Gender Performativity and the Economy | Dabya Al Riffai

Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa. 

The discussion of gender inequality in the workplace is not new. Numerous studies indicate that female employees on average earn less than their male counterparts, and that despite the growing number of women in management, only a few occupy executive positions. Although these statistics offer concrete evidence that a lot remains to be done to overcome the patriarchal structure of the economy, examining them alone does not account for the social processes that engender the economy in the first place.

Our sense of selfhood is produced by the demands power has placed upon our bodies, forcing us to perform in certain ways, as identified in the writings of the gender theorist Judith Butler[1]. We may be born with different body types but these do not dictate our behavioral patterns, nor do they define our place in society or indeed the economy; our coerced performance of gender roles does. Being a man or a woman does not say anything about your truth; it only says that you are a good subject who can perform properly. ‘Proper’ feminine performativity is an interesting paradox; on the one hand, womanhood represents a powerful interiority that holds a primary position in maintaining the nuclear family. At the same time, womanhood represents an interiority that is secondary, dependent and occasionally irrational. This regulated system of contradictory performances is institutionalized through social policies and practices that reinforce gender differences, which is strikingly visible in the economic domain.

The first representation of the feminine has traditionally allocated domestic responsibilities to women exclusively, and dictated that the public sphere becomes the arena where only men are allowed to compete over resources. While social progress has been made to include women in the public sphere as evidenced by the increasing number of workingwomen, society is yet to challenge the authoritative notion that it is only women who are equipped to fulfill domestic responsibilities. Women’s economic inclusion, when not accompanied by the redistribution of these responsibilities reinforces their position as secondary earners, because after all, someone has to keep the house clean and the kids fed. The introduction of social policies aimed at facilitating female enrollment in the marketplace such as paid maternity leaves and the provision of public childcare for working mothers therefore not only institutionalizes feminine performativity, but also makes women less employable in the marketplace due to the higher economic cost of hiring them. This perhaps explains why in Bahrain for example, women constitute approximately half the workforce in the public sector, but only a third of the private sector workforce[2].

Interestingly, even when women overcome the constraints that prevent their access to the workplace, gender inequality persists because of the second, paradoxical representation of the feminine as secondary, dependent and irrational. This representation systematically disadvantages women in the workplace, as it becomes the basis for differential expectations regarding competence, which often translates into actual differences in performance. It starts with the acknowledgement of difference by simply identifying with ‘opposite’ genders, and the performance of acts associated with these identifications. What follows is the assignment of expectations of performance for one’s self and other actors involved in the workplace, which translates into behavioral differences between actors. This leads to men expecting higher task performance for themselves; exercising influence over female colleagues; initiating interactions more than them; and actually outperforming them[3]. A famous field experiment in behavioral economics found that due to these expectations, women perform as well as men when they compete against other women, but they perform significantly worse when competing against men[4]. This indicates that it is not gender itself that defines performance outcomes, but gender representations that we are tricked to believe as spontaneously occurring.

Representing and performing gender in acceptable and expected ways that organize our social life around the poles of gendered being therefore determines our place in the economy. To overcome gender inequality, we should not be asking how to efficiently help women balance their domestic and career responsibilities, but how do we restructure the power dynamics that assign domestic responsibilities to women in the first place by representing the feminine as inherently nurturing and more competent in maintaining the nuclear family. And certainly, we should not be asking why do men outperform women in the economy, but how do we destroy the gender system that presents a coerced and coordinated set of differentiating performances as natural.


[1] Nick Mansfield (2000) Subjectivity: Theories of the Self From Freud to Haraway. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

[2] Central Bank of Bahrain Economic Indicators, 2015

[3] Charles W. Mueller, Munyae Mulinge and Jennifer Glass (2002) Interactional Processes and Gender Workplace Inequalities. Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2

[4] Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesturland (2007). Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?. Gender Differences in Competitiveness. Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol 122 No. 3


Dabya Al Riffai, B.Sc. in Politics and Economics from Queen Mary, University of London.

