Editorials and newspapers across the Gulf region marked International Women’s Day on March 8 by highlighting the role that empowered women play in their countries, especially as role models to younger women. But what all these empowered women were celebrated for boils down to one thing: their economic utility for the state. Indeed, women’s economic productivity is often celebrated with such fanfare in order to gloss over the real impediments to their actual empowerment and effective inclusion.
There is an interesting correlation between the emergence of women empowerment discourse in the Arab Gulf region and the issue of higher educational attainment. A good amount of literature on Gulf women’s access to higher education highlights the disparity in attainment between women and men, with women consistently reported as being more educated on average than their male counterparts. While we may want to interpret the drive to empower women as a recognition of – and a reward for – their hard work, it is important to understand the context that gave rise to this discourse.
Back in the 70s, and quite progressively for their time, a small but significant number of Gulf women went to pursue higher education overseas in countries like Egypt, Iraq, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The vast majority of Gulf students studying abroad, however, were men. Upon their return, these women were celebrated as pioneers, but were almost never appointed to visible positions of power and decision making. They were not propped up, at the time, as role models for younger generations. Their extraordinary achievements were overshadowed by the equally educated men who outnumbered them. But this ratio has changed over time.
Notwithstanding their own motivations and ambitions for higher education, contemporary Gulf women’s achievements are only ever discussed in relation to the men who ‘stay.’ Fascinated Western scholars surveying the education landscape in the Gulf describe the women as ambitious go-getters, whereas the men are frequently lamented as the drop-outs who had foregone higher education for a head start in the job market. Many men – and fewer women in the past – had benefited from state-funded scholarships to pursue higher education overseas, and while this can be corroborated with official numbers, it is not possible in an information-poor region to find out how many of those who had left on scholarships have actually returned. This information gap allows for the possibility to hypothesise about the absence of men – the leavers – as a key factor driving the ongoing women empowerment enterprise across the Gulf region, especially as women occupy more jobs in the labour market than ever before. Were these women made to fill in the positions that would have preferably gone to the men had they returned? It may be possible to draw loose parallels with women in Europe, whose entry into the job market to fill in conventionally male-dominated positions was facilitated by the absence of men, many of whom had perished in the World Wars.
But the women empowerment discourse is a securitized one, too. If we consider, for instance, the peak of the empowerment drive, which can be traced back to the early 2000s, we find that Gulf states appointed their first women ministers very soon after the U.S. had launched its global war on terror. Having expunged their curricula from anything deemed controversial to appease a scrutinising West, Gulf Arab states became astutely aware of how the West used women’s liberation as a rationale to justify their military and political interventions. Consequently, women empowerment became a tool of deflection – and perhaps defensiveness – rather than a genuine effort to promote women’s full and equal participation in society.
Time and time again, we see Gulf women’s presence and visibility being conflated with real impact. Yet visible women in the Gulf, more often than not, serve as mere spokespersons for the state. Owing their visibility to the state, they resign their personhood, maintaining an almost sanitised public presence, especially on social media. Empowered women have become the front-facing soft power with which Gulf states communicate their progressiveness, mainly to foreign audiences. Domestically, however, women who seek independent visibility are cast as rebellious feminists – feminist being the charge – who, enamoured by the West, conspiratorially aim to spread corruptive ideas among the good women. Between speaking for the masculine state, and speaking for oneself and own, Gulf women are silent in their visibility and silenced when they choose to be visible.
Mira Al-Hussain is a sociologist of Gulf culture, politics, and higher education.Follow her on Tiwitter: @miraalhussein.