Posts Tagged 'women'

Women to be rescued?

By: Maria Jakobsen

Saudi Arabia is probably one of the world’s most male-dominant countries. While the other Gulf monarchies apparently have made progress towards more democratic values, Saudi Arabia seems to maintain its conservative view on women. For example, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Gulf where women still are not allowed to drive. According to The Guardian, Saudi Arabian women have also experienced problems with the emergency services. Some have even died because male relatives prevented them being taken to the hospital by a male ambulance crew. Despite obstacles, Saudi Arabian women have made progress both in employment and education. In recent years, many women have gained a foothold in business affairs―nearly 10% of private businesses are run by women. Even though progress is happening in a slow pace, women in Saudi are becoming more visible. Also, you may have seen one of them raging towards conservative clerics on a live television show? I will tell you more about that later, but first; do it exists “well rooted perversity” in Saudi Arabian television?

As Saudi Arabian women are making progress, the conservatives want to keep them in their place where they belong, which supposedly is in the home. Therefore, in 2009 a group of Saudi clerics urged the Kingdom’s new Information Minister to ban women from appearing on TV or in newspapers and magazines. The statement issued said: “No Saudi women should appear on TV, no matter what the reason. No images of women should appear in Saudi newspapers and magazines.” According to the conservatives, it exist a so called “well rooted perversity” in the Saudi Ministry of Information and Culture due to the many female presenters on television. Sabria S. Jawhar, a Jeddah-based journalist, writes in her blog “Sabria’s out of the box” that Saudi female television presenters wear the hijab and are dressed appropriately as they would at any shopping mall or restaurant. Yet, according to some people, it is different when women appear on television. Sabria says: “I suppose if a man is not permitted to gaze at women on the street, he can do it in the privacy of his own home.” That must be the perversity the opponents of female presenters are thinking (…).

It is therefore reasonable to suggest that the conservatives must have been shocked when Hissa Hilal, a mother of four from Saudi Arabia, entered the stage in the last round of Abu Dhabi’s live poetry talent contest, The Million’s Poet. The show is by many considered to be an Arabic version of “American Idol” with a slightly different content: the contestants compete not in singing but in traditional Arabic poetry. In a 15-verse work, Hissa Hilal railed against the preachers who frighten people with their religious edicts. “I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden”, she said in one of the verses. It was a bold message and not to forget a highly controversial one. But, when she was finished, the ranks of both men and women erupted into cheers and the judges sent her into the final.

The global mass media took great interest in the bold message from the Saudi Arabian woman. In an interview with The Associate Press she told: “It’s a way to express myself and give voice to Arab women, silenced by those who have hijacked our culture and our religion.” Her poem was seen as a response to Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, a prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia who recently issued a fatwa saying those who call for the mingling of men and women should be considered infidels, punishable by death.

Hissa Hilal’s poem got loud cheers from the audience. It also brought her death threats, posted on several Islamic militant web sites. However, the voice of Saudi Arabian women is as necessary as it is important when it creates upheavals in the conservative Kingdom. Furthermore, only Saudi Arabian women can make progress for themselves. Journalist Jawhar is tired of Western human rights organizations that protect “poor” Saudi Arabian women and that will grant them the freedom they deserve. “Without the help of Americans and Europeans my life would have no future. Ok. I’m lying, if Western do-gooders minded their own business I’d be a pretty happy girl,” she states in her blog.

So; even though they apparently are silent, Saudi women are speaking up for themselves. And, here is a little tip from Jawhar to all of us who complain about submissive Saudi Arabian women: “Saudi women are doing just fine and making progress on their own. Find someone else to rescue!”

Comparing what?

By: Marie Naalsund Ingvaldsen

In my last blog post I had collected the female labor force participation rate for several countries in the Gulf region and presented them in a diagram. In this blog post I would like to dwell a little with these figures.

