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Women in the Gulf Countries: Transformation Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 20th, 2020


The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) is made up of six countries in the Arabian Gulf. The six countries are “Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arabs Emirates (UAE), Oman and Bahrain” (Al-Nasr 2011, p. 43). The GCC countries are similar in their use of the Arabic language, their Islamic region, their culture, and their Islamic civilization. Additionally, all six countries have massive oil wealth.

Historically, women in the GCC have suffered gender imbalances, partly because of the predominant Islamic religion, which is perceived as requiring subservience of women. Dominant patriarchal practices have always treated women as being in a lower social position compared to men. This paper investigates the GCC women and their experience in transformation, especially as more of them gain an education and get into employment. The paper argues that the transformation is not complete because, although women are better educated, their rights and freedoms are still limited in areas such as access to employment, freedom to travel within and outside their countries, and/or freedom to choose which university degree courses to pursue.

Problem statement

While the transformation in the GCC countries has been widely discussed in literature, the experience of women in the transformation is still an under-researched issue. Yet, it would be expected that being the beneficiaries of positive transformations in their societies, women in the GCC would either have positive or negative experiences depending on whether they like and enjoy the new developments in their respective countries.


This research paper will adopt a qualitative approach of study, where data will be obtained through a review of existing literature. Literature sources will include peer reviewed journals, books, internet-based articles and newspaper or magazine articles. The literature sources will be reviewed for validity, with the internet sources required to have authorship information and a date of publication. The analysis will be based on information obtained from the literature sources.

Literature review

GCC women born before the 1950s were widely an illiterate generation (Al-Nasr 2011). Additionally, they were subjected to inferior family duties that denied them a chance to become independent women, who would make other contributions in the society away from the family-tending roles. Women who were born from the 1950s to the 1960s have, however, been subject to increasing personal and civil rights (Al-Nasr 2011).

They were born at a time when the GCC countries were recognizing the important role that the woman can play as a professional, especially considering that most GCC countries had indicated a desire to develop home-based talent in an effort to stop importing workers. Before progressing with this research, however, it is worth noting that women cannot be indicated as having equal rights as their male counterparts if in some countries (e.g. Qatar and Saudi Arabia) women cannot drive. Additionally, KSA demands that women have male guardianship while travelling within the country and abroad. In Qatar, women are required to present written permission from a male guardian to travel abroad (Al-Nasr 2011).

Women who drive themselves in Qatar are further required to prove the necessity of driving. Specifically, they must show that they are unable to pay men to drive them. The foregoing notwithstanding, some transformation has been made in GCC countries. In Qatar for example, women were for the first time allowed to vote in the 1999 municipal elections (Bahry & Marr 2005). In Kuwait, women were first allowed to participate in elective politics in 2005 (Al-Nasr 2011).

How the GCC women have handled the transformation in their respective countries remains a matter of literary discourse. Al-Nasr (2011) for example, notes that GCC women are now able to access higher levels of education, leadership positions and entrepreneurial activities. Women participation in entrepreneurship has specifically been cited as one of the main reasons they are increasingly forming business associations. The foregoing means that women in the GCC countries are becoming more experienced in market activities such as networking, negotiations and advocacy (Al-Nasr 2011). Still, women are restricted in how much they can do, either in business or in education.

Civil liberties granted to women, coupled with financial capabilities attained from working, and the educational capacities created by different governments in the GCC make women more independent. As a result, they no longer depend on men for financial and social support. Consequently, women are divorcing their husbands at a much higher rate, especially because marriages are considered legal even before the couple meets and/or consummate the marriage. According to Al-Nasr (2011), marriages in countries like Qatar are arranged by relatives of both the prospective bride and groom, and as such, the high rate of divorce may be an indication that women (and men) no longer want their relatives to choose their marriage partners.

