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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 06:21 GMT
Arab women lift the veil on business
A woman, dressed in an Abaya, votes in Bahrain's election last week
Bahraini women voted for the first time last week

As part of a weekly series on women in business, BBC News Online reports on the feminists of the Arab world and the launch of a new women's organisation.
When Laura Collins announced she would marry a Saudi man, her father extracted one promise from her future husband.

"My father made him swear on his life that he would always allow me to work," she says.

The promise was kept. Ms Collins, an American by birth, now runs a consultancy in Saudi Arabia, helping women to set up their own businesses.

Jordan's First Lady, Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah
Queen Rania helped found the Arab Women's Organisation

Many would identify with her father's trepidation. Arab women swathed in black Abayas are often perceived in the West as victims of oppression.

But, unbeknown to many, there has been a discreet but dramatic shift in Arab attitudes over the last two or three years.

"Now it is very politically correct to address women's issues," says Haifa Fahoum Al Kaylani, chair of the Arab International Women's Forum in London.

"It is like a competition between Arab governments to encourage women to enter business and the political process."

Suffrage and networks

Last week, for the first time ever, the Gulf state of Bahrain allowed women to vote and run for national office.

An poster for parliamentary candidate Faeza al-Zayani during the Bahrain election
Bahraini women are standing for election
Similarly, women's business networks have mushroomed across the Middle East, often with the blessing of Arab first ladies, such as Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt and Queen Rania in Jordan.

At the end of this week, a summit in Amman will launch the Arab Women's Organisation (AWO), under the auspices of the Arab League.

The AWO, which has been approved by 20 Arab countries, will study the conditions for women and aim to harmonise laws across the region.

It is hoped that more progressive countries such as Tunisia and Egypt will encourage Saudi Arabia and other conservative societies to embrace change.

The power of education

The rise of this embryonic women's movement has been partly attributed to investment in education by Arab rulers in the 1970s.

The literacy rate for women in the Arab world has since increased threefold, while school education rates have doubled.

Haifa Fahoum Al Kaylani, founder of the Arab International Women's Forum
Al Kaylani: Girls want to use their education
In Bahrain last year, more university degrees were held by women than men.

"Girls want to have careers," says Ms Al Kaylani.

"There has also been a need for [women to enter the workforce] because of the worsening economic situation in the region," she adds.

Even in Saudi, the government is creating jobs for women as part of a strategy to diversify its economy away from oil.

Women's work

There is still plenty to be done. About half of Arab women remain illiterate and segregation of the sexes in some countries provides inevitable obstacles.

In a previous job setting up the Riyadh branch of Saks Fifth Avenue, Ms Collins' management duties were unusual.

"I supervised men and women, even though they were segregated within the shop. When I went into the men's section to talk to them, I would put on my Abaya."

In a more constraining example, women entrepreneurs in Saudi must employ a male representative to help obtain a business licence.

There is the odd one or two men who don't look at me seriously, but the mood is changing

Mona Al Moayyed
Currently Saudi women make up 50% of the population but only contribute to about 3% of the economy.

"There aren't many available jobs for women in Saudi so women are creating their own opportunities," Ms Collins says of the many who set up their own businesses.

Now, in an unprecedented move, the Saudi government has employed Ms Collins to uncover major barriers faced by business women.

No longer ladies of leisure?

In Bahrain, Mona Yousuf Al Moayyed, the first woman to be elected to the board of the Bahraini Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is one of the region's role models.

She is managing director of a family trading business, called Y.K. Almoayyed & Sons, which experienced 20% growth last year.

Mona Yousuf Al Moayyed, managing director of Y.K. Almoayyed & Sons
Al Moayyed manages 1,000 people
Although she admits that many women from her own background are ladies of leisure, she argues that there are greater opportunities than before.

"Regulations in Bahrain guarantee women's right to work and they treat them as equal to men."

The number of women in Bahrain's labour force increased from just over 5% in 1971 to almost 40% last year.

"There is the odd one or two men who don't look at me seriously, but the mood is changing, I am very optimistic," she says.

A graph to show the amount of women, relative to men, employed in Bahrain's workforce

But don't burn the veil

Despite the thirst for change, many women remain conciliatory to the more conservative elements in their societies.

"You don't gain anything by antagonising," warns Ms Al Kaylani. "You are not there to destroy society. On the contrary you are there to build a better society."

At the same time, they take considerable pride in the progress so far.

"We acknowledge there is more work to be done, but what we have achieved is phenomenal - it is truly a solid rock on which to build further," says Ms Al Kaylani.

It seems behind the Abaya there is more than meets the eye.

Haifa Al Kaylani, Arab International Women's Forum
"The reason for Arab women being held up has certainly not been due to the teachings of Islam"

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See also:

25 Oct 02 | Middle East
20 Oct 02 | South Asia
17 Oct 02 | South Asia
23 Jul 02 | South Asia
10 May 02 | Middle East
01 May 02 | Middle East
08 Mar 02 | South Asia
02 Mar 02 | Europe
17 Feb 02 | Middle East
01 Jan 02 | Europe
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