GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
We Don’t Know Where the Boys Have Gone To - Social Change in the Gulf in the Twenty-First Century
Paper Proposal Text :
“We Don’t Know Where the Boys Have Gone To”
--Mahathir bin Muhammad, 2010

My proposed paper explores the serious social and political consequences of the emer-gence of young women (and the concomitant declining position of men) in the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the early twenty-first century. These changes have impacted every aspect of daily life—from the most basic of family decisions to employment to education to mass political demonstrations—and challenge the principles which have guided Gulf societies for dec-ades. They reflect the nexus of historical and socio-economic factors exclusive to the Gulf states along with powerful trends impacting the opportunities available to (and position of ) young men in societies around the world. My paper builds on my extensive research in Southeast Asia as a Fulbright scholar in 2010 and 2011 and my recently-published book (2010), The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam.
My argument has four key components. First, many women in the Gulf states filled im-portant political and economic roles in the past—as recently as the 1930s and 1940s. In the pe-riod before the discovery of oil, they served as teachers, entrepreneurs, religious activists, and political leaders. Some even led men into battle. The emerging position of women in the Gulf today in many ways mirrors their past role in the region.
Second, issues of gender—such as the veil and gender separated schools—are often mis-cast as purely women’s issues when in reality they are part of social systems where both women and men are expected to act modestly. The male dishdasha and the accompanying headgear cov-er nearly as much of the body as women’s garments do and are just as politically significant. One sees similar trends in Muslim Southeast Asian societies, where the male head covering is given a place of enormous importance. Indeed, the prime minister of Malaysia always wears a traditional hat, or songkok, at important state functions, yet his wife always appears unveiled.
Third, women in Gulf societies acquired ever greater socioeconomic power in recent years because they were the only group besides expatriates who were able to fill the positions created by the private sector. Women benefited from the enormous investments made in educa-tion in the Gulf since the 1970s. Since younger women on average are more literate and stay in school longer than their male counterparts, this gap will only widen in the future. As women gain a greater role in Gulf life, they will ironically attain a position that will be much closer to that of their grandmothers than to that of their mothers. In addition, the emergence of Gulf women par-allels the rise of women in many other Muslim (and non-Muslim) societies and offers important insights into the role of gender in the twenty-first century world. While the Gulf states are often portrayed as out of step with global and regional norms, in reality the attainment of men and women in education in the region over the past twenty-five years is consistent with those of young people in Europe, North American, and Southeast Asia.
Fourth, the problem of how to reconcile the desire to utilize educated women effectively within the conservative framework of Gulf society remains an important and troubling question. Issues that make headlines today will look minor in comparison to those issues facing Gulf so-cieties when women emerge as the principal segment of the indigenous population qualified to work in modern economies. Indigenous men show few signs of wishing to compete with them, finding work in occupations that do not require extensive education. In this way, the position of Gulf men resembles that of men in many other societies from North America to Southeast Asia, where men have fallen behind women in educational achievement and employment. There for-mer Prime Minister Mahathir bin Muhammad recently noted that female Malays accounted for two thirds of university enrollment, educated women were having difficulty finding suitable hus-bands, and “we don’t know where the boys have gone to.”
To make matters worse, many Gulf men have gravitated toward antisocial behavior, in-cluding truancy, petty crime, drug abuse, religious extremism, and drifting, a form of car racing in which drivers perform dangerous maneuvers at extremely high speeds. The political move-ments in the Arab Spring that were the most intense in the Gulf – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Eastern Saudi Arabia – galvanized thousands of young men and highlighted their anger at their limited social and economic options. Together, the protests in 2011 and anti-social behavior are sufficiently serious that future gender questions in the region will no longer focus exclusively on women—as they have for years. Instead, they will revolve around how to integrate young men into society and make them productive individuals before they engage in behavior that is danger-ous to themselves and others. The massive spending program Gulf governments implemented in response to the Arab Spring, including initiatives to employ young men, suggest that regional leaders are already aware of this reality.
To support my arguments, I draw on a host of sources: diplomatic correspondence, re-gional newspapers, poetry, movies, television programs, personal interviews, memoirs, World Bank documents, missionary records, web blogs and other Internet-related materials. Of particu-lar interest are Phebe Marr’s reports on Saudi women during the 1960s, the first feature-length Saudi Arabian movie, Keif al-Hal, and my interview with Houda Nonoo, Bahrain’s Ambassador to the United States. She is the first Jew and only second woman to serve as Ambassador from an Arab state to the United States. In addition, I use my Fulbright research over the past year and half on the linkages between Southeast Asian and Gulf Muslims.

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