Even couples who have lived together are increasingly facing challenges in marriage because there is a conflict between the roles that men expect their women to attend to at home, regardless of whether they are educated, working or earning. Women, on the other hand, find a hard time juggling between domestic and professional responsibilities (Al-Nasr 2011). They also have a hard time reconciling their new found rights with the expectations of predominantly patriarchal societies. Al-Nasr (2011) cites intellectual incompatibility (especially where the woman is more educated than the man) as a main reason for increasing divorces in some GCC countries like Qatar.

Al-Nasr (2011) notes that, women who cannot find satisfactory jobs, prefer to enroll in schools, in an effort to gain more skills and knowledge. Additionally, women who cannot work because of the limitations placed on them by their husbands, usually choose going back to school rather than staying at home. Consequently, the number of women who are graduating from higher institutions of learning is superseding the number of male graduates. The widely learned women population in GCC countries notwithstanding, the number of women who remain unemployed is still large, especially when compared to men (Al-Nasr 2011).

In the GCC countries, there are new developments that surprise the learned women who are yearning for liberation in a predominantly Islamic society. The Misyar type of marriage is one such development that remains a contentious issue in GCC countries and elsewhere among Muslims. Arabi (2001, p. 150) defines the misyar marriage as a form of temporary marriage of a man and a woman for convenience and for purposes of “preventing moral disruption and social disintegration resulting from unbridled sexual drives”. It is argued that the educated modern Islamic woman will potentially travel and may not be able to settle down. It is therefore suggested that women and men can get into marriage contracts, where women can have sexual encounters with a chosen partner in order to alleviate the ‘torture/burdens’ of spinsterhood or divorce (Zakaria 2009).

Men who relate to women in the context of a misyar marriage, on the other hand, get to fulfill their sexual needs without being obligated to the partner as they would a wife. The two parties, however, need to mutually agree on the terms of the misyar marriage. Usually, the man gets sexual benefits, while the woman gets financial benefits and social standing from the man (Zakaria 2009). Clearly, such a marriage is an experience that is arguably liberating for women in the GCC and elsewhere where Islam is practiced.

Some experiences in the transformation that has taken place in GCC countries have, however, presented mixed fortunes for women. Abdelhady and Al Dabbagh (2014, para.7) for example, indicates that there are “contradictions and conflicts of interest among women of different social classes”. For example, conservative women are against the aforementioned misyar type of marriage, arguing that it is tantamount to legalizing prostitution in Islam. Their more ‘liberal’ counterparts, however, argue that women deserve the same privileges as men. In Islam, a man can marry a maximum of four wives. A man who travels can therefore have different wives in the cities that he travels frequently to, yet a woman would be traditionally be required to remain without sexual encounter when unmarried.

Notably, masculine ideologies in the GCC have not been entirely accommodating of developments experienced by women. El-Baz (2003) notes that the GCC is awash with ideologies that prevent the emergence of a women’s movement that would advocate for gender equality among other feminine issues. According to El-Baz (2003), all GCC countries have legal barriers that prevent the formation of social movements that would transform the status of women therein.

In a way, therefore, women experience the liberties that come with the freedoms of getting an education, pursuing careers, and setting up businesses, but are still constrained by some rules and regulations that place them under the supervision and authority of the male gender. UNDP (2006) noted that the transformation is incomplete in GCC countries because women cannot yet participate equally with men in the economic, political and social issues.

Partly, women’s participation in economic issues is because they pursue university courses that are not highly marketable. UNDP (2006, p. 7) for example, notes that women are concentrated “in fields such as literature, the humanities and social sciences … (which) are in less demand by employers”. UNDP (2006) further notes that despite the hardships, women in the GCC countries have done exemplary well in fields such as creative arts, athletics, business, and surprisingly, in science-related fields too. The latter is specifically important to women in the GCC because it shows that, if given a chance, women have the potential to excel in natural and exact sciences despite the barriers they face when trying to penetrate scientific fields. Another area of interest to women is information communication technologies (ICT).

