Is equality between men and women at all possible in the Arab Gulf states? What is it that decides whether and to what level women can participate in business? Is it possible for women to reach management levels? There is not set answer to any of these questions. A more nuanced approach is required.
Different interpretations of the Koran
Let us take a look at the Koran for an example. In the Scriptures we come across interesting passages which according to the Prophet Mohammed say that women are allowed to educate themselves and to work, and even that they should. Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed, was, for example, a respected merchant woman.
Muslim women are not barred from professional work by any passage in the Koran, but by regional traditions and insufficient education. Unfortunately, in several Islamic countries, having a profession remains a privilege reserved only for men.
Consider, too, that men are the ones interpreting these passages. So, when it is said, “in the Koran is written…” keep in mind that the Koran is interpreted by men and often in a very patriarchal way. The political system, in which a scholar is living, adds an extra layer of complexity to these interpretations.
Differing interpretations of the Sharia
The interpretation of the Sharia, the Islamic law, can be very different as well, and so can have totally different consequences. While Saudi Arabian interpretation of one specific passage in the Sharia law has long banned women from driving, the interpretation of the same text has been quite different in Sharja in the United Arab Emirates.
Islamic women’s movement
Recently women’s movements have been forming in the Islamic world that are focused on such Koranic passages. They seek to prove that according to the Scriptures women are not second class and not regarded as subjects, but rather as partners on the same level supporting men.
Differentiated ways of thinking
All in all, the different understanding of hierarchies and gender roles in Arab Gulf states cannot be attributed to one definitive source or even attributed to Islam.
On the one hand there are hierarchical structures and behavior patterns that are passed down from generation to generation due to tradition and lack of education. On the other hand there is the Koran, which describes humans as all being equal before God, and Paradise and Hell are also open for all alike. However, that is reduced to a relative equality by patriarchal interpretation of Koranic verses.
Rights and duties are predominantly interpreted such that the woman is bound to home and to obedience. The man, on the other hand, is responsible for leaving his home and taking care of his wife and children. In addition, a man has the right to discipline his wife if she does not obey him.
Strategies of action
What conclusions can you draw from all of this to best deal with business partners in the Gulf Arab world?
To begin with, you should educate yourself about the extent of equality between men and women and the understanding of hierarchy in general in the Gulf Arab country you are visiting.
You may ask, are women accepted there in business life or not? While that is not the case in Saudi Arabia, in other countries women are integrated into everyday professional life. At a trade fair in Saudi Arabia women may not even serve customers.
If you would like to put a woman into a lead, decision-making role in a Gulf Arab country, it is helpful if you make it clear to the staff there how valuable the woman concerned is for the business, and underline the her merits as an asset to the firm. That should help to guarantee acceptance of a woman in a leading position.
Of course, the woman you have chosen for the responsible position should be seasoned and have a strong, mature personality. A young woman would have a difficult time being accepted in a leading role.
And the hijab?
Keep in mind while doing business in the Arab Gulf states that women who wear a hijab (headscarf) do that in order to move freely in public spaces. That can to some extent be compared with how European women in business life dress conservatively to be accepted and respected instead of being seen as sex objects. Wearing the hijab in Gulf Arab countries does not mean conforming or even submitting oneself. A culture cannot easily be turned on its head. So, women will obey its rules for their own benefit, and to achieve their goals in a skillful, diplomatic manner.