Any introductory textbook to either statistics or econometrics can tell you that when comparing data you have to compare the same thing. Any introductory textbook to development economics can inform you that this is far more difficult in real life than in theory. Especially when considering data across countries or over time, which is often the kind of data we consider. Any student in economics can tell you that we do it anyway. (It should be noted that one can come around several of the potential problems through different econometrical procedures, but that is not the story of this post.)

The Female Labor Force Participation Rate is defined as female share of total labor force and this might intuitively seem quite straight forward. The fact that the figures are collected from the same international sources indicates that they are collected in a way that is comparable across countries. However, when producing this statistics, international organizations usually have to rely on information from national agencies. Although effort has been made to coordinate the data collection, there are always possible that countries are not measuring exactly the same variable in exactly the same way.

A problem of particular interest when studying labor force statistics in the Gulf Region is how to deal with the migrant workers. In Saudi Arabia, foreigners account for more than half of the total labor force. One could decide not to care. A woman is a woman and as long as she lives in Saudi Arabia her participation in the labor market is equally important whether or not she has a Saudi citizenship. However, migrant workers in the Gulf region are not a well-integrated part of the society. They do not have the same rights and privileges and are normally not moving to a Gulf country to settle down with their family and build their life in this new society. Rather they work there in order to send money home and help providing for their families in their country of origin. If one wants to study how culture and religion affects women’s labor supply decision in for instance Saudi Arabia, it might be that foreign women are not bound to the same unwritten norms and barriers and therefore have a more easy access, or at least that their decisions are made based on other criteria than those faced by Saudi women.

Another problem is work performed in the informal sector. Labor force participation rate is normally calculated as share of economically active population which again is defined as a person that provides labor in exchange for cash or non-cash income. To what extent this includes the informal sector is unclear. An example is Iran: In the statistics I presented last time, Iran was represented with a female labor force participation rate of almost 30 percent. However, in an article I recently came across by Valentine Moghadam, a professor in Sociology with special interest in female labor in the Middle East, it appears that in Iran’s last census, women constitutes only 15 % of the formal sector. The problem is not that the figure from the World Bank obviously includes (at least part of) the informal sector, but that it is hard to tell to which extent this is the case for the rest of the countries.

The social effects of the educational revolution in Qatar: A gender perspective

By: Maria Jakobsen

The constant debate in the western media, about suppression of women in the Middle East cast a shadow over the fact that women in many countries have gained more opportunities in order to participate in the society. Throughout the past decade Qatari female students have outnumbered Qatari male students and many of the women are also participating in professions, which earlier were reserved exclusively for men. The increased opportunities for women in Qatar come as a result of the country’s efforts to improve women’s participation in education and labour market. On the other hand, international and national statistics and surveys show that females meet more obstacles when entering the labour market than men. This contributes to a situation where number of national female employees is considerable lower that the employment rate for men.

In order to understand the reasons behind the statistical data that is presented, there seems to be a need for further studies and better knowledge. The thesis of my Master degree in Arabic is an attempt to collect, handle and present information that may increase understanding on this area. One can describe the improvements in the educational system in Qatar as an “educational revolution” and my project will look at the social effects of this radical change. To limit the scope of the project I have concentrated on the women’s participation in the labour market. Simplified this may be expressed: How has the “educational revolution” in Qatar affected women and their entry into the work force?

On June 27, 1995, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani formally became the ruler of Qatar. Under the Emir’s leadership clear visions have been developed to transform Qatar into a more democratic and reform-friendly society. Since HH, the Emir became the country’s ruler; he has made it clear that he supports the creation of democratic institutions. The Emir issued on June 2004 the permanent constitution, which also provides a solid foundation in order to support women, to improve their human rights status and role in the society.