Vodanovich, Urquhart and Shakir (2010, p.3) however, notes that women do not access and use ICT in large numbers as men do. It is argued that ICTs “are designed and created within male-dominated environments and as a result, they do not necessarily correspond to the specific needs of women”. As a result, most women in GCC countries are experiencing a gender digital divide.


From the literature review section, it would appear that women in the GCC countries have had a mixture of good, admirable and not-too-good experiences during the transformation that has granted them more rights and freedoms. On one hand, the GCC governments appear to champion a cause of liberating women through giving them enhanced rights to education, and even social privileges such as the misyar marriages.

The women, it appears, can now access and make use of freer social spaces. Yet, it is also worth noting that women are not completely free. For example, they are not allowed to form social movements that can advocate for women’s issues. Additionally, they still cannot (or at least not in large numbers) access technical courses in universities, and as a result, they pursue degree courses that are not widely marketable. There also appears to be a gender digital divide in relation to women’s access and ICT usage (Vodanovich et al. 2010). Also more concerning is that the rule that requires women to be given permission to travel and/or even attend school by their fathers, husbands and even sons, is still at work in most GCC countries. In some countries like KSA, women can now study, work and even participate in politics, but they are still not allowed to drive.

The effect of the foregoing is that women are experiencing freedom and rights in small doses, and most likely, this could mean that they are left yearning for more. It has also been noted that there expanded rights and freedoms have led to conflicts and contradictions among women (Abdelhady & Al Dabbagh 2014). It however appears that the conflicts and contradictions occur based on the social class that a woman belongs to. Women from higher social classes find the freedoms and rights liberating, while their counterparts from them middle-class are confused. Specifically, the latter are caught between the need to enjoy their new found rights, and the obligation to stick with the traditions where marriage, childbearing, and caring for family members is expected of them.

Eventually, it is likely that women are going to be more determined in agitating for increased freedoms and rights. It has however been argued that women in the GCC countries would not have been able to cope with all the freedom and rights that their counterparts in the west enjoy, had it been granted all at once (Bahry & Marr 2005). While the validity of the foregoing argument can be questioned, it appears that a lot more research needs to be done in order to determine if indeed the ‘small doses’ of freedom and rights are satisfactory for women, or whether they are indeed left yearning for more.


This paper investigates the experience of women in GCC countries during the transformation that has made the countries more accommodating to women’s rights and freedoms. The paper finds out that the experiences are mixed since on hand, there are expanded freedoms, yet those same freedoms are given in small amounts, in a manner that would ideally leave the women yearning for complete independence. The paper further indicates a gap in knowledge, where researchers need to find out if the measured freedoms and rights are satisfactory for women, or whether they feel the need to have more. From this paper, it is rather obvious that women in the GCC will have a complete satisfactory experience if the transformation goes full circle. That can only occur if women can make their own decisions on such matters like travelling, getting an education, driving, and forming or being members of organizations that champion their causes.


Abdelhady, D & Al Dabbagh, M 2014, . Web.

Al-Nasr, T, J 2011, ‘Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) women and misyar marriage: evolution and progress in the Arabian Gulf’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 12, no.3, pp. 43-58. Web.

Arabi, O 2001, Studies in modern Islamic law and jurisprudence, Kluwer Law International, MA. Web.

Bahry, L & Marr, P 2005, ‘Qatar women: a new generation of leaders?’ Middle East Policy, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 104-119. Web.

El-Baz, S 2003, Globalization, Arab women and gender equality. Web.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 2006, The Arab human development report 2005: towards the rise of women in the Arab world, United Nations publications, New York. Web.

Vodanovich, S, Urquhart, C & Shakir, M 2011, ‘Same but different: understanding women’s experience of ICT in the UAE’, The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Counties, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 1-21. Web.

Zakaria, R 2009, ‘Analysis: marriage life’, Daily Times. Web.

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