Women’s Rights Gain Traction in Gulf Arab States, Inequality Persists

Women in the Gulf Arab states are making small but notable gains in their struggle to achieve equality with men, according to a new study from Freedom House. Women’s rights advanced the most in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates over the last five years, but patriarchal laws and social customs continue to foster one of the world’s most restrictive environments for women.

“Women’s activists in the Gulf need support more than ever to transform these gains into real momentum,” said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. “The progress that has been made in several of the Gulf countries is a tribute to the tenacious efforts of women’s activists, who persevere despite a political environment which severely restricts the exercise of fundamental political rights and civil liberties.”

Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Gulf Edition examines the state of women’s rights in the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council from 2004 through 2008. The Middle East Partnership Initiative funded the study. It is the first installment of a larger report covering the entire Middle East and North Africa region.

The study was released at an event headlined by Bahraini Ambassador to the United States, Houda Nonoo, on Wednesday, February 11 at 10 a.m. in Washington. The event at the National Endowment for Democracy (1025 F Street NW, Suite 800) featured experts on Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

The study examines five key areas based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

  • nondiscrimination and access to justice
  • autonomy, security and freedom of the person
  • economic rights and equal opportunity
  • political rights and civic voice
  • social and cultural rights

According to the study’s findings, Bahraini women enjoy the greatest degree of freedom in the Gulf region, followed by women in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman. Saudi Arabia lags significantly behind, with women there among the most restricted in the world.

Women are most likely to be able to exercise their economic and political rights, with more women entering the workforce, graduating from universities and participating in politics. Political rights increased the most for women in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Three countries showed improvement across all five categories: Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

However, systematic discrimination across the region continues to relegate women to subordinate status. Personal status laws, which govern family issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, are a pervasive source of gender-based discrimination in the region. In some countries, women must obtain a male guardian’s approval to marry, to work, and in extreme cases, to undergo mandatory surgery. In addition, domestic violence targeting national women as well as expatriate workers remains a significant problem.

Key Findings by Country


The autonomy, security and freedom of Bahraini women improved with the adoption of the National Action Charter and ratification of the new constitution. Bahrain appointed its first female judge in 2006 and rescinded a law requiring women to gain a male guardian’s approval to obtain a passport. However, women’s access to justice remains low, with personal status laws not codified and judgments in Islamic courts based on individual judges’ interpretations of Shari’a law. In the last year, Bahraini civil society has become more active, while the government and nongovernmental organizations are taking steps to address domestic violence.

Saudi Arabia

The country performs well below its neighbors in all categories, with women segregated, disenfranchised and requiring male approval to travel and access medical care. Gender inequality is built into Saudi Arabia’s governmental and social structures, and is integral to the state-supported interpretation of Islam. Women’s rights improved slightly, with women now allowed to study law, obtain their own identification cards, check into hotels alone and register businesses without first proving that they have hired a male manager.


Women’s activists marked a major victory in 2006 when women voted and ran for the first time in municipal and national elections. Although no female candidates have been elected to parliament, three women received ministerial portfolios and two others became Municipal Council members. More than half of the working age women in Kuwait are in the workforce-a higher percentage than any other country in the region-after a five percent increase from 2003 to 2007. However, women cannot serve as judges or in the military. As elsewhere in the Gulf, they face unequal marital rights and cannot transfer their nationality to children and foreign-born husbands.


Women in Oman are beginning to play more important roles in the upper levels of government, are registering to vote in larger numbers and are increasingly running as parliamentary candidates. However, no women were elected in 2007 and the overall level of political and civic participation remains low. The testimony of men and women in Omani courts is now equal in most situations because of a new law on evidence. If properly implemented, this law would set an important precedent in the region. Despite the advancements, women continue to face significant legal and social obstacles, and are required to obtain the written consent of a male relative before undergoing any kind of surgery.


The government has taken several steps toward promoting equality and addressing discrimination, including adopting the country’s first codified family law and enacting a new constitution in 2004 that specifically prohibited gender-based discrimination. It remains to be seen whether these legal protections will be enforced. As of 2007, women are allowed to apply for their own passports, and in late 2008, they were accepted into the electrical and chemical engineering program at Qatar University for the first time. However, cultural and social norms continue to prevent women from participating in certain professions and taking part in society in representative numbers.

United Arab Emirates

The status of women is improving as the United Arab Emirates seeks to transform itself into a modern, financial hub. Emirati women are entering new professional fields, serving as judges and prosecutors and being appointed to high-profile positions within the government and private sector. More women are joining the workforce and the new codified family law is seen as a step forward. However, the UAE must carry out more reforms at both the government and societal level to achieve true gender equality. Women’s ability to access justice through the courts and combat discrimination remains a concern.

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in the Gulf Arab states since 1972.

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