A few weeks ago, I was discussing with a friend in London the BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour Power List 2013, which ranks the 100 most powerful women in the UK. Queen Elizabeth II topped this power list, followed by other prominent personalities in different spheres. “So what makes a woman powerful?,” I asked. My friend replied: “Well, I assume she must have a strong personality and some kind of influence or authority… She may also be a source of inspiration to other women or a role model.”
Then she asked me: “How about you? Do you have powerful women in your region?” “Of course,” I replied, “we also have a woman’s power list. There are many Arab women who are influential and powerful and they are acknowledged for their achievements.”
And this reminds me of all those remarkable Arab women who have been successful in their jobs and prominent in their spheres, and who made significant accomplishments. And those who were fruitful in introducing positive changes to their society and those who made a difference to the way they and others live their lives.
Arab women are not only smart, ambitious, and determined but today, more than ever before, they also hold power in their hands. Names flash through my mind; names such as Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of Trade, Lubna Olayan, Saudi businesswoman, Zaha Hadid, Iraqi architect, Sheikha Maha Mansour Salman Jasim Al Thani, Qatar’s first female judge, Tawakkul Karman, Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and many more.
Back in Riyadh I met two women university professors and asked their opinion on powerful women. Jawhara said: “For years, we have been stereotyped as weak, submissive, and dependent on men. We have been labelled as vulnerable and powerless, lacking leadership qualities. And men have always been considered as more powerful, more capable and more competent.”
She continued: “But today you can hear many female voices rising in the Arab region. Women are not afraid and dare to speak their mind and act accordingly. They are shaping and remodeling their traditional societies into a more flexible one.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “It seems clear that today the rules of the gender game are changing swiftly, breaking the traditional domestic barriers of our patriarchal society and wiping out gender stereotypes and bias.”
Haifa, the second professor, argued: “We are powerful and proud because of our vital role as mothers carrying the true love of a mother for her child and as educators of future generations:”
But is that all? She went on: “I feel that we are stronger in our character than before, we are better educated and more confident in ourselves, sharper in our decisions, bolder in our actions, and more assertive in realising our potential.”
Over the past decades, key changes and developments have positively affected the status of women in the Arab region. These developments are bridging gender disparities and breaking new ground in the educational, social, economic, and political fields. Education in particular has been the most powerful tool for women’s empowerment and a major catalyst for economic and social change. The number of female students has increased at all educational stages in Arab countries and the number of young women enrolling at all levels of higher education has even overtaken the number of male enrollments.
In the labour force, women’s participation is now greater, although it is still limited in some countries of the region. Arab women are reaching positions that were previously judged to be beyond their capabilities. They hold professional and managerial decision-making positions as well as prominent government roles. Arab women are also becoming entrepreneurs, starting their own businesses, and excelling in business and economy. By achieving results and attaining top merits and awards, their competencies are emerging as equal to men’s.
It has often been said that behind every successful man there stands a woman. Nowadays, we can also reverse this old saying. Let us not forget that powerful women exist because powerful men inspire them, support them, promote them, and help to pave their way. A woman strongly needs the support of the men in her life, be it her father, brother, husband, or mentor, to nurture her talent and to become successful. Unhindered by cultural constraints, men and women have to help and cooperate with each other, learn from and teach each other, complementing each other.
Today, powerful Arab women represent a force in their countries, preparing the ground for future generations. Each one of those women has worked hard to become a champion in her own field and a winner in her country. With ambition and determination they seek endless horizons and successful achievements. Never mind about where they rank on the power list: there is no limit to their accomplishments to make each one of them a Number One.
Dr Mona AlMunajjed is a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues. (firstname.lastname@example.org)