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A new wave of Gulf women.

Although the Gulf states remain deeply traditional and conservative, women have quietly made some important gains over the past quarter of a century. The question is where those changes may lead.

The role of women in the Gulf is central to the states concerned - and something of an obsession for outside observers. Many outsiders see the conservative kingdoms of the Gulf as synonymous with the oppression of women. According to this analysis, Gulf women are bound by a strict interpretation of Sharia law that renders them faceless and voiceless, that binds them socially and financially to male relatives and that chains them to hearth and home.

Gulf women are less visible in public life than women in liberal Arab or Western states. But it would be wrong to conclude that their role in society remains unchanged.

Traditionally, girls were married as young as 12. Today, daughters of educated, urban families generally marry in their twenties and even village women are marrying in their late teens.

While polygamy has fallen, GCC divorce rates have soared, in some states from 10 per cent during the 1980s to more than a third of all marriages in the 1990s. Women are less willing than their mothers' generation to put up and shut up and are instigating more divorces, even though they risk losing custody of their children.

The Gulf states differ in their dependence on imported labour, education levels, indigenous culture and traditions, oil wealth and economic expansion. There are equally marked differences in opportunities for women across the Middle East.

In the pre-oil era, no Arabian woman worked outside the home. By the 1990s, women formed 19 per cent of the workforce across the Middle East and North Africa, according to United Nations research.

In Kuwait, however, women formed 23 per cent of the workforce, the third highest proportion anywhere in the Arab world. Government figures for 1995/6 showed that women formed a third of the indigenous workforce and that 2,000 women graduated from Kuwait University - compared to 663 men. Kuwaiti women have yet to win the right to vote.

Two generations have seen an explosion in jobs for women across the Gulf. The proportion of working women has soared to 12 per cent in Bahrain, 9 per cent in Oman and the UAE and 7 per cent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Saudi Arabia, the proportion of working women doubled between 1986-96.

Saudi Arabia has vowed to expand women's education - though sceptics point out that female illiteracy still stands at 50 per cent. However, the creation of women's banks in the mid-1980s created opportunities for Saudi women outside traditional teaching and medicine. Women are also emerging everywhere from market research, to retail, to journalism

Foreign visitors to Gulf companies will encounter educated, middle-class male professionals who are enthusiastic about women's rights. But in other less accessible - social circles, opposition has hardened and if anything, attitudes towards women have polarised.

One oft-quoted example is the impact of American women soldiers and the arrival in Saudi Arabia of Kuwaiti women driving the family Mercedes during the 1991 Gulf War.

Shortly afterwards, a group of Saudi women launched a convoy demanding the right to drive. The protest was swiftly and publicly suppressed. Ironically, the Saudi authorities are now reviewing proposals to allow married women to drive during daylight hours - if their husbands permit

Anecdotal evidence suggests that while growing numbers of women dream of foreign travel and education, worsening economic conditions have pushed many young men - who tune in to Baywatch and eat at McDonalds - towards traditional values.

But at the same time, technology and travel have given Gulf women a new window on the world, even in traditional families.

Every woman hopes to follow her chosen path, and there are obstacles in every society. Gulf women today have choices that their mothers and grandmothers could only have imagined. Where those choices will lead remains to be seen.
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Title Annotation:changing social roles for women in the Middle East; 25th Anniversary Issue
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:May 1, 1999
Previous Article:Changing fortunes.
Next Article:Barak the peacemaker?

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