In many ways, 2022 has not been a bad year for women in the Gulf region. Most recently, many female fans cheered on their favorite teams at the soccer World Cup – live in the stadiums in Qatar.

Yet Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates often continue to discriminate against women as second-class citizens. Discrimination is based on an authoritarian guardianship system that is often not modified or only partially modified, strict laws against so-called “disobedience” and rules to restrict the rights of unmarried women. An overview of the status of women’s rights in the Gulf.

As early as April 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) launched a societal and economic restructuring of the country called “Vision 2030”. Since then, the situation for women has changed significantly – for the better as well as for the worse.

Example: Activists such as Lujain al-Hathloul were imprisoned for three years for campaigning for women’s right to obtain a driver’s license. Nevertheless, their commitment bore fruit: in 2018, the relevant legislation was changed. According to the market research company Statista, more than 175,000 women in the capital Riyadh alone applied for a driver’s license within a year and a half.

Other laws have also been changed since 2018. Women can now apply for a passport without the consent of their male guardians and at least go to the cinema or to pop concerts with friends.

“And yet the system of repression is still in place,” said Lina al-Hathloul, sister of women’s activist Lujain al-Hathloul and head of the communications and monitoring team at London-based human rights organization ALQST.

Because of the male guardianship system, girls and women are still dependent on the consent of their male guardians for most decisions, the activist complained to DW.

If they do not meet the expectations of their guardians – fathers, husbands, brothers or even sons – they could be sent to special homes indefinitely, reports Lina al-Hathloul.

In addition, in three judgments in different cases this year, Saudi courts gave at least a glimpse of major differences in the criminal treatment of men and women.

In January 2022, for example, a court in Medina sentenced the citizen Yasser M., who had verbally molested a woman, to eight months in prison and a fine of the equivalent of 1,265 euros. Yasser M. was one of the first cases to be convicted after Saudi sexual harassment laws were tightened in 2019. But compared to the punishments that Saudi women received for so-called opinion crimes, the punishment for the man officially convicted as a harasser seems rather mild.

In contrast, in August of the same year, a court sentenced 34-year-old doctoral student Salma al-Shehab to a whopping 34 years in prison. Just a month later, a judge even sent another citizen of the country, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, to prison for 45 years. The offense of the two: They had retweeted human rights calls.

“People react to such decisions with fear. They no longer know where the red lines are drawn,” al-Hathloul told DW.

In general, the emancipation efforts of the past four years have not achieved anything close to what Saudi women were really striving for. “We want to live without fear and be able to demand our own rights,” says the women’s rights activist.

“In the past year, Saudi women activists have faced very harsh legal consequences. You don’t see anything similar in the United Arab Emirates (UAE),” Julia Legner, a Berlin-based human rights adviser in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, told DW.

In fact, many activists attest the UAE a comparatively positive balance when it comes to women’s rights: After courts comprehensively revised the legal basis for women’s rights between 2015 and 2021, the UAE are now considered comparatively liberal in terms of women’s social participation, especially among women entrepreneurs.

This year’s Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum even put the UAE in the top spot within the Arab world.

However, according to human rights activist Legner, there are numerous contradictions. “This propaganda for women’s equality stands in stark contrast to the real existing laws, which ensure, for example, that women whose guardians do not want to allow them certain things have no chance of getting out of this situation.”

For example, as the human rights organization Human Rights Watch noted in its 2022 World Report, a woman’s male guardian must sign the marriage contract in order for her to marry. Men can unilaterally divorce their wives. Women, on the other hand, must apply for a court order to obtain a divorce.

In addition, unmarried women who give birth face difficulties in registering the child, since the authorities require a marriage certificate to issue the birth certificate.

In addition, while UAE Nationality Law provides that children born to Emirati men are automatically eligible for UAE citizenship. However, this automatism does not apply to children of Emirati mothers and foreign fathers.

“There were significant and substantial improvements for women in Qatar and the other Gulf monarchies in 2018 and 2019,” Cinzia Bianco, Gulf region expert and guest researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

According to the political scientist, 2022 was relatively women-friendly, especially in the legal sense: some new women’s rights were confirmed, some existing freedoms were expanded.

A World Cup success? At most conditionally, says the expert. Some governments in the region have encouraged citizens to attend the games, for example by issuing tickets for football games. “However, there has been no legislative progress directly related to the World Cup, such as the rights of foreign workers,” Bianco said.

Overall, Qatari women continue to enjoy limited freedoms. For example, they remain dependent on the guardianship system that is still in force when it comes to marriage or job applications. According to a study by Amnesty International, her freedom is only valid as long as her guardian does not object.

At the same time, however, Qatar has become a leader among the Gulf States in terms of female student numbers, closing the gender gap and female labor market participation.

But there is still a lot to do: In the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, Qatar has so far only climbed from 44th place in 2020 to 42nd place in 2021.

Bianco finds it remarkable that the Qatari women, like the Emirati women, have reacted “rather cautiously” to the ongoing protests in neighboring Iran, which began as a protest against the veil requirement. One reason, Bianco surmises, could be the fact that Qatari women have not had to wear a hijab for over 20 years if they don’t want to – even if the expectation of covering their hair and being recognizable as Muslims in a cultural and religious sense has increased be, is unbroken great. Still, women in Qatar can choose to dress according to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam or prefer more Western fashion.

Adapted from the English by Kersten Knipp.

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The original of this article “Women’s rights in the Gulf: Despite reforms, much remains to be done” comes from Deutsche Welle.