Women in the Gulf

From March 3-15, Middle East and North Africa Program Team Program Officer Zeina Zaatari, and Program Associate Bessma Mourad traveled to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for a trip to learn about issues facing women in the region and the various movements that are growing; and to introduce individuals and organizations to the work of GFW. While the region is well known for its resources and wealth, very little is directed towards women’s rights work. Our grantmaking in the Gulf region was close to non-existent, except for few grants in Iraq and Yemen. In 2005, we made our first grant to the Bahrain Women’s Society. Since then, we have been networking and researching avenues of learning more about current issues, women’s groups, and ways to do effective grantmaking.

After a long struggle for women’s suffrage in Kuwait, which began in the early 1950’s, women were able to exercise their new right to vote and run for election for the first time in May 2006. Women had a very short window of one month to prepare and run for the emergency elections held in May. Even though no women won, in total 30 women ran for election. During our trip we had the opportunity to meet with two of the candidates, who described the struggles and challenges that they faced while campaigning in a traditionally patriarchal society and where women’s political participation had been severely curtailed for years. While the recently acquired political right was at the forefront of many groups’ agenda, we also learned extensively of the issues facing the bidun community in Kuwait. The bidun, which means “without” in Arabic, are a large population who carry no nationality, and therefore have no access to state programs such as education, health, vaccination for children, most employment and other state resources. In particular, some women’s groups are addressing the rights of Kuwaiti women who marry non-Kuwaitis, and lose many of their rights, as they are unable to pass citizenship on to their husbands or children.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is currently undergoing rapid transformation and growth, as it is becoming a major hub of international business. Most of our discussions with women’s groups, professors, and activists were based around the migrant worker community, as a majority of the population in the country is non-Emirati (approximately 85-90% are foreign workers.) From working in homes, to those working in factories, migrant women face numerous violations to their rights. In one visit to a women’s shelter in Dubai, we learned the wide range of violations facing women; from physical and mental abuse by employers, to absconded women who are now caught in the legal system. The shelter houses 20-30 women, of different backgrounds and religions. Legal and psychological counseling is provided, and new programs for vocational training are being created. Despite the challenges of civil society organizing in the UAE, efforts are being made to support women’s rights, and the need is evermore apparent at this time.


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