"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting for what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote."

- Benjamin Franklin


Exceptional Gulf Women:

From Queen Balqis to Dr. SoaAd Al-Sabah


By Prof. Talaat I. Farag



During my March 2006 visit to Kuwait to attend the First International Kuwait Medical Genetics Conference, I met numerous distinguished Arab and Iranian scientists working together to acquire the precise diagnosis of genetic disorders, for preventive strategies, and for possible cures. Both are convinced that only a few drops of water in the Arabian-Persian Gulf, separate the two great civilizations. Many international non-Muslim scientists were present, sharing their experiences and seeking greater cooperation to have a world free of mutagens, teratogens, carcinogens, genetic disorders, multiple congenital anomalies and mental retardation. I also enjoyed meeting distinguished colleagues from Canada, Germany, India, Japan, Netherlands, Switzerland, UK and the USA

But perhaps the most remarkable observation of the changing Gulf region is the rise of women’s influence in every facet of society. When speaking about Gulf women, a history of prominent figures must be acknowledged, from Queen Balqis and Queen Arwa of Yemen to the Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, who was one day an esteemed judge, anti-shah protestor, and lawyer defending women, children and dissidents. Her recent book is entitled, Iran Awaking from Prison to Peace Prize: One Woman's Struggle at the Crossroads of History (Knopf Canada - 2006). From Bahrain, the first Arab female diplomat Ambassador Haya Rashed al-Khalifa, 53, has been elected president of the UN General Assembly for a one-year term.

Lawyer Shirin Ebadi

Amb. Haya al-Khalifa

Dr. Rasha Al-Sabah

Amb. Nabila Al-Mulla

H.E. Dr. Massouma Al-Mubarak

Engineer Fawzia al-Bahr

Engineer Fatema Al Sabah

Dr. Soaad Al-Sabah

From Kuwait, Dr. Rasha Al-Sabah: Under-Secretary of Higher Education was named International Woman of the Year for 1996-1997 by the International Biographical Center (IBC) in Cambridge, UK since she has exerted most of her efforts in the fields of education, culture, and women's causes. Ambassador Nabila Al-Mulla was appointed as the first female ambassador and is now serving in Austria.  She was formerly a deputy permanent representative of Kuwait at the United Nations. Prof. Fayza Al-Khorafi, a distinguished scholar and accomplished scientist, is the first Arab woman to be appointed Rector of an Arab university - Kuwait University (1993). Prof. Badriya Al-Awadi served as the former dean of the faculty of law at Kuwait University, making her the first female in that post. Journalist Bibi Almarzouk is the first female editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper in Kuwait - "Al-Anbaa." Furthermore, two prominent Kuwaiti engineers, Fatema Al Sabah and Fawzia al-Bahr were the first women to be named to the 16-member municipal council last year. In the previous issue of The Ambassadors Magazine, in an article entitled, "Kuwait Conference Highlights Arab Media Reform" about the Arab-US Association for Communication Educators (AUSACE) conference held in Kuwait held in November 2005, we reported a prominent presence of many Kuwait female journalists and media scholars.

A unique initiative, the Project 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005, intended to promote the awarding of the prestigious award to prominent women from around the world. Thirteen of the women from the Gulf countries were listed among the potential candidates. They are: Sheikha Lulwa Al-Khalifa (Bahrain), Susan Ahmed-Böhme (Iraq), Hero Ahmad (Iraq), Lulwa Al-Qitami (Kuwait), Mudi Al-Essa (Kuwait), Nabeela Al-Mulla (Kuwait), Tiba Al Maoli (Oman), Moza Al-Malki (Qatar), Haifa Jamal Al-Lail (Saudi Arabia), Jowara Al-Angari (Saudi Arabia), Laila Nabih Alnamani (Saudi Arabia), Lubna Al Qasimi (United Arab Emirates) and Raqiya Humeidan (Yemen).