I Am My Own Guardian: Interview with @MsSaffaa

Interview with the Saudi Cultural Activist @MsSaffaa, Creator of “I Am My Own Guardian” series.

Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa. 

What does it mean for a person to “be their own guardian” in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi women face unique social and political challenges that are different than those faced by women in other Middle East countries. No other government in the world, including Arab and Islamic governments, so severely imposes male guardianship laws on their female population. For me it’s very simple; being my own guardian means having control over my life. It means that my life belongs to me and not a man. It means that I am a human before I am someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, or someone’s sister. It means that I was born a free human, I will remain a free human, and I will die free human. It simply means that I am my own guardian.

What role does your art play in this fight to end male guardianship laws? And how was it received in Saudi?

My art is not meant to convince people or change minds. Art is meant to instigate constructive dialogue about important issues. Most of my work, while deeply personal, is politically and socially motivated. As the title suggests, “I Am My Own Guardian”, reflects a personal position informed by a personal history, which creates an intimate connection to the topic that reinforces the integrity of the work.

Having created this artwork in 2012 to specifically challenge the status quo, I anticipated that it would receive criticism but I never anticipated the bullying, name calling, and threats. From recent dealings with some Twitter users I witnessed an incredibly diverse range of reactions. My work has most certainly made many people uncomfortable but the backlash is not surprising. I lived in Saudi Arabia until I was 19 years old; I studied the Saudi curriculum; and went to King Abdul Aziz University so I understand the supposedly religious and social arguments people have been self-righteously attacking me with, and I do have a deep understanding of how complex and polarized our society can be.

When a Saudi Twitter troll reported me to Saudi authorities for the “crime” of declaring that I am a responsible, free thinking, independent human being who can make my own decisions and do not need my younger brother to act as my “guardian”, he unwittingly exposed my work to his large follower base and it became heavily circulated. As a direct reaction to him trying to silence me I offered one of my works as a royalty-free image to be shared and printed as many times as people wanted. Since then I have received a lot of praise as well as disapproval about that piece in particular. When an artist gets abused and/or bullied for their work it means that the work has succeeded in provoking thought, and sometimes this kind of response validates the work more genuinely than outright praise.

What are your reasons for choosing to dress the women in your art in the (Shumagh), a garment traditionally worn by men?

The (Shumagh) is the most contested and criticized aspect of this artwork. The use of the male head scarf is meant to be an examination of gender roles through the use of fashion in cultural iconography. The (Shumagh) is historically a garment worn as a protection from harsh weather conditions (including sun and sandstorms) in the Arabian Peninsula and other parts of the Arab world. It also gained international recognition when it became a symbol for the Palestinian intifada in the late 1980’s. My fascination with the male headdress dates back to my teenage years when I used to style it and wear it as a hijab inside the house. But many of my viewers have failed to constructively engage with the subversive nature of my work and only focused on the (Shumagh) as a male garment. My use of the (Shumagh) is about challenging culture, tradition, and society. I intended for the female in my work to become an iconic dominant figure and to be in control of her own body, mind and destiny; and empowered, daring the viewer to question her authority. I wanted her to challenge the absurd notion that authority is not compatible with women’s assumed feminine nature and therefore women cannot be in charge of their own lives and require male guardians. It is about moving forward and letting go of trivial and petty practices that favour men over women. While it is symbolic, the use of the (Shumagh) is also open to multiple interpretations, enticing the viewer to question and engage with my ideas. There is no right or wrong way to read a work of art.

Why did you choose stickers and paste-ups as a technique to disseminate your work?

It is mostly about time management. I employ paste ups and stickers to avoid having to stand on the streets of hours to make an artwork. It’s time efficient and allows me to create the work in the comfort of my studio without rushing. I personally enjoy making art in a controlled environment where I have access to all my tools and art supplies. I am also a print maker and I cannot draw freehand, so most of my works are screen prints based on photographs I have taken myself. My paste ups range from small stickers to large 9 meter long murals, and there are a couple of large scale works in the horizon that I am pretty excited about.

