Masum Momaya

Women's Empowerment, Arab Style

Women in the Middle East Break New Ground


Could Arab businesswomen shatter Western stereotypes of what it means to be empowered? For many, "Arab women" conjures up images of women cloaked in long, covering garments, restricted in their movements and constrained in their freedoms. But the rising influence of women in business and finance in the Gulf region may lead us to rethink our assumptions about what it means to have and exercise power.


The Booming Gulf: Social and Economic Crossroads

Economic development in the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC)--Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates--is exploding.  New roads, offices, condominiums, shopping malls and schools are being built every day, fueled by oil money, strategic foreign investments and leaders who want to put the region indelibly on the map.  The ruling elite, anxious to tap the resources of all their citizens, are encouraging women to step up and take leadership roles--as businesswomen, heads of financial firms, teachers, scholars and writers.

In fact, while the global financial crisis devastates economies around the world, GCC governments are devoting significant resources to economic growth--including training women and supporting their rise in business. This marks a significant change in the region. Historically, relatively few women in Arab countries have been employed outside the home. But in the past decade, the desire for economic development has led to dramatic changes in women’s workforce participation, especially in forward-looking places such as Qatar.

Sheikha Hanadi Al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling family and a prominent businesswoman, points out, “In many ways, the Gulf offers more opportunities for women.  It is a rapidly growing economy, and with growth comes opportunities that would otherwise not be there … One advantage in the Gulf is that there are no glass ceilings, because people are a scarce resource”(1).

Once discouraged from seeking higher education, taking visibly public roles and interacting as equals with men, women are beginning to face fewer restrictions, and they are using the openings created by recent economic changes to take on new roles. While this has led to some social shifts, Arab women are still balancing individual advancement and service to their countries against cultural expectations--this balancing act is a skill they have long practiced and continue to embrace.

The Individual and the Whole

While women in the West struggle with work-life balance and meeting their personal needs, professional goals and social expectations, Arab businesswomen in the Gulf have a different perspective about their roles in family and society.

Psychological anthropologist Suad Joseph, who has spent years studying women’s identities in the Arab world, believes that women in the region are simultaneously able to hold an understanding of themselves as individuals and as intrinsic parts of a collective whole. (By comparison, in Western, industrialized nations personal achievement is prized above group identity (2).)  From an Arab perspective, empowerment must include deep ties to family, community and country, as well as personal satisfaction and achievement--otherwise, it’s not empowerment.

Contrary to many Western assumptions, women in the Gulf are encouraged to study, work outside the home, marry partners who share their personal and professional goals, seek out mentors and leadership opportunities and contribute to the welfare of their countries, both through traditional roles as mothers and wives and as businesswomen, financial leaders, and teachers.  Indeed, many Arab businesses are family businesses - a fact which helps women blend the professional and personal with less conflict.

Family Affairs

Professor Amal Mohammed Al-Malki, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University’s campus in Qatar, explains that women carefully negotiate their power and authority within age-old constructs of the family.  For example, “women in business often refer to the men in their lives, be that a father or a husband, with gratitude. It is crucial for a woman to have such acceptance, because our societies are still male-dominated societies, and a man in still the head of his family” (3).

However, women’s newfound economic power is also changing gender roles and relationships at home. In some cases, these changes are causing turned heads, raised eyebrows, and some rifts. Al-Malki, for example, has observed resistance from men in response to women’s success.  This, in turn, is triggering a need for state policies that reflect new understandings and protect women’s rights.

Arab leaders such as Qatar’s first lady Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Misned understand this. With a focus on long-term economic and social development, she and others in positions of authority are creating organizations such as the Qatar Business Women Forum and drafting policies to pave the way for more widespread social acceptance of women’s equality.

Professor Al-Malki also points out that changes must be made in the context of Islam, which circumscribes social relations.  Women’s rights advocates in the region often point to the example of Prophet Mohammed’s wife Khadija, who was a successful businesswoman in her own right while still supporting her husband. Still, she says, Arab societies and governments must learn to balance ways to reward women for working outside the home while affirming their roles within the home.

