At colleges and universities throughout the Gulf, women are not only enrolling but graduating in larger numbers, and with more varied degrees, than their male counterparts. In Qatar, for example, the ratio in universities is at an impressive four-to-one in favour of women. This transformation is quite astounding, so much so that it will start to affect the demographic balance in these societies as women look forward to marrying equally educated men, who are slowly becoming a rare commodity.
The tables have turned and it is the woman who is about to expect certain features in a potential spouse. After decades of neglect, even women from conservative backgrounds are being offered opportunities to learn in women-only colleges in the Gulf. In a decade or two, employers in the region will be facing an unprecedented situation. As governments enforce more stringent quotas of nationalised jobs, bosses will have to choose from amid women and a singular male applicant for the same post. Women, being more qualified and, according to various testimonies, harder-working, will be a natural choice.
As men continue to drop out of universities in pursuit of careers that offer immediate compensation with less entry skill requirements, such as the police and the army, women will be in a prime position to access what has been until now men-only domains, such as diplomacy, family businesses and the courts.
In truth, it is not the first time that women in the Gulf are taking charge. The natives of this peninsula can hear stories from their parents and grandparents of a time not so long ago when pearl diving was its “oil” and fishing its bread and butter. As the pearl-diving season would extend from April to September, men would be absent from the households. Women would be in control of not only their own homes but much more. The streets of the coastal towns would be almost empty of men in their third, fourth and fifth decades, which meant that women had to act as vendors, artisans, chefs and craftsmen. Grandparents would take their young girls with them to market, where they would learn how to pick fish, vegetables and other household items. They would learn how to trade and barter.
The young girls would then be sent to a madrasa (now an infamous word, but one that actually translates only as “school”), where they would learn to read and write (many of them courtesy of the state of Kuwait), vital skills that were in much demand and scarce among men. Many of these women would end up raising men of power who would become ministers, rulers, businessmen and decision makers, and whom we see today in official circles and on Fortune lists.
It seems the powers that be have finally recognised the importance of equating women with men in fields that were taboo just a few years ago. Qatar took the first step in appointing a female minister, Bahraini women were pioneers as ambassadors and judges, and the UAE recognised women in the business field.
Even ultraconservative Saudi Arabia has been unable to ignore the role of women in society: two women serve as directors in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the kingdom’s most celebrated film director (even though cinemas are prohibited) is a woman and the popular and forward-thinking monarch has openly remarked on several occasions that the day when women will end up behind the steering wheel is not too far away.
Do not be surprised if one day, as you walk into business offices in the Gulf, you see men working in ensign positions and a woman behind the door that reads “Manager”. Know that this phenomenon has been in the making for many decades; it has been a long journey with many prejudices and much chauvinism, but the day will come as the region transforms into a meritocracy when you will look into the eyes of the lady in a black abaya behind the desk and utter the words: “Yes, boss.”
Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai.
*This article first appeared in The National Newspaper on April 20th 2008