Ms Saffaa (4)

What are the challenges facing Saudi society in demanding an end to male guardianship?

One of the most important challenges is combating ignorance. Many are ignorant about the rights of women in Islam and as human beings. Many if not all Islamic texts have been interpreted by men, and some of these so-called religious figures are quite detached from reality and have no understanding or sympathy for the plight of Saudi women. What many religious men do not understand is that the Qur’an recognizes women’s full human agency and absolute dignity. In addition, some Islamic feminists argue that, in some cases, certain verses from the Qur’an are used in isolation and out of their proper context to justify systematic injustices carried out against women, and argue for the importance of taking into account the overall message of the Qur’an when individual verses are examined. Otherwise the literal interpretation can and has been incorrectly manipulated to reinforce female inferiority. Most Islamic feminists have argued that patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an are to be held responsible for such justifications and not the Qur’anic text itself. Islam did not institute patriarchy. Rather, patriarchy was already deeply entrenched in seventh century tribal Arabs’ society when the Qur’an was revealed.

For example, prominent Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, an African-American Muslim, who advocates for justice on the basis of her Muslim faith argues that, despite patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an, Islam is in favour of Muslim women’s full autonomy. In her book Inside the Gender Jihad, she emphasizes the Qur’an’s recurring expression that “Allah does not oppress.” She also deems any interpretation that sees the Qur’an as an oppressive or patriarchal text a misinterpretation. So as a Muslim woman who has experienced first-hand gender-based prejudices wrongly attributed to Islam and the Qur’an, I find myself more inclined to subscribe to Wadud’s Islamic feminist perspective, likening the similarities between her views to my father’s progressive and egalitarian interpretation of Islam.

What do you think are the necessary steps to create the transformation needed for all Saudi citizens to enjoy full and equal rights?

Historically, Saudi society has been resistant to change; any change, whether good or bad. But when change is finally enforced, those who resisted it were the first to reap its benefits, such as the introduction of female education in the 1960’s and later allowing women to study abroad. Many steps are currently being taken in the right direction. The hashtag that emerged over a month ago (#سعوديات_نطالب_بإسقاط_الولاية) was created by a group of passionate, empowered, and fearless Saudi women. These women managed to keep the hashtag trending for over 38 consecutive days. They strategized and mobilized and their voices are now being heard. These women are the instigators of change. In my opinion, the campaign has so far succeeded in escalating the importance of the male guardianship issue to unprecedented levels. Anyone with an internet connection and a Twitter account has had something to say about it. Change is coming whether the public is ready for it or not and whether they agree to it or not, but giving women their rights should not be up to public opinion. It should be enforced by the government.

Ms Saffaa (2)


Ms. Saffaa is a Sydney-based Saudi artist, researcher, and a self-proclaimed cultural activist. She is currently a PHD candidate at the University of Sydney. She employs her own experiences, personal reflections, and artistic expressions as a form of cultural activism in order to enrich the understanding of the plight of Saudi women in Australia and beyond.

The Social Construction of Gender | Mohamed Al Sadadi

Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa. 

Gender as a social construct is the sociological view that gender is not naturally endowed, but rather socially constructed. This view maintains that certain cultural and societal elements interact to create gender roles, which are then prescribed as ideal or apt for individuals belonging to the corresponding gender group.  While some sociologists argue that such roles are exclusively social constructs, others believe that biological factors influence gender roles as well. The term gender was historically adopted to distinguish biological sex and socialized aspects of masculinity and femininity. The social construction of gender is commenced at birth when infants are assigned masculine and feminine names, colors, and gifts. Later, boys are taught to play with “masculine toys” such as cars which girls are expected to play with dolls. During teen years, media outlets such as magazines and television reinforce gender roles instructing teens to behave in a certain manner according to their gender. Generally, women are portrayed as fragile and weak and are constantly expected to be aesthetically pleasing. Men, on the other hand, are portrayed as strong financial providers.

