A new wave of Gulf women.

Position:25th Anniversary Issue - Changing social roles for women in the Middle East

Although the Gulf states remain deeply traditional and conservative, women have quietly made some important gains over the past quarter of a century. The question is where those changes may lead.

The role of women in the Gulf is central to the states concerned - and something of an obsession for outside observers. Many outsiders see the conservative kingdoms of the Gulf as synonymous with the oppression of women. According to this analysis, Gulf women are bound by a strict interpretation of Sharia law that renders them faceless and voiceless, that binds them socially and financially to male relatives and that chains them to hearth and home.

Gulf women are less visible in public life than women in liberal Arab or Western states. But it would be wrong to conclude that their role in society remains unchanged.

Traditionally, girls were married as young as 12. Today, daughters of educated, urban families generally marry in their twenties and even village women are marrying in their late teens.

While polygamy has fallen, GCC divorce rates have soared, in some states from 10 per cent during the 1980s to more than a third of all marriages in the 1990s. Women are less willing than their mothers' generation to put up and shut up and are instigating more divorces, even though they risk losing custody of their children.

The Gulf states differ in their dependence on imported labour, education levels, indigenous culture and traditions, oil wealth and economic expansion. There are equally marked differences in opportunities for women across the Middle East.

In the pre-oil era, no Arabian woman worked outside the home. By the 1990s, women formed 19 per cent of the workforce across the Middle East and North Africa, according to United Nations research.

In Kuwait, however, women formed 23 per cent of the workforce, the third highest proportion anywhere in the Arab world. Government figures for 1995/6 showed that women formed a third of the indigenous workforce and that 2,000 women graduated from Kuwait University - compared to 663 men. Kuwaiti women have yet to win the right to vote.

Two generations have seen an explosion in jobs for women across the Gulf. The proportion of working women has soared to 12 per cent in Bahrain, 9 per...

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