When Arabian Business unveiled its annual Power 500 list of the world’s most influential Arabs in June, perhaps the most conspicuous finding was the number of women featured.
At 104 — the highest ever — the rankings alluded to a gradual shift in a part of the world known for male dominance of many aspects of daily life, from business, to religion, to politics.
The entry of Reem Asaad, whose successful campaign to get women working in Saudi Arabia’s lingerie shops earned her third place on the list, seemed to underscore a new mood of defiance among Arab women.
One regular in the Power 500 is Muna AbuSulayman, who was until recently responsible for spending $100m a year on good causes in her role as head of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation. She is also the first Saudi Arabian female to host a non-state television programme and one of the kingdom’s most prominent commentators on culture, society and gender.
AbuSulayman says she expects to see more Arab females in the upper echelons of power in the coming years, although they will remain a minority for the foreseeable future.
“We’re going to see a lot more women going up to a certain point. But I don’t think [women] will ever make up more than 25 percent of the [Power 500] list, within the next decade,” she believes. “There are still a lot of glass ceilings.”
She says that many of the moves toward gender equality in the Middle East have been cultivated in the Arab countries outside of the Gulf, but in recent years have begun to seep into what has traditionally been the conservative heartland of the region.
“This equality started to come in from the fringes. It was first in Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and now it’s going all the way into the core, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen,” she claims. “This is the change that is seeping in from the outside, and it’s a good change.”
One of the most highly-publicised recent examples of Arab women defying long-entrenched patriarchy is Reem Asaad, whose own activism began after she recognised the nonsensicalness of employing only men to work in the kingdom’s lingerie stores. Through her own social media campaign, she was successful in persuading authorities to enforce legislation stating only females can work lingerie and women’s accessories outlets, creating around 40,000 jobs in the process.
AbuSulayman praises Asaad’s efforts in helping Saudi women get employment, but also recognises the dilemma the Saudi government faces in regard to the kingdom’s conservative, religious establishment.
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