The Need to Belong

The idea of gender as a social construct can be framed within the evolutionary notion of Herd Behavior, which describes how individuals within a certain species can act collectively without any centralized direction, and is a term that can be applied to numerous phenomena ranging from bird flocks to human riots. Having evolved from primates, Homo sapiens are known to be social animals. The need to belong is one of our basic needs, which ranks third in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs following physiological and safety needs. External validation from our friends and families are constantly needed and often sought.  From an evolutionary perspective, the needs of belonging, love and friendship ensure the safety and organization of the herd, which are directly linked to the end goals of survival and reproduction (or gene propagation). Examining different environmental and cultural factors, in light of our need to belong, we can gain insight into how they interact to form gender stereotypes. These factors can vary from: race (the focus of this paper), language, class, sexual orientation, geography, etc.

In her short essay “Where I Come From Is Like This”, Paula Allen argues that “in the West, few images of women form part of the cultural mythos, and these are largely sexually charged”. In contrast, she then describes how differently Native American tribes view women, which offers them more freedom and choices to define themselves without any social contempt influencing their identities. While white women are torn in between the images of “the Madonna” and “the witch/goddess/whore”, American Indians are primarily defined by their tribal identity, yet are not expected to play any specific role. If white women seek to transcend the limited roles prescribed to them, they will experience social alienation. Social alienation acts as a societal deterrent for individuals as it would mean that their need to belong is not met. In this, Paula explains how these two racial groups, which happen to live in the same geographical location, view women and womanhood so differently, however, she does not tackle question of why. From an evolutionary point of view, the answer is quite simple: There are more whites than American Indians.  Whites enjoy the luxury of being a dominant group or herd; while Native Americans constitute a smaller competing minority, but how do population sizes influence gender roles?

Gendered and Racialised Power Dynamics

Members of dominant groups often grow up with a strong sense of security that minorities lack. Peggy Mclntosh, in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, outlines: ”I did not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection” and “ I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial” among other examples of “white privilege”. This sense of security generates strong dominant traits in white males, and leaves the white woman defined in relation to the white man. By contrast, minorities are raised to be more defensive, and are more likely to feel socially isolated or experience discrimination. This isolation creates common interests, within the minority groups, shared by both genders, which bring men and women closer. Hence, a woman that belongs to a minority group would easily identify with her race, while a woman that belongs to a majority would struggle in defining herself as the males in the group establish power over her.

For example, Allen explains that “since the coming of Anglo-Europeans beginning in the fifteenth century, the fragile web of identity that long held tribal people secure has gradually been weakened and torn” which resulted in a situation where “an American Indian woman is primarily defined by her [racial] identity” in relation to the new dominant group. Moreover, McIntosh states that “many of white students in the United States think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see whiteness as a racial identity”. All of these statements point to the dominance of the white racial group, which has been displayed numerous times throughout history in Europe and America (through colonization, slavery, resources wars, etc.), which resulted in the lack of differentiation between gender roles in minority groups.

The Arab Woman

In applying this hypothesis to the Arab world; firstly, we see that in light of the need to belong, one can understand why Arab women are hesitant to break the chains society is tacitly or explicitly imposing upon them. Islamic apologists would argue that the Hijab/Burka is not imposed on women in the Middle East, but is rather a personal choice.  Without delving into the philosophical topic of free will, we can discredit this argument using the Herd Behavior hypothesis. Simply put, Arab women conform to society’s expectations not out of personal choice, but rather out of fear of social alienation. The personal choice argument is an argument deployed in order to make Arab women feel as if they are in control of their own lifestyles, and humans, as self-conscious beings, naturally dismiss notions deflating their sense of control. Furthermore, some Arab liberals would argue that the Arab woman lacks the courage to challenge societal forces, albeit the Arab man faces the same fear. For the sake of impartiality, if we claimed Arab women lack the audacity to wear short skirts if they so choose, we should equally concede that Arab men lack the audacity to wear ear piercing, as well. In both cases, women and men face the same deterrent: the fear of social alienation.