Gulf Women Stereotype & Rights

The true stories about women in the Gulf are starkly different from the images painted by the media. In the past, there was interest in reporting many odd stories from the Gulf including that of a woman that had raised a lion in her home with her children; another story spoke of a woman that abused her Pilipino house-workers; another who married a man who was 60 years older than herself in order to acquire his wealth; and another story about a Saudi TV presenter who was disfigured by her husband's beatings and decided not to press charges upon her release from hospital. Some Western reporters have refereed to Arab women with five stereotypical B's - "Barbaric, Bedouins, Belly-dancers, Billionaires, and Bombers!!"

During my first visit to Kuwait 40 years ago for the Pan-Arab Medical Conference, which was held in Shuwaikh Secondary School, before the birth of Kuwait University, I recall how the Kuwaiti women waited for their husbands, fathers, and sons to return from long sea trading, fishing or pearl-diving trips. It is also unforgettable, that after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990, the first demonstration against Saddam Hussein's occupation in 1990-91 was composed of only Kuwaiti women. After playing a front-line role in the resistance to the Iraqi occupation, Kuwait women won the support of the country's ruler at the time, Emir Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, and the respect of all Kuwaitis. Following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the petroleum engineer, Sara Akbar, made a remarkable and unforgettable effort in extinguishing the oilfield fires which were set ablaze by Saddam’s force prior to their withdrawal from Kuwait.

Over the past seven decades, the Kuwaiti government's has emphasized education for children of both males and females. In 1937, the first girl's school was established in Kuwait, and 20 years later, some of them were sent on scholarships to pursue their university studies in Egypt, Lebanon, UK and the USA. In 1966, Kuwait University was established, allowing many Kuwaiti girls to enrol in its 13 colleges studying medicine, art, science, law, sociology, psychology, engineering, education, pharmacy, dentistry, and others. By the early 1980's for example, over 4,000 Kuwaiti women held university degrees, compared to only 38 in 1965, with a drastic increase in the participation rate of women in the workplace. Women are represented now in virtually every professional category, holding prominent positions such as ambassador, President of Kuwait University, and Under-Secretary of Higher Education. Today, in Kuwait, the tiny oil-rich country, the women succeeded to climb the ladder of success in all disciplines. In a period spanning half a century, the community moved from a nomadic lifestyle, to urbanization, regionalism, and now looking to the world within the framework of globalization.

On May 16, 2005, the Kuwaiti parliament accepted granting women their political rights (35 in favour, 23 in opposition) to vote and seek nomination, after many failed attempts to do so since 1971. Until last year, women - who make up 58% of the population - could not vote or run in elections. With this, females who constitute nearly half of the eligible voters, fielded 28 nominees in the most recent parliamentary elections of July 2006. They ran for 50 of 253 seats in parliament. This development raises the possibility they could dramatically reshape the tiny oil sheikdom's political future.

A day after women gained their political rights, the prominent Kuwaiti poet, Dr. Soaad Al-Sabah wrote a beautiful poem entitled, "For the Kuwaiti Woman in her Victory" which will definitely be included in respected Abdelaziz Al-Babteen's Poetry Encyclopaedia.

In last June's parliamentary elections, more than 20 women nominated themselves to be part of the 50-member council. Parliamentary candidate Fatma al-Abdali talks to men in a diwaniya (social congregations). The sight of Kuwaiti women competing for the first time in a general election shattered both stereotypes and social taboos and campaigning in the uncharted territory of the all-male 'diwaniya', the Gulf Arab state's version of a gentlemen's club. On the other hand, some female candidates were faced with male roadblocks to their election campaigns. Parliamentary candidate, journalist Aisha al-Rushaida, had her billboard vandalized in Kuwait. Rushaid is one of several female candidates who have received threats or seen their billboards mutilated during the campaign to elect a new 50-seat house to replace the all-male parliament dissolved by the emir last month. A 50-year-old retired male Kuwaiti teacher, noted to Marc MacKinnon of the Globe and Mail newspaper, "men will not allow women in parliament to happen. It's too early for this. Men are men and women are women." However, the sight of a tiny abaya-clad figure lecturing a crowd of 100 men and women on the need of political reform represents a major breakthrough for women's right in a region best known for sometimes harsh gender discrimination. Forty-nine-year-old journalist and environmental engineer, Ms. Fatima Abdali, was another candidate in the Kuwaiti elections. In the photo below, she shares a laugh with a voter who had come to hear her speak.


