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Dispelling a stereotype: Women in the Arab Gulf

By Richard Ferraris

Stereotypes. The fast food of our intellectual age. They are available on every corner and appeal to every taste. In the developed world, it has become fashionable to cite the example of the stereotypical oppressed Muslim woman, which lends credence to a Western view that must inevitably triumph. The Muslim woman. Veiled. Unable to drive a car. Sexually dominated. That is the picture often presented in the media, a picture juxtaposed with the sexually liberated Western woman who is free to get behind the wheel and flaunt her body – though not necessarily at the same time – or complain about other women who flaunt their bodies.

While it is true that many Muslim women in the Arab Gulf are less free than their counterparts in Europe and even South Africa, this is a one-dimensional outlook. Many Muslim nations, far from being atavistic, place a huge emphasis on education for both sexes. This is a truth that will probably make the majority of readers feel uneasy. Yet it is a truth that the media prefers to ignore in favour of stories that frame Muslim women as veiled non-entities.

A 2011 report from the Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre found that more women are educated than men in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the UAE, for example, 87% of women aged between 15 and 29 have had secondary education or at least some tertiary education, while in Qatar that figure is 95%.

The World Bank’s Gender Parity Index (GPI), which evaluates women’s access to education relative to that of men, bears out the findings of the Gallup study. Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, Tunisia and the UAE all have GPIs in excess of 1.08 in tertiary education, while all of them bar Iran, Oman and Lebanon had a secondary education GPI in excess of 1.00. The UAE does have one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, which means they have the money to spend on social services, the country’s legal framework guarantees gender equality in several areas, including in education. The government also avails 22% of the national budget for education. (In 2009, South Africa’s GPI for 16-18 year-olds was 0.98 and the country commits about 20% of its budget to education.)

The GPI statistics from these nations are meaningless, however, if educated women do not have the liberty to utilise their skills and knowledge in the real world. Happily, the trend in the UAE, which stands as a good case study example, is to actively advance the role of women in the professional realm. In 2007, 58% of Emirati women were employed in government or business roles, while a year later the country reached a major landmark and swore in its first female judge.

As young women make the most of the education opportunities available in the Emirates, young men tend to drop out of university more readily than young women. “Girls see a purpose to higher education, they see a point to it,” Dr Natasha Ridge, the acting director of research at the Dubai School of Government, told Abu Dhabi’s broadsheet, The National.

The Gallup survey also indicates that although men place less emphasis on education, attitudes towards gender roles are fluid, with there being far less of a disparity in gender-related expectations between the sexes. When asked whether women should be allowed to hold any job for which they are qualified, 83% of male Emirati respondents answered “yes”, while 88% of women said the same. Similarly, 84% of Emirati women said they were satisfied that they had sufficient freedom to choose what they wanted in life.

Amongst Saudi women this percentage was 59, which is indicative of the varying standards of freedom in the Gulf and in the Muslim world. Nonetheless, Emirati women are free to drive, wear designer abayas or shop for lingerie at La Senza.

However, even if educational equality is a reality in segments of the Gulf Arab world, abuses against women do, clearly, take place. Victims of sexual assault or rape are unlikely to report the crime and migrant labourers are commonly mistreated. But the role of women in Muslim states such as the UAE still raises intriguing questions about the nature of freedom, an organic concept that has been interpreted in different ways across the globe.

According to Ramya Subrahmanian from the University of Sussex, “Gender inequalities within education are likely to reinforce wider social inequalities, reproducing notions of gender differentiation and legitimating them in social discourse and also in social practice.” The corollary is that gender equality in education is a step towards ending inequality.

As for western impressions of the Muslim world, it is obvious that the fast food diet of stereotypes is intellectually unhealthy. Perhaps it is time the Western world lifted its veil.

Richard Ferraris is a South African journalist based in the Middle East.

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