Thus, the Arab woman is not short on bravery, but rather is at the center of oppressive societal forces acting against her autonomy. Arab men do indeed have cultural elements limiting their freedom, yet Arab society is generally more tolerant of instances where men break the norms. Arab women, on the other hand, do not enjoy this luxury.  The Arab man can espouse a woman who failed to win his family’s approval without fear of being disowned and as such is not forced to elope should his lifestyle defy tradition. The Arab man is not seen as an extension to his parents, but rather as an independent entity.  In contrast, the Arab woman is viewed by her father, brother, and husband as a piece of property that needs to be shielded to defend the family’s honor. The Arab woman is expected to wear her unwarranted misfortunes like a scarlet, and consequently has more incentives to conform and avoid alienation.

And at times, the Arab woman identifies with her oppressor and reinforces her own shackles. While this phenomenon is worth exploring in a separate paper, it is worth mentioning its resemblance to the Stockholm syndrome where feelings of affection are felt by victims toward their captors in kidnapping or torture scenarios.

Assessing the Hypothesis

Secondly, we can examine the role of race in creating different gender roles in the Arab world. As an example, Bahrain is small in terms of real estate, but large in terms of demographic complexity. Its population has a Shia’a majority and a Sunni minority. However, unlike the West where the white majority is the dominant group, Sunnis assume power in Bahrain while Shia’as have been marginalized historically. As such can the dominant group-minority hypothesis be applied to Bahrain? Do Bahraini Shia’a women correspond to Native American women while Sunnis to White women? Can the Shia’a woman assume more roles than the Sunni woman? Although a sociologist would be more suited to answer this question, I could not find any evidence supporting the above claims. While Native American women, primarily defined by their tribe, can assume more roles than white women who are torn between two sexually charged roles, I suppose Shia’a and Sunni women are equal in the scarcity of roles they can assume. An exception to this rule can be detected following the political crisis in 2011 when Shia’a women clearly started to assume roles as political activists, while fewer Sunni women were involved politically.

Similarly, Bahraini society is composed of an Arab majority, and a minority of Bahrainis with Persian roots.  I believe the dominant group-minority hypothesis is more applicable in this case.  Bahraini Persian women are primarily defined by their Persian origin, as Persians could experience isolation, bringing both Persian men and women closer together. Persians are also socialized to be more defensive and proud of their origins, which solidifies their Persian identity. In contrast, Arab women struggle to define themselves as Arab men establish power over them. Hence, the Bahraini Persian woman can assume more roles within society than the Bahraini Arab woman.

In summary, gender is a social construct imposed on both women and men as they struggle and strive to belong. Men have more autonomy and can assume more roles within this construct, while women are usually offered limited number of roles accompanied by uncompromising expectations. In the Arab world, the social construction of gender is evident through the daily social dynamics and the socioeconomics of the community in question.  Promisingly, the new generation of educated Arabs is questioning gender stereotypes and other cultural elements once seen as constant.


Mohamed Al Sadadi is a Risk Management Consultant with a B.Sc. in Applied Mathematics and minor in Philosophy and Spanish from Purdue University; and a post-graduate diploma in Economics from University of London-LSE. You can reach him via Facebook.

Women at Work | Muizz Al-Aradi

Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa. 

At the end of 2015, the official unemployment rate in Bahrain was 3.4%[i].

On the face of it, it sounds pretty great. You would not be at fault for thinking, in that case, that 96.6% of the working age population is actively employed. However, if we were to take a closer look, we would see quite a different picture, especially for female Bahraini nationals.

When calculating the above rate, unemployed persons are defined as only those who are claiming the unemployment benefit at time of measurement. If we instead looked at the total female labour force participation in Bahrain (the sum of females employed or looking for employment, divided by the total female working age population), we see that it is only 40%[ii]. When you exclude non-nationals and focus only on Bahraini women, that number goes down further, to approximately 30%. That means that 70% of Bahraini women who could potentially be working are not.

