To Empower Arab Women, Look Closely

Middle Eastern women, who live in a wide range of countries and across a broad spectrum of social and political rights, are little served by massive generalizations of about the lives of ‘Arab women.’

“This coming holiday, I am going to buy myself a car. I’ll drive to my parents’ grave and tell them that I’ve fulfilled my dream. Afterward, I’ll pick up my friends and we’ll drive to the sea and to the desert,” wrote Saudi publicist and women’s-rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider.

Yet the dream of Saudi women to drive will not be coming true anytime soon. In Saudi Arabia’s deeply patriarchal society, even the king himself cannot rebel against custom. While it is true that he allows women in his kingdom to work in a restricted fashion, and also that Saudi females are able to study a wide variety of subjects, once they complete their degrees, they can’t get a job.

Saudi women own wide swaths of property and they trade on the stock market. But if they want to travel outside of the country, they must first obtain the blessing of their father, brother or husband.

A few hundred miles from Riyadh, the situation is completely different. Last week, Forbes magazine published its list of the most influential women in the world. Among them, alongside Angela Merkel, Lady Gaga and Shari Arison were three women from the Gulf states. They are Shaikha al-Bahar, the CEO of the National Bank of Kuwait; Lubna al-Qasimi, the minister of foreign trade of the United Arab Emirates; and Al-Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani, the chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority.

None of these women are from Saudi Arabia.

All three women were born into well-connected families. Al-Qasimi and al-Thani are related to the royal families of their countries, while al-Bahar comes from one of Kuwait’s most prominent business families. All enjoyed a well-rounded education with Western influences, all enjoy a healthy amount of independence in their lives and work.

Across the Arab world, websites and media boasted on the inclusion of these three women on such a prestigious list. It is interesting that at least one of the women, al-Thani, received the honor not because of her wealth but because of her cultural activity – actively promoting of Qatar’s heritage and Qatar’s increasing involvement in the worldwide film industry.

Across the Arab world, the women with the most influence are by no means the ones with the most wealth. Take Qatar’s Amna bint Mohammed al-Thani, for example. She is considered the wealthiest Arab woman in the world, with an estimated personal fortune of $87 million. Tying for second place are Maryam Khalfan Al-Naeemi of the United Arab Emirates and Lubna Olayan of Saudi Arabia, each with a personal worth of $70 million. In third place is Laila Gomaa Gowaily of Egypt, with a personal worth of $35 million.

According to Forbes, these women have found success in banking, manufacture, investments and insurance. Egyptian, Kuwaiti, Jordanian - and Saudi - women hold the most powerful positions in their fields.

This segmentation does not reflect the character of the societies and the regimes in which these successful women live and work. A Gallup poll published last month indicates that the proportion of working women is relatively smaller in the wealthy Arab states than in the poorer ones. This is odd, yes, but it should not necessarily be surprising. Working outside the home, aside from stemming from financial necessity, signifies a certain social status.

Well-off women, be it by birth or through marriage, show their elevated social status by staying home. Or at least, conventional wisdom would have that they do.

Nevertheless, World Bank statistics indicate that in wealthier countries, more women are working. In Qatar, the percentage of women who work (ages 15 to 65) is 52 percent. In Bahrain, it is 39 percent. In Kuwait, it is 43 percent, while in Egypt, it is a mere 24 percent. In Jordan, it is 15 percent, and in Morocco, it is 26 percent. In Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest country among them, only 17 percent of women are part of the work force.

The contradictions between these data and the employment gaps between men and women should shake us from our grip on across-the-board statistics, which show that in the Middle East the percentage of women in the work force is the lowest in the world, at about 23 percent. Instead, they obligate us to examine conditions on a country-by-country basis.

If we look at things at a closer range, we will see, among other things, that there is almost no correlation between political activity and inclusion in the workforce. In Egypt or Tunisia, for example, where a large number of women took part in the revolution, only a quarter of the women hold jobs outside their homes. But in Kuwait, where the job market for women is thriving, we find the lowest rate of women’s participation in politics.

While the perception of the Middle East as a single Arab and Muslim mass may serve political or ideological goals, it shatters when there are intentions of adopting a policy of women’s empowerment.