A Review of Gulf Women Book

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Gulf women is edited by Amira Sonbol, an Egyptian professor at George Town university, Qatar. The book has 384 pages and was published in 2012 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. It consists of an introduction and fourteen essays that discuss the history of the Arab region and the Gulf besides, the situation of women. The book is divided into 4 periods: ancient history, mediaeval, early modern and contemporary era. A summary of the bookThe first two pages of the book was introduced by HH Sheikha Moza Bint Naser. She wonders why there are very limited resources about women’s role in the Gulf Region. She stated that “I was shocked about how little evidence there was regarding the role of our women in history. My conclusion led me to believe that there had been an attempt from the patriarchal societies to protect women from the colonial fantasies.

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This protection took the form of erasure, and it was a high price to pay for the women. The available information about women is found in the records of missionaries, western travelers records, oral histories, archival material, and court records. Missionaries came to the Gulf to convert its population to Christianity. While doing educational and religious work, they built an image of the backwardness of women that they could sell in the west to gain greater support. Their perception of the women is a result of the cases they encounter and not based on a real knowledge of the Gulf society”.

The introduction of the book was written by Amira Sonbol and titled: Researching the Gulf. In it, she emphasizes that women play a very important role in the advancement of the Gulf countries. Women were actively present in Arabia before Islam and at the time of prophet Muhammad (PBUH). However, researchers don’t have enough material about the medieval period. Womanless Gulf in contemporary pictures (wedding, cermonies) is a sign of the growth of a new elitism and the construction of cultural differences rather than a sign of historical continuity as Sonbol clarifies (p. 1-24). The first essay: Women in eastern Arabia is written by Hatoon Al-Fassi; a Saudi academic and activist who is in prison now. Al-Fasi concludes that women in eastern Arabia had a distinctive character that was particular to that region. The women periphery psychology, isolation from the political decisions and their contact with the outside world from ancient times have formed the identity of the eastern Arabian women (p. 25-47).

Tribalism, tribal feuds and the social status of women is the second essay written by Allen Fromhezer. It proposes that the position of women as symbolic bearers of honor in pre-Islamic Arab tribal society, including many of the Gulf tribes mentioned in the Naqa’ad of Jarir and al-Farazdaq can be partially explained by the tribal feud. The essay shows that the poetic accusations of gender trouble explained how tribal feuds, whether waged by the sword or by the poet’s voice had an impact on the construction of male and female roles in Arab society in a way that was contrary to Quranic norms, which convicted the feud and the slanderous use of poetry (p. 48-68). Women and politics in late Jahili and early Islamic Arabia are a product of Barbara Stowasser.

In it, Stowasser emphasizes that there is a long tradition of women as political actors in Arabian culture. Prophet Muhammad incorporated this tradition and welcomed women as full participants in the politics and military affairs. A great example is Aisha; the Prophet’s wife who participated in the battle of the camel and was an advisor for the Prophet and other caliphs (p. 69-103). Love discourse in Hijazi society under the Umayyads is written by Amira El-Zein. She illustrates that the examination of Arab sources shows differences between writers about gender interaction. Some authors claim that women and men sat together when listening to a discussion of poetry, while others believe that a curtain separated them (p. 104-124).

In nomadic history: Women’s poetry, Moneera Al-Ghadeer confirms that women’s poetry narrates warfare, heroism and courage of their tribe. They offer tales that provide the lost past and a critical perspective on conflict and hegemonic history, while including a different understanding of the self in relation to the noble warrior ancestors (p. 125-146). Women and economy by Hoda El Saadi stress out that women participated in the economic activities and in earning their living. They also had a share in ownership, administration, and endowments (p. 147-166).

In a labor of love: Midwives, Hiba Abugideiri illustrates the need for new analytical approaches to Arab female labor, especially within tribal societies, that emphasize the social value of work. These midwives helped develop the modern societies of the Gulf through their roles as medical professionals (p. 167-199). Omaima Abou baker in her chapter about women’s religious activities claims that Arab Muslim women had a public performance role in gender-mixed environments contrary to the modern era, where there is a strict gender role division and seclusion (p. 201-221). Women and education by Ramadan AL-Khouli discusses the fatwa on educating girls that was issued by Shaykh Muhammad bin Mani’. This fatwa ended the debate about girl’s education by allowing them to learn and consider it a duty. Following it, the Gulf states have built schools for girls and this was the beginning of non-mix education in the region (p. 222-240).

In her chapter about women of the Gulf during the first half of the twentieth century, Fatima Al-Sayegh talks about missionary. She explains that their services were one of the factors of positive change in the life of Gulf women. Women missionaries brought a way of life and a value system to the lives of Gulf women through education, work and discipline (p. 241-276). Some considerations on the family in the Arabian Peninsula in the late Ottoman the 11th essay in the book. Soraya Altorki clarifies that women were considered inferior to men, while they also had a large degree of autonomy from men regarding decisions directly affecting their lives (p. 277-309). Amira Sonbol goes back now to write the twelfth chapter of her book under the title of: The family in the Gulf history. She explains that the structure and the relation between the family members have changed.

The legal systems by which Muslims live today are the result of a hybridity between Islamic principles and the modern laws (p. 309-342). Gender rights and the Islamic legal tradition is the thirteenth chapter which is edited by Ziba Mir-Hosseini. She emphasizes that legal systems and jurisprudence must be understood in the cultural, political and social contexts in which they operate. Jurisprudence reacts to social practices, political, economic, and ideological forces and people’s experiences and expectations (p. 343-366). The last chapter is called: Gulf women and the codification of Muslim family law by Lynn Welchman. It provides an examination of the processes and outcomes of family law codification in UAE, Qatar and Bahrain. The declaration of these family law codes is a significant development in family law codification in the Arab region. (p. 367-406).


This profound scholarly project is accomplished by 14 multinational authors. Some of them are from the Arab and the Gulf region; while others are foreigners. This diversity gave the work a special taste and value. In this volume, we see the perspective of different experts on women issues in the Gulf area. The book covers an abundance of topics that tackle the social, economic, political and psychological aspects of Gulf’s women’s lives. It clearly shows that women had an active role in the Arabian Peninsula until the recent decades which witnessed restrictions on women due to political and economic reasons. Under the tribal and patriarchal rule, women are deprived of many rights that are given to them by Islam.

However, many authors are very optimistic that women are gaining back these rights with the support of their governments and under pressure from the international society. I believe the book in general is objective in addressing the women’s issues in the Gulf. The authors expressed their opinions freely which in this region of the world is something risky. Although I expected some non-Muslims writers to criticize the Muslim position on women, I found the opposite. For example, Fromhezer and Strowasser defended Prophet Muhammad and the Quran by saying that they supported women and elevated their status. On the other hand, Sonbol and Al-Fasi have more radical viewpoints and believe that the Quran gives superiority for men over women. I recommend this book for any researcher who wants to learn about the history and the challenges of the Arab and Muslim women in the Gulf region. It is a thorough work that requires time and patience to read and comprehends the valuable information and analysis that are being introduced in this book. It also helps the reader to understand the Islamic civilization and how the identity of the Muslims are shaped. One should be careful though, that the opinions expressed in this volume could be subjective in some cases. This is an anthropological work and avoiding being biased is easier said than done. It’s true that the authors rely on the oral and written heritage of the Gulf people in addition to their observations, but their interpretations of these material could be biased in one way or another.

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