The reasons for this are numerous, spanning from personal preferences to social norms to gender roles and economic opportunities. For instance, the traditional family structure is still most common, with the man as breadwinner of the family, supported by his wife in the home. During weddings, the groom is typically congratulated with the phrase “منك المال ومنها العيال” – i.e. May you provide the finances, and she the children.

Perceptions regarding the hiring of women can also be heavily skewed. In conversations with various colleagues and friends, I have heard the argument far too many times that employers may be reluctant to hire Bahraini young women due to the possibility of them “getting married soon, having a baby, taking maternity leave and being an overall cost to the company.” Such a short-sighted approach can only result in lost opportunities and wasted talent. For example, in June 2014, 85% of the number of unemployed Bahrainis were women.[iii]

Many women also choose early retirement, particularly in the public sector. Again, the traditional gender roles play their part in shaping expectations, with early pensions allowed after 15 years of eligible work experience, compared to 20 years for men[iv]. Women are not expected to focus on their careers, but rather devote their own lives for their progeny. A woman is the candle to someone else’s flame.

Regardless of the reasons, Bahraini women are clearly an underutilised resource here. Having them more involved, socially and economically, can only be beneficial to the country in the long run. We need to systematically elevate their status as self-sufficient, productive individuals who are capable of making change in the country. Because as they rise, we all rise.

  1. A.

[i] http://www.bahrainedb.com/en/EDBDocuments/BEQ-March-2016.pdf

[ii] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS?locations=BH

[iii] http://archives.gdnonline.com/NewsDetails.aspx?date=04/07/2015&storyid=391585

[iv] http://www.pensiondevelopment.org/36/bahrain.htm


Muizz Al-Aradi currently works as a corporate banker, although typically prefers life outside of the office. He is a board member of the CFA Society Bahrain and a Global Shaper at the Manama Hub. You can find him and some of his various musings at @muizz101.

Summers at Home | Hala Abdullah

Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa. 

Nothing grows here in the summer.
The trees, once tall and proud now
droop over sideways, sunburnt and
dizzy with delirium. The birds have
forgotten how to sing; too tired to
tweet their favorite symphonies.
Nothing grows here in the summer.
Even the buildings shrink with the
heat, for once despising their near-
ness to the sky. They don’t look
up to pray anymore: their heads
hanging down avoiding god.
Nothing grows here in the summer.
The grass has learnt that and every
year shrivels in anticipation. And
the flowers: they hang themselves
from their branches – would rather
take matters into their own hands.
Nothing grows here. Mostly in the
summer, but oftentimes the whole
year through. The stench of still-
ness fills the air and drowns our
lungs in stagnation. We have all
gotten used to it. Ask anyone.
Nothing grows here in the summer.
My spine, once tall and proud now
droops downwards. My body shrinks
with the heat. My lungs are filled with
waiting for a better day, but my
head hangs loose from my shoulders-
I’ve gotten used to it. Oftentimes
it lasts the whole year through.
Nothing grows here – the law
strictly forbids it – no matter
our efforts. Now we’ve put our
gardening tools away, and our
bird-houses, and we are no longer
fascinated with tall buildings or
pretty flowers. Nothing grows here,
we’ve learned. So even our dreams
we’ve learned to nip quietly in the bud
before anyone sees them..


Hala Abdullah is a poet and a feminist from Saudi Arabia. She is the founder and is currently the co-president of the Writing Club in Riyadh – a project that aims to help young men and women find their voice through writing. You can read more of Hala’s writing on her website (http://7alaabdullah.com) and follow her on Twitter at @7allo.
حلا عبدالله شاعرة ونسويّة من المملكة العربية السعودية، أسست وترأست رئاسة نادي الكتابة بالرياض وهو مشروع يهدف إلى مساعدة الشباب والشابات في إيجاد أصواتهم/ن عن طريق الكتابة. يمكنك قراءة المزيد من كتاباتها على موقعها والتواصل معها عبر حسابها على تويتر.