Photo: Roshan Crasta/Reuters Photo:REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra


Gulf Women and Political Rights

Meanwhile in 2002, Bahrain held its first local elections and women were allowed to stand as candidates and to vote for the first time. In Iran, women can vote, but face other restrictions in other realms. In December 2005, Iraqi men and women voted in the first election with at least 25% members of the new parliament being women. In Oman, women participated for the first time last year in elections for the Consultative Council. In Qatar, the constitution that came into effect in 2005, gave full rights to women, but gains have been slow due to traditional resistance. In the United Arab Emirates, women are classified as wives and mothers, promoting traditional roles rather than independence. And in Yemen, women were able to vote in the 1999 presidential elections, but the main opposition party was barred from fielding a candidate.

Kuwaiti Women Climbing the Ladder of Success

It was disappointing not to find Haya Al-Mughni's book, Women in Kuwait or any other book about the achievements of Gulf women, in the Kuwait airport bookstore, despite the fact that some of these women had become celebrities outside the borders of the Middle East. Meanwhile, The Ambassadors Research Foundation chose to publish some of the presentations and the concluding recommendations from the First International Kuwait Genetics Conference held last March in Kuwait, at which more than 40% of the presentations were delivered by female doctors and scientists including Dr. Laila Bastaki's paper about neonatal metabolic screening, Dr. Makia Marafie's paper about cancer genetic services in Kuwait, and Dr. Sawsan Abulhasan about her one decade experience with F.I.S.H. technique in clinical cytogenetics. A new female medical geneticist, Dr. Amal Al-Wadaani gave a stellar report on a new genetics syndrome, gaining the respect of nine professors during her case report session.

Dr. Roula Dashti

Nabeela al-Anjari

Dr. Maimouna Al-Azbi

Shaikha Al-Nisf

Dr. Badriya Al-Awadi
Novelist Laila Al-Osman

Journalist Aisha Al-Rushaid


Dr. Ali Al-Saif, representative on behalf of HE Sheikh Ahmed Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah, Minister of Health, with Dr. Sadika Al-Awadi and Dr. Leila Bastaki.

Needless to mention, the founder and director of the Kuwait Medical Genetics Centre (KMGC) Dr. Sadika A. Al-Awadi succeeded in organizing this excellent conference. Her husband, H.E. Dr. Abdul Rahman A. Al-Awadi, former Minister of Health in Kuwait, is known for having signed the death certificate of smallpox in a WHO meeting in Geneva. He also signed the birth certificate of the KMGC. in his country. The penta-axial community genetics S.E.T.R.R. model from Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is now considered an internationally respected preventive genetics model. I have to salute, Dr. Shaikha S. Al-Arrayad, the distinguished Bahraini scientist, who succeeded in establishing an excellent genetics centre in her country. She is now serving as the head of the Genetics Department at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the founder of the first genetics clinic in 1984, the Bahrain Hereditary Anaemia Society in 1991, the National Committee for Prevention of Genetic Diseases in Bahrain in 1992, and is acknowledged for overseeing the screening program of all pregnant women in 1993. By 2001, premarital counselling became mandatory in her country. Dr. Shaikha Al-Arrayad is a dreamer like Dr. Sadika Al-Awadi, both wishing to completely eliminate hereditary anaemias in their countries, similar to what had recently been done successfully in Cyprus. In October 2003, the First Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Genetics Conference was held in Bahrain under the patronage of H.H. Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, wife of H.M. the King. Dr. Shaikha S. Al-Arrayad served as the President of the organizing committee of this conference. The Bahrain Genetics Gulf Conference took place nearly two years prior to the International Kuwait Genetics Conference.


