Arab women are not new to being typecasted. For most they are "burqa clad imprisoned women with little say inside or outside the home". This constant stereotyping leaves many people in the Middle East, both men and women, confused and bewildered as to why critics around the world, especially in the West, think so lowly of Arab women. Such pigeonholing remains strong and much needs to be done to present the true picture.
GCC women are playing a positive role in shaping a more tolerant attitude towards Arab women. Since the rapid progress of GCC countries due to the oil boom, their women have been fast engaging in all aspects of society, and thereby challenging stereotypes that continue to haunt them.
Contrary to the popular perception that Arab women are 'not that educated', GCC women are in fact one of the most educated in the world. The literacy rate among GCC women can be compared to that of BRIC countries, except India, which is much lower. Saudi Arabia, where the cultural environment is said to be very conservative, boasted a 97 % literacy rate among female youth (15-24) in 2010, according to the World Bank. In Bahrain, it stood at an impressive 100% for the same year. The literacy rate among female youth in Kuwait stood at 99 % (2008), Oman at 98% (2008), Qatar at 98% (2010) and UAE at 97% (2005) according to the World Bank.
These impressive figures were not attained overnight. Various government policies and private efforts went into promoting female education, all of which are gradually paying off. Just two years ago, Princess Noura bint Abdul Rahman University for Women was established in Saudi Arabia, which today proudly stands as the world's largest women-only university. It is interesting to note that Bahrain, way back in 1928, became the first Gulf State to introduce education for women. But Oman is not behind either. Dr Nora N. Alnahedh of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), says Oman is the 'regional pioneer for women's rights'. Facts and ground realities back her opinion. About four decades ago, not a single girl in Oman was enrolled in school. But thanks to the far-reaching policies of Sultan Qaboos's government, 55% of Omani women in the age group 25-29 completed tertiary education by the year 2000, a feat similar to that of South Korea and Singapore.
Qatar, another Gulf state, has left the UK much behind in women education. The Independent last year reported that Qatar was the best place in the world for a woman to go to university. The UK was ranked at 38th.
Despite all this, critics say that most of these women's education goes untapped because of low participation rate in the work force. But the situation is rapidly changing for the better. According to a report published by the International Labour Organization(ILO),women participation in the labour market in 2010 stood at 17.4% in Saudi Arabia, 28% in Oman, 39.2% in Bahrain, 43.3% in Kuwait, 43.7% in the UAE and 52.1% in Qatar. However, it is a matter of time before most, if not all, of educated Arab women will make a direct contribution to the economy.
The GCC countries are also replete with examples of women who are holding top positions and are a great source of inspiration. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi is the first woman Minister of Foreign Trade in the UAE. She was also selected as the most powerful woman of the Arab World by Forbes magazine. Lama Al Sulaiman is the first woman Deputy Chairperson of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Faten Al Naqeeb of Kuwait is one of the most respected lawyers of the Gulf region. Sheikha Maha Al Thani became the first female judge of Qatar in 2010.
Oman has also produced some of the most successful businesswomen in the region. Areej and Lujiana Mohsin Al Darwish managed one of Oman's top conglomerates, which was founded by their father Mohsin Haider Darwish. Assila Zaher Al Harthy is the CEO of Group 6, a private equity firm in Oman. Earlier, Ms Harthy also headed the corporate affairs department of Oman Oil Company, which is of great significance to the Oman economy. The list goes on.
However, it cannot be denied that in comparison to the impressive female education status of GCC countries, women still have a long way to go when it comes to employment. But, according to a recent report published by Kuwait Financial Centre (Markaz), GCC high net-worth women possess 20% of the total wealth in the Gulf region, above their Japanese counterparts who control only 14% of the wealth. MEED, a Middle East business magazine, estimates the wealth possessed by Gulf women to be at $385 billion.
Many measures are also being taken up by governments of GCC countries to make women economically productive. A 5 year plan has been initiated by the UAE to develop female leadership qualities. Both Kuwait and Qatar have established business forums to assist businesswomen make maximum contribution to the economy.
Political participation is crucial to women empowerment and GCC countries are leaving no stone unturned to increase the participation of women in politics. In 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took a historic step towards women's empowerment by issuing a decree which permitted Saudi Arabian women to participate in polls as both voters and candidates, and become members of Shoura and municipal councils. With the GCC countries making way for women participation in politics, female ministers have emerged.
GCC women are not confined to the four walls of their homes but are actively involved in the social, political, cultural and economic aspects of their respective societies. However, it is disheartening to see that mainstream media continues to focus on headscarves, burqas and abayas while downplaying their progress and achievements. It is crucial that media bias against Arab women is dealt with sooner than later, as it is only fuelling the hatred against Muslims widely prevalent today. Shireen Abu Aqleh, Jerusalem correspondent for Al Jazeera says: "There is a need to make more efforts from both sides to understand each other. Maybe a lot of you feel there is a need for change in the Arab World, but also there is a need for change in the West and the way (Westerners) understand Arabs."
In the end, it is important to note that, like women all over the world, Arab women face their share of struggles too, but Arab women are arguably one of the worst victims of stereotypes. In this time of misunderstandings and rigidity, GCC women are undeniably emerging as face-savers and great sources of inspiration.