I wrote this review on the conference on "The Role of Women in the Development of GCC States" which took place in London last October (2010). The review was not published:
The Conference on the Role of Women in the Development of GCC States took place London in October 2010. This conference was energetic in that it presented eclectic and, at a few points, conflicting ideas and opinions. But, with not much being discussed on empowering women, there was a lot of talk about women in power. The overall tone was therefore lacking in urgency by eluding issues that are extremely relevant to women’s situations in the Gulf, making it come across as mere discourse from a middle class perspective.Generally speaking, worldwide women still bare a struggle. In the Gulf region, like most places in today’s increasingly urbanizing world, women (and men) of the privileged classes who have received more education simply have more opportunity. As an area still coming out of a culture where women are not as visible as men, women have issues that are unique and there is much to be said about this. This is particularly true at a time like today’s unprecedented wave of economic, cultural and social expansion. It is thus, that I argue that the women in power must look at the grass roots and aim to empower less privileged women.From home life to the work place, laws are continuing to be revised. Starting with home life, an extremely important issue that Gulf legislators have been revising for years is family law. There are still revisions regarding divorce, alimony and child custody. In a culture where polygamy is everyday there is little to say in a serious tone about women’s independence or empowerment; two areas that will be the source of women’s more adamant role in society. Beyond that, women still have problems entering the work force, personal details are always up for discussion. Marriage and plans for children are areas of a woman’s life linked to their employability by male management. Then, of course, there are also the cultural attitudes towards women in the work place, not only from the view of employers, but also from fathers and husbands. And on it goes.The women presenting their papers at the Conference represented each of the GCC countries, mainly academics, but also NGO and governmental representatives. They covered various subjects with women as context including: sustainable development, work and the family, decision-making, education and civil societies. Strong points were made throughout the day. Dr. Alanoud Al Sharekh gave a comprehensive history of Kuwaiti NGO, the Women’s Cultural and Social Society, whose active interventions and protest eventually landed women there their long over due right to vote. Dhawiya Al Alawi of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Women spoke critically of the extreme low numbers of women running for Parliament and their subsequent failure of to be voted into positions of decision-making. Dubai-based researcher Dr. Serra Kardar brought up the point that the UAE’s fast globalization is making education and the job market more difficult for local women to tap into with the growing appreciation for foreign women in the work place. And it was solely Asma Al Ateeyah, of Qatar University, who touched on the area of poverty, noting that the rush of the capitalist agenda has actually decreased local women in the work force and increased poverty among women.Otherwise, too many of the presenters marked the GCC’s development status by listing the women being featured in business mark lists – both global (Forbes) and regional (Arab Business Power 100). There is no doubt that the women on these lists are changing the opportunity and image of women in the Gulf with their forward thinking. But the urgency of the situation in the Gulf requires less praise and more direct and serious approaches.A strong example from the conference that looked at women’s empowerment through civil society was, once again, Dr. Al Sharekh’s paper on Kuwaiti women’s activism. Their road to suffrage was lead by an upper class working through grass roots for women of the entire country. They showed solidarity among the sex and eventually gained their political voice by putting themselves in a position that defied the restrictions. Among the strong anecdotes in this paper was when in 1992 women showed up to the voting booths to register ignoring the fact that they were legally excluded. History shows that it took another 13 years, but these forms of communal action speak volumes in our part of the world as models and as inspirations for generations to come.It is clear that women in the Gulf are today, more and more in need of empowering their place in society. The region is growing and demands economic, cultural and social players. Women here must today speak about ways of developing their own roles, being independent and going for their own aspirations. The current unprecedented boom in the region has made things competitive, and as it looks these days, there’s no slowing down, so local women’s actions and discussions must keep up.The Conference set a platform for the presenters to speak of the role of women in front of a diverse audience made up of policy makers, academics, students and more; but there was simply not enough practicality to the tone. The ‘role of women in the development of GCC states’ is a role that must go beyond the discourse. There must be more direct approaches and models that go towards the development of women’s role, so they can have a role in regional development. As Dr. Ohood Al Bulaishi of Oman said, women must take and demand their rights and place in social national and regional development. Women in the seats of privilege and influence must decide to go beyond discourses on ‘women’s rights’ and actually engage with women through the grassroots so that they can finally practice what puts them in the developmental roles.