Every part of the world has seen changes in women’s social status at different times in history. The authoritarian male–female relationship, which entails men viewing women as their property, once existed in Europe. Not that long ago, women in Europe gained the right to vote—and we can say the same thing about China prior to the Cultural Revolution. In the Arab world, we all know that women in general went through similar stages with regards to the right to education and work. Therefore, women in the Gulf are no different from their sisters elsewhere, apart from the delay in giving them their rights and reforming the patriarchal relationships between men and women. For decades, Gulf societies—and this varies from one Gulf state to another—have been fiercely fighting for women to receive no more than basic schooling.
Due to the influences of both globalization and mass communication, we have shifted to a new lifestyle where it is no longer possible to prevent change. Therefore, it is no longer possible to use terms like “Westernization” or to speak of ways to counteract that Western trend, as they both belong to the period of history where it was possible to control the scale of mutual influence among people around the world. Today, we find ourselves face-to-face with a new generation of women—women who are open to the world and who constantly draw comparisons between lifestyles in the Arab world and the West, thanks to the media and their experiences of studying abroad.
Tens of thousands of female students are learning what independence means, due to the several years they spend studying in the West. Young people, both men and women, have become responsible for building their personalities and giving a special meaning to their lives. This new self-regard is crucial to forming their hopes for the future, and it cannot be ignored simply because it is a cultural trait, especially in an open world such as ours today.
Those monitoring the language of women on social networks right now will notice a tone indicative of suppressed anger that results from the difference between their own sense of self and their position in the current social system. Their anger largely wells up from the need to recognize the individuality of women in the world we live in today, whether we like it or not. This individuality is being violated in several ways. Women are viewed as a burden on men in many dealings with the government. They are unable to move around the cities in which they live unaccompanied by a man due to a lack of public transportation or restrictions on women driving cars. They sign up to a broken system of marriage—broken because of the values on which it was established and its authoritarian nature. And that is not to mention other issues, including divorce and child custody.
We need to reconsider some concepts of Islamic jurisprudence, keeping in mind the human dignity that has been endorsed by all religions.
Some members of our societies have already objected to changes made in the status of women, such as allowing them to be educated and awarding them scholarships to study abroad. These detractors base their arguments on exaggerated assumptions and fears aimed at undermining key human rights. And after these changes have been made, their assumptions have been shown to be mere exaggerations—exaggerations made at the expense of a large part of society.
It is high time we moved forward with bringing about change, in order to live up to the aspirations of this promising generation of Gulf women.