Dr. Shaikha Al-Arrayad

Prof. Nadia Sakati

Dr. Makia Marafie

Dr. Sawsan Abulhasan

Prof. Aida I. Al-Aqeel

Dr. Hajer Al-Hosani

Prof. Hanan Hamamy

Dr. Anna Rajab


Women Supporting Children with Special Needs

Mrs. Munira Al-MutawaUpon the completion of the Kuwait Genetics Conference, I enjoyed visiting the Kuwait Centre of Autism, which was founded in 1994 with the support of the Ministry of Education, Awqaf Public Foundation and donations from the Kuwaiti people. The director of this centre, Dr. Samira Al-Saad (PhD) is another exceptional Gulf woman, who is exerting a lot of energy with her crew to provide medico-social care to children with autism. This visit was very enjoyable since I witnessed their very unique programs, publications and activities to establish a new centre. It was interesting to meet a young Kuwaiti gentleman with autism, who is now employed at the centre to provide training in the occupational program for children with autism. The achievements of this centre are regularly featured in their magazine and have been recognized in the Gulf region. Next September will be the official opening of the HOPE School for Children with Special Needs (2-5 years of age) in Kuwait with highly qualified and well-trained staff and specialists. The centre will provide students with the developmentally-appropriate environment, experiences, and support services to maximize their potential for success in future schooling, in order to optimize the intellectual, social, emotional and physical development of each child. Needless to mention, the effort of the Higher Council for the Disabled in Kuwait and the effort of its vice-chairman, Mrs. Munira K. Al-Mutawa, who is also the secretary-general of the Kuwait Society of the Handicapped are instrumental in the success of this project.


Four Decades of Progress

On my 14-hour journey on Kuwait Airways returning to Canada, I was seated next to a British officer who was a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War and on his way back home to London following his attendance of a conference. He was amazed with the extraordinary hotels, architecturally-unique buildings, modern vehicles, the very wide streets, the brightly-lit palm trees that line the roads, and seeing the veiled and unveiled women dressed in very expensive, colourful and fashionable clothes. He also noted the restaurants representing many different cultural cuisines and a vastly diverse workforce in Kuwait from a very large number of countries.

Seated alone on the flight from London to Canada, I was reminiscing about my first visit to Kuwait in 1965 and how vastly it compared to my most recent trip. I had clearly witnessed how Kuwaiti women have managed to contribute greatly in modernizing their country through their involvement in all aspects of life. Gulf men are now proud of their successful grand daughters, daughters, sisters, and wives who have achieved this success as a result of the availability of education to them in their countries and abroad. The progress in those four decades is tremendous - a true testament that Gulf women are climbing the ladder of success in all fields. In the first elections where women were allowed to vote and nominate themselves, both Dr. Roula Dashti (receiving 1,540 votes) and Nabeela al-Anjari (receiving 1,056 votes) recorded the most votes of the 28 women candidates and have set the stage for future political successes for women in their young country. From my visits and life in Kuwait over a 40 year period, I can attest that despite not reaching parliamentary positions, the exceptional successes of Gulf and Kuwaiti women have elevated themselves to new heights. The coming years will surely demonstrate that for women of the Gulf, the sky is the limit.



Further Readings

Adel Iskandar. "The Oasis of Frankincense, Gold and Peace." The Ambassadors Magazine..Vol. 3, Issue 2 - July 2000. http://ambassadors.net/archives/issue8/feature.htm

Adel Iskandar "Kuwait Conference Highlights Arab Media Reform," The Ambassadors Magazine, Vol. 9, Issue 1 - January 2006 http://ambassadors.net/archives/issue19/features3.htm

Talaat I. Farag & Ahmed S. Toughan. "Women in Old and Modern Yemen," The Ambassadors Magazine.. Vol. 5, Issue 1 - January 2002. http://ambassadors.net/archives/issue11/Profile_Yemen2.htm

Haya Al-Mughni (1993). Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender. London: Saqi Books.

Mary Ann Tetrault (2000). Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait. New York: Columbia University Press.

Peter C. Valenti (2006). "The New Shape of Kuwait's Election," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. XXV, No.6, page 40-41.

To be continued in the next issue...

Prof. Talaat I. Farag, MD,FRCP,FACP,FACMG is a former adjunct professor at Dalhousie University in Canada. He is the founder of The Ambassadors Research Foundation in 1998. Email: tfarag@dal.ca.