Arab Women Lifting Up their Region and Themselves

The affinity a woman feels towards her country is particularly interesting in the Gulf region. Because of oil, most families are very wealthy. As a result, most women work not out of economic necessity, but because they want to contribute to national and economic development and the reputation of their region in the world.

Women’s entrepreneurship is now seen as a solution for many things: increasing women’s financial independence, contributing to growth and development of the GCC, creating jobs and changing the image of the Arab world in the West. As long as families and GCC governments can adjust to the resulting social changes, Arab businesswomen's upward mobility will likely continue uncompromised. Their work sets an important example for other parts of the world: for business, economic development, nation-building and women’s empowerment.



1. MEED, Interview with Sheikha Hanadi Nasser bin Khaled al-Thani,” (January 2008): p. 18-24.

2. Suad Joseph, Intimate Selving in Arab Families, Syracuse University Press (1999).

3. E-mail Communication with Amal Mohammed Al-Malki (August 13, 2009).



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Comments (6)

I find this concept of true empowerment - that it comes only when work outside the home is truly balanced with natural responsibilities inside the home - fascinating. American women struggle with this every day and yet we are so quick to judge Arab society. We sometimes consider empowerment to be one sided - only outside the home. But it is in the balance, the freedom to be true to that balance, that we are truly empowered as women.

Very insightful, kacattell. I think you're right, and the *perceived* imbalance in Arab women's lives is probably what causes a lot of judgment from Western society: People assume that Arab women are expected to be ONLY docile wives, devoted mothers, and devout Muslims. Western society sees a woman in a hijab and assumes she's oppressed. Masum's essay does a good job of explaining how that isn't always true, and that Arab women in some countries live balanced, free lives.

United States

“Women's Empowerment, Arab Style,” written by Masum Momaya, was an essay that gave me a new perspective of the idea of women achieving economic empowerment. It led me to rediscover the meaning of economical participation in the society. Women often have a very limited understanding of how to achieve economic empowerment, such as seeing economic empowerment simply as earning money, financially supporting family members, paying tax etc. However, it should not fail to incorporate broader understanding of women’s economic empowerment, which comes from the economic participation in the society.
The essay further explains that to appropriately achieve economic empowerment is to have “deep ties to family, community and country, as well as personal satisfaction and achievement”. This allowed me to realize how important it is to have a good balance between the personal financial empowerment and socieital financial empowerment. I also had limited aspects of being economically empowered as a women. I thought by being finacially independent and supporting myself economically and fully participate in my career was the way to financially empower myself. This essay challenged me to redefine the idea of ecnomic empowerment for myself and allowed me to rethink of how I would participate economically and politically in a broader definition of economic empowerment in mind.

This essay raises interesting questions about what "empowerment" means. I often consider what the relationship is between empowerment and participation in the economy, and this essay provides new insight on that.

One point that caught my attention was that most of the women mentioned are part of the elite. They work not because they have to, but because they want to. For this reason, empowerment through economic participation means something very different to them than it does to, perhaps, impoverished beneficiaries of microfinance loans. The economically comfortable women participate in business for prestige, while less fortunate women do it to survive.

Does this mean that, on a global scale, economic participation has intrinsic meaning? Does it mean more to "participate in the economy" than to simply make the money needed to survive? I am not sure I agree that economic participation should be any measure of empowerment, even if you can do it while maintaining ties to family and community. From a gender perspective, let's not forget that much work is done for no pay at all - household work and child-rearing (usually by women), without which society could not thrive.

While I understand the line of reasoning presented in this discussion, I wonder if we are missing something about what empowerment should mean when business and finance are among our highest priorities. What about cultivating fulfilling connections to others, and taking care of each other? It's important not to assume that participation in business has to be an essential element of empowerment.

I think that in the Sudan to enable women to work better than before, but some of the Sudanese authorities that would enable men more than women, some of the beliefs that working women less active than men and that the responsibility of working women in her home and complete her homework. Authorities or institutions do not give much attention in the employment of women, some of them and not all. Here in the Sudan means that the employment of women can take all the circumstances of women. But in some institutions that help working women and to enable these institutions to realize that women in the State and society has every right to enable it.

Vanessa Fisher
Vanessa Fisher
South Korea

Great article! Thanks for the enlightening perspective on Arab women.

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