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Date: Thu, 25 Nov 1999 23:39:52 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: RIGHTS-GULF: Women's Rights Debate Defined By Equality and Economics
Article: 82910
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.23806.19991126211553@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Women's Rights Debate Defined By Equality and Economics

By Sanjay Upadhyay, IPS, 25 November 1999

DUBAI, Nov 25 (IPS) - Caught in an economic slowdown, Gulf Arab states are taking slow but significant steps towards encouraging women to help maintain the standard of living enjoyed during the oil-boom years.

However, these efforts have also invited a backlash from the conservative elite. Kuwait's Parliament on Nov. 23 threw out a royal decree granting women the right to vote and run for public office.

This is tragic, for the first time a parliament votes to limit democracy, Rula Dashti, a women's rights activist, told reporters after the vote. But that setback appeared to be temporary. Many supporters of women's enfranchisement voted against the decree saying the measure should have originated from the assembly.

MPs are expected to vote next week on legislation that is identical to the edict issued by Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al- Sabah in May this year.

Stirrings of change have also come from Saudi Arabia, regarded as the most conservative of the Gulf monarchies, where the government this month said it would provide women with their own identity cards.

Women in Saudi Arabia, just like men, have their rights in all areas ... and they have the right to carry their own identity cards and to enjoy their legitimate rights, said Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmed.

He said the documents would be issued as soon as preparations were completed. Saudi women are currently listed on the papers of a male relative, usually the husband or father, although they have no difficulty getting passports to travel abroad.

Among Gulf Arab states, only Qatar has allowed women to vote, in a municipal election in March. The competition of 221 men and six women for a 29-seat Central Municipal Council was a landmark event that was closely watched in the neighbourhood.

No woman won, but the real news was that they made up 44 percent of the 21,992 registered voters. Sultan Qaboos of Oman has publicly advocated a greater role for women in both the public and private sectors.

In the October 1997 elections, the government selected two women to serve on the Consultative Council. In December 1997, the Sultan appointed four women to the 41-member Council of State. Men and women are allowed to vote and run for office but the government chooses the electorate.

The failure of Bahrain's experiment with legislative politics in 1975 has left both sexes without the vote. There are no women in the consultative council appointed by the emir or at the ministerial levels of government.

The majority of women who choose to work in government do so in a support capacity, and only a few have attained senior positions within their respective ministries or agencies.

The United Arab Emirate's (UAE) Federal National Council (FNC), the equivalent of the Omani and Bahraini consultative bodies, also does not include women.

Last year, however, the government announced its intention to appoint a number of women as special observers at the 46- member body. These observers are to learn the procedures of the FNC and some may later be appointed as members.

UAE women already work in the army, and hundreds are employed in education, health, and other government departments. An estimated 5,000 women have enlisted in the army since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and thousands have joined the police.

In another sign of the changing times, business women from the six Gulf Arab states joined their Arab counterparts in a meeting in Lebanon last month to launch the Council of Arab Business Women. The council hopes to draft new strategies helping women to face challenges of the next millennium.

The changing perceptions of the woman's role are being mirrored in different ways.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive but they can now interact with other women on the Internet following a recent government decision establishing local service providers.

Earlier some 40,000 Saudi subscribers dialled long distance calls to the United States, Bahrain or Cyprus to hook on to the Internet. Where they go in cyberspace, however, is still regulated by the government, whose high-speed servers block access to thousands of sites on a rapidly growing blacklist.

For the first time, the Saudi government allowed some 20 women to attend a session of a consultative council that advises the monarchy. Society and the Shura council must benefit from the qualifications and experiences of women, Mohammad bin Jubair, head of the Saudi consultative council, told the Arabic-language daily 'Al-Hayat'.

Leading clerics protested vehemently earlier this year when Crown Prince Abdullah declared that women were a basic part of society whose active role no one whoever they are would be permitted to undermine or marginalise.

Liberals say the decision to issue ID cards to women may not mean very much but is still an important step in the right direction. It will lead to -- who knows -- more women driving, said Khalid Maeena, editor of the 'Arab News'.

But analysts say the real intent of the Saudi government decision is to encourage women to drive the faltering economy. With the kingdom facing high unemployment and widening budget deficits, the government is trying to push through far-reaching reforms.

Saudi women are more highly educated than men are but only about 5 percent of them work. They now own 5 percent of registered businesses and by next year they are expected to make up more than 7 percent of the public-sector workforce.

A top United Nations official last week urged Arab countries to tackle women's rights to help stop population growth in their countries. Atef Khalifa, director of the United Nations Population Fund support team for Arab countries and Europe, said women were the key to family life and needed equal rights and education in order to play their rightful role in society.

Western academics blame traditional prejudices on the poor status of women in the Gulf. Western governments, vocal on pluralism and participatory processes in other parts of the world, generally keep quiet about the need for reform in the Gulf states, preferring to work behind the scenes.

Critics of this policy say Western governments are more interested in keeping open the world's main oil supply route. While many Gulf women acknowledge that incorrect application of Islamic teachings are responsible for their situation, they also note that Arab women have made significant gains in the two countries most demonised in the West -- Iraq and Libya.

Some women's groups fault the current approach to women's development, saying that programmes are confined to lectures or courses on developing skills inside the home.

While such activities might improve a women's situation over the short term, they will not allow her to participate effectively in the development process, Amna Khalifa, a leading UAE women's rights activist said.

Courses on planning, administration, marketing and communication will be needed to help women to make their own decisions and bring about positive change, she said.

With the ruling classes gradually defying traditionalists on women's rights, the debate is bound to become more robust. And the discussions will be framed by issues of gender equality and the Gross National Product.