“In the Gulf, the emancipation of women is a contagious process”

Arnaud Lacheret directs an MBA from Essec at the Arabian Gulf University, in Manama, the capital of the Kingdom of Bahrain. In this context, this non-specialist in the Arab world met women from the Gulf, who had come to train to become executives and managers in the private sector. His long interviews with them gave birth to a book published in November: Women are the future of the Gulf. What Arab Modernity Says About Us (Le Bord de l’eau, 160 pages, 18 euros).

As a Western teacher, how easy was it to conduct interviews with Gulf women?

At the beginning, I had put a little distance with my students, but, gradually, they came towards me. After a few weeks, I proposed to a Saudi student who works at Aramco [compagnie nationale saoudienne d’hydrocarbures] to have a more structured and recorded conversation. She has accepted. I continued with female staff at the university where I teach. In six months, I had assembled a panel of about 20 women, whose names I changed for security reasons. Those who participated did not ask their family or spouse for permission. The group is made up of students aged 30 to 50, already in the workforce. It has 25% Kuwaiti, 25% Bahraini and 40% Saudi women, the 10% Emirates are among the management staff. There are no Qataries, firstly because they cannot study in Bahrain because of political tensions and they prefer to train in the United States or in Europe, then because their standard of living , higher, does not force them to work.

What background do the women you interviewed come from?

Most are from the upper middle class. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Oman, nationals are in the majority – this is less the case in Kuwait. In these countries, reforms over the past five years have opened up the labor market to women, who were already studying but were not allowed to work outside of health and education. They therefore go to university to enter the company and climb the ranks. They find themselves leading men they weren’t allowed to meet in the street just three years ago.

A student from Bahrain Bayan School, a mixed Arabic-English bilingual school, graduating on June 10, 2020 in Manama.

What are your main findings?

The first is that Islam is far from being an immutable and central pillar of society. I rather observe an “Islam of choice”, which one shapes oneself and which one symbolizes more and more. Thus, polygamy is sacred, it is part of the corpus of religion, so we do not question it, but we can choose not to apply it. Another example, the university asked me not to interrupt classes during prayer times, while keeping the bell that announces them. Also, concerning marriage: young people met without being married, which was unthinkable not long ago. When their parents found out, they chose to follow the traditional process of proposing, instead of locking them in their homes, and everything is back to normal.

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