for the establishment of an association akin to those already present in Egypt and the Arab Levant. Thus, the “Bahrain Young Ladies Association” was born in 1955, using the same title that had been given to their Arab sister associations. This name would later be adopted by other women’s groupings across the Gulf.
The “Children and Mothers Welfare Society” was established in 1960 by female members of the ruling family and others from affluent society. Both it and the “Bahrain Young Ladies Association” focused on charity work, illiteracy and childcare. This continued up until the 1970s, when the modus operandi of the “Bahrain Young Ladies Association” changed upon the return of many university graduates from Cairo, Kuwait and Beirut with a new sense of nationalistic zeal and heightened expectations.
In 1970, "AWAL Women’s Society” was founded by members of the middle class, most of whom were working women who had studied abroad and who had joined student unions and political movements there. These women actively embraced the demands of a feminist legislative agenda. Also in 1970, the “Riffa Women Cultural & Charity Society” was established by working women, mostly teachers. In its infancy, RWCCS was somewhat akin to “AWAL”, but later it focussed on charitable and pastoral work, especially after the dissolution of the Bahraini National Assembly and the subsequent enactment of the 1974 State Security Law, whereby campaigning for women’s rights came to be seen as purely a political act. Also in 1974, the International Women’s Association was formed by women from the leading merchant class as well as diplomats’ wives.
Today, there are some 21 women’s associations in Bahrain, most of which were established at the beginning of the millennium. This period is commonly referred to as one of political enlightenment and increased freedom. It was during this time that the Supreme Council for Women (SCW) was established as an official body to promote women’s rights. The Bahrain Women’s Union (BWU) also came into being in these years, comprising all the associations active in the field of women’s rights. Nadia Al Maskati, president of the Bahrain Young Ladies Association, explains: “Since 1975, Bahrain has benefitted from the Beijing Platform for Action and from the resulting platforms. Women’s activism became more organised, and strategies were built accordingly. Moreover, signing up to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has helped consolidate our demands, alongside the diligent efforts of the Bahrain Women’s Union. The BWU prepared the ‘Ahli’ Shadow Report in order to gauge the real needs, instead of simply glossing over the facts for the sake of the international community.”
Meanwhile in Kuwait, young girls began attending school in the 1940s. The country saw its first campaign for women’s rights in the early 1960s at the hands of Kuwaiti women who were influenced by the wider Arab feminist movement. They demanded the establishment of the Kuwaiti Women’s Club in order to galvanise efforts to empower women and to build a supportive legal framework. Alas, their demands were rejected by society and by the authorities, both of whom thought the idea ahead of its time. Accordingly, the group modified their demands, and instead they sought the establishment of the Women’s Cultural and Social Society (WCSS). Comprising the merchant class and the bourgeoisie, the Society was launched in 1963 and concentrated on charitable initiatives and on support for Arab causes. A few days earlier, another association was founded with the title of the Arab Women’s Development Society. It later changed its name to the Family Development Society (FDS) in 1971, in response to the decline in Arab nationalist fervour. FDS represented middle class women whose main concerns revolved around education, divorce and polygamy. In 1974, the Kuwait Women’s Union was formed, as a merger of WCSS and FDS. The Al-Fataat Girls Sports Club was also set up around the same time. The merger had the effect of precipitating the splintering of these agencies, however. WCSS withdrew and FDS was dissolved. And in 1977, the Kuwait Women’s Union was closed down by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Over the course of the next decade, with the spread of Islamism, two new associations appeared: Bayader Al Salam Society and the Islamic Care Society. The Kuwaiti Women’s Voluntary Society for Community Service was established in 1991 during the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion. In 1994, the Kuwait Women’s Union was resurrected with governmental support and under the presidency of the wife of the Crown Prince. KWU brought together all the various women’s organisations under its aegis, despite the fact that its role was limited to representation overseas and liaison between member groups.
Kuwaiti writer and activist Fajer Al Khalifa explains: “In the early days, feminist activism was restricted to certain social classes, in particular the bourgeoisie. As a result, such activism was centred on the concerns and needs of this class. This in no way belittles what they achieved. Fatma Husseinʹs burning of the abaya or loose robe was a symbolic act of great importance. Nevertheless, there were many women who remained prisoners within their homes and within their tribes, denied their right to education. In short, the problem of the early women’s associations was their inability to infiltrate the lower classes, or those less fortunate than themselves. For this reason, the best campaigns today for women’s rights are those that are independent and have no connection to the establishments of civil society.”
In the United Arab Emirates, public education began in 1953, and women showed early interest in leadership. Women’s associations soon began to appear, in order to fulfil the requirements of a modern state. They were set up to provide care services in a newly-formed country, including occupational training, teaching and family education. 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 focused 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.
As for Oman, women’s associations with a proper organisational structure were not established there 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.
Digital means and devices
Women’s associations, with their well-known structures and list of permits which they need in order to function, are no longer necessary to demand and defend women’s rights. In the digital world, a woman’s voice can be heard across the world at the touch of a screen. This has enabled Gulf women to gain support from around the globe. Moreover, it has also allowed women to summarise their concerns with hashtags that can be unleashed across the web, such as: #HerRight for women in Bahrain, #MyRightMyDignity in Saudi Arabia, #SheHasNoSubstitute and #RightsOfQatariWomen in Qatar. In Kuwait, the hashtag #CampaignToAnnulArticle153 was launched (under the terms of this law, a man who carries out an honour killing of his wife or daughter can be pardoned). Another Kuwaiti hashtag of note was #RefugeForAbusedWomen. Huda Alsahi, a Bahraini student with an interest in women’s issues in the Gulf who is working on her PhD in Italy, notes: “The web provides a unique space for women, where they can redefine patriarchal roles by looking again at social culture. The web also gives an opportunity to step up political action through signing petitions, donations, advertising and the circulation of information about local and international causes, all from a personal computer at home.”
Rights already secured and demands in progress
Women’s demands are similar across the six GCC states, yet there are differences in the way they are handled and in the means and organisations available to the campaigns in each country. Most of the demands focus on achieving full citizenship rights for women, and no more. Meanwhile, in each country the feminist movement is engaged in particular issues which they see of importance and as having a major impact on the quality of life for local women.
Among the most important gains won by the women’s movement are political rights. Women gained the right to vote and to stand in elections for the Shura Council in Oman in 1994, and in municipal elections in Qatar in 1998. In Saudi Arabia, women gained the right to stand and vote in municipal elections in 2015. As for parliamentary representation, Bahrain was the first state in the Gulf to give women the right to stand and vote in elections in 2002. Kuwait followed in its parliamentary elections in 2005.
Whilst Family Law is the priority for women activists across the Gulf, demands to introduce such legislation or amend existing laws have been greatest in Bahrain and Kuwait. In the case of Bahrain, we can trace these demands back to 1982, when the Committee for Personal Status Law was formed from members of the women’s associations. Urgent demands continued until the Sunni Family Law was passed in 2009. Eight years later, the Jaafari (Shia) Family Law came into force. Subsequently, agreement was reached on a unified family law that aims to give women greater protection in matters relating to marriage, custody of children, inheritance and divorce.
Bahraini Nadia Al Maskati points out that “the law needs further development to protect women’s interests.” Kuwaiti Fajer Al Khalifa makes similar points about the need to improve the Kuwaiti Code of Personal Status.
The right of a mother to give nationality to her husband and children continues to attract the attention of activists in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Oman, but there are differences in the extent to which they are willing to push their demands and to persevere with the authorities. 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.” As for Hessa Lootah in the UAE, she 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. As for Bahraini Huda Alsahi, she 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.”