Womenâ€™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.
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.