Let’s talk about feminism in the Gulf

“I urge women to learn from the feminist movement in the Western World, and to create our own regional version of it rather than import it as is.”

By Dana Al Rashid

There is an undeniably powerful wave of feminism hitting the Gulf Region. We are seeing more and more young women making their own paths with initiatives and projects, paving the way for the next generations. A very large percentage of the women in the region are college educated. For example, 77 per cent of Emirati women enroll in higher education after secondary school and make up 70 per cent of all university graduates in the UAE, according to the UAE Embassy in Washington DC. Many women have the option to choose whether to work or stay at home and start a family, or to integrate both roles. The ability to work has given women much more financial independence.

Of course, such a movement would not go without resistance. In the region, there are people who are ‘policing’ women who appear under the public eye. Classic examples are trivializing working women’s achievements, or nitpicking at their appearance by saying how that hair strand sticking out of their hijab is ‘offensive’. By doing so, they make sure that women continue to be valued based on their appearance. Other times, there is a blunt refusal of whatever initiative a woman has proposed with no clear reasoning behind it other than the fact that she is female.

Unfortunately, many women are still being forced into life-changing decisions and choices without their consent. These enforced choices often include what major a young woman chooses in university, whether or not she can work later on, what she wears and which man she is going to spend the rest of her life with. Often times, there are many limitations on where a woman can go, all under the name of ‘protecting’ her. The question here is: protecting her from what, exactly?

We live in a civil society. In fact, the GCC is one of the safest regions in the world, with the UAE and Oman amongst the top 10 safest countries in the world according a 2018 report by the World Economic Forum. There should be more trust in –rather than fear of– girls’ behaviours, especially given that our families have raised us well and taught us our regional values. Plus, a girl cannot be supervised forever; she is not a minor for life. Once she reaches the legal age, she has the right to lead her life as she sees fit. These imposed limitations greatly deter from a woman’s growth and create obstacles to her contribution to society.

So as you can see, it is no wonder that many women here are upset –even downright angry– and yearning for change. However, this impulsive anger does not serve the case at all. In fact, it creates even more resistance from society.

Continuous ‘whining’ on social media without taking practical steps is making people take feminism less seriously. Many girls continuously rant on social media about their rights, but they are not willing to muster up the courage to take action because they fear backlash from their families and society. But if this generation does not take the leap of faith then who will? By inaction we are slowing down the progress of an entire generation.

That being said, the overly blunt, shock-based approach is not a great way either. It only creates controversy, not real change. Running away is not a solution either; a woman may migrate, but she is not contributing in solving the root cause of the problem.

The best approach, I think, is to introduce your progressive views gradually and gently. Having a strategy and clear convictions, and working towards them steadily will make others respect you, whether they agree with you or not. People need to see that there is merit and cause beyond your actions.

Working collectively with other women is also very important. Women need to develop team skills and overcome their differences in order to create change.

Men should be part of the conversation too. They should not be demonized, as they cannot be blamed and shamed for what their ancestors did. The ones who still have backward views could be educated gently, with the realization that you cannot force your views on everyone at the end of the day. It is good to hear their concerns and their side of the story the way we ourselves like to be heard.

Elitist feminist discourse needs to be avoided, and we need to look at more pressing, urgent matters like the abuse of women, and the difficult conditions of women in less educated and more restrictive communities.

I urge women to learn from the feminist movement in the Western World, and to create our own regional version of it rather than import it as is. This is so we can fine-tune it and allow it to cater to our culture and needs.

Therefore, while you can see that feminism in the GCC Region has already started, it is still a young movement that needs a lot of work and time to mature and grow properly. So, let us all work towards a more civil society that promotes equity.

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Dana Al Rashid is a Kuwaiti writer and artist. She has a weekly column in Al Jarida Newspaper, and she also writes and illustrates for several independent magazines.