Under the slogan “Education for a new era to cope with the country’s comprehensive and sustained development” Qatar, under the directives of HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a comprehensive development initiative was launched in 2004. The most visible driving force in this process has been the wife of the Emir, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Misned, who is serving as the chairperson of Qatar Foundation and for the Education City. At Education City HH Sheikha Mozah have developed projects to make Qatar a centre of higher education in the Middle East. Further she argues, “The core of Qatar’s vision is an aspiration for Qatar to realize its full potential in the global marked with an educated people who have the skills and confidence to be competitive around the world”. The contributions of HH Sheikha Mozah seem to be well received among Qatari women. Therefore, the common saying, وراء كل رجل عظيم امرأة”  “, meaning “behind every great man there is a woman” will in Qatar, according to national releases, be  “وراء كل امرأة قطرية ناجحة سمو الشيخة موزة” meaning “behind every successful Qatari woman there is Her Highness Sheikha Mozah”.

Qatar’s aim for an improved educational system has given positive results for female participation in education. Statistics from Qatar University shows that 77% of the total numbers of students are females. The ratio of female participation is high in the college of Arts & Science as well as in the colleges of Business & Economics, Engineering and Law. Statistics do also show that women are doing very well in these fields.

There seems so be great interest in the national and regional media, Arabic-written as well as English-written, regarding Qatari women’s achievements. The Egyptian magazine for women هي (meaning “her”) devoted in the October 2009 issue a comprehensive article about Sheikha al-Jufairi, first Qatari women ever to win a seat in the Central Municipal Council. The Qatari Magazine التجارة و الأعمال, (meaning “Commerce and Employment”) in one of their latest issue, presented Mona Fadel, a Qatari woman who has a strong desire to establish Business Women Association in Qatar. The portrait of Mona Fadel, who won the award for “Business Woman of the Year”, gives an impression of a strong Qatari woman, far away from the picture of the Middle Eastern woman generally presented in western media. Further, one can mention that Dr. Sheikha al-Misned was appointed President of Qatar University in 2003, Her Excellency Sheikha Ahmed Al-Mahmoud was appointed Minister of Education in 2003 and Her Excellency Sheikha Hessa bint Hamad al-Thani was appointed Vice President of the Supreme Council of Family Affairs. These women are, among others, in many ways pioneers in the women’s “movement” in Qatar. When reading press releases and Arabic magazines one might get the impression that there are few obstacle for Qatari women. According to national and international statistics and surveys that is not the case, and the obstacles will differ based on a series of factors. Good role models are therefore important for young Qatari women taking education and planning a professional career.

As mentioned above, female participation in education is overwhelming. On the other hand, statistics from national and international surveys shows that the number of female employees is low. The World Economic Forum’s GAP-report concludes that the gap between genders in Qatar is widening and that Qatar is ranked 125 out of 134 countries (where number one is the best and 134 are the worst when it comes to gap between genders). Qatar, as well as other Middle Eastern countries, performs far below the global average in this report. Even though there have been minimal improvements in reducing the gap between genders, according to this report, it mentions that it is notable that in Kuwait, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar, the tertiary education enrolment rates of women are higher than those of men. Further it says that these economies have invested large amounts of resources in increasing women’s educational level and will now need to integrate these women into the economy.

There might be several reasons when seeking answers to the question regarding the low number of Qatari female employees. Different theses on this matter have been proposed, where some have been blaming the strong economy in the Gulf as an obstacle towards women attending the job market (read: Michael L. Ross). Other researches have focused on the role of Islam, and how it supposedly is holding women’s advancement into business and job market at a low level.

My own experiences from Qatar show that the patriarchal attitudes towards women still are strong. The belief among many Qatari men, that women need to be protected and controlled, seems to be rather prevailing.The general view on the government, however, seems to be gratefulness due to the Government’s support of women and women’s rights. Hence, one might say that the government is some steps ahead of the general (male?) opinion about women’s role in the society.

It is necessary to point out that change take time. Because of so many factors influence the development; it may take long time before the effects of new policies and initiatives to encourage women’s participation in the labour market become visible. Even though the gap between genders is high today, there are reasons to believe that the gap will decrease over time as the policy implementation and initiatives become more effective.