Yes, the pictures of Emirati men celebrating ‘gender balance’ are ridiculous, says Stylist’s Moya Crockett. But it’s important to remember that these sexist oversights don’t only happen in the Middle East.
As someone who often writes about feminism on the internet, I know that it’s easy to point to the Middle East as a place of unique gender oppression. I know this because I have often been told, inevitably by white male strangers on social media, that I should ‘try living in Saudi Arabia’ if I really think sexism is a problem in the UK. I sometimes wonder if they apply this furiously relativist logic to other areas of life: would they tell a man to move to famine-stricken Yemen if he complained about his Ocado delivery being late, for example? And are they genuinely concerned about the plight of Saudi women, or do they just want to shut down an irritating feminist while simultaneously demonising a Muslim-majority country? Sadly, I think we know the answers on both counts.
That’s not to deny that life is hard for many women in the Middle East. In Iran, feminist campaigners have been imprisoned for peacefully protesting mandatory hijab laws. Oman has no laws prohibiting domestic violence or marital rape. And while women have been given some new freedoms in Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – including, famously, the right to drive – the country’s repressive male guardianship system and laws governing female dress are still very much in place.
We got a glimpse of the state of gender equality in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week, thanks to a series of photos from the country’s ‘gender balance’ awards. The pictures show Dubai’s ruler handing out awards celebrating gender equality – to a series of men.
Not one woman was recognised by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s gender balace awards, which included ‘Best Gender Balance Initiative’, ‘Best Personality Supporting Gender Balance’ and ‘Best Federal Authority Supporting Gender Balance’.
The photos of the awards sparked derision on social media. “First you’re like, ‘wow, UAE has gender equality awards, that’s cool,’” wrote one Twitter user. “Then you’re like ‘oooohhhhh…’”
Daniela Tejada, whose husband Matthew Hedges was released from prison in the UAE in November after being sentenced to life in prison for spying, poured scorn on the photos.
“The reason why neither Matt nor I ever represented a reputational risk to the UAE is because the UAE represents a reputational risk to itself,” she wrote on Twitter. “Once again, actions speak louder than words.”
It’s perfectly reasonable for the photos of the UAE’s gender balance awards to be ridiculed. They are patently, laughably outrageous, and it’s possible – if unlikely – that a bit of global mockery will encourage those organising next year’s ceremony to think a little more carefully about their nominees.
But it’s also important to remember that the UAE – and Middle Eastern countries more generally – are not the only places where such embarrassingly tone-deaf events occur. In 2016, PayPal organised a male-only panel to discuss gender equality at its California headquarters, while the British organisation Women in Defence was criticised in December 2018 for hosting a discussion about gender equality in the military that consisted solely of men (although there were two female co-chairs).
Western women are even less likely to be recognised at events and awards ceremonies that aren’t specifically designed to address gender equality. Zero women were nominated in the best director categories at this year’s Oscars and Golden Globes, and research has shown that male-dominated panels – or “manels” – remain the norm at European Union policy events, where women average just one in four conference speakers.
And the problem isn’t limited to discussions about gender. Last October, eyebrows were raised at New York Advertising Week when an all-white panel gathered to discuss the lack of diversity in corporate America. Just one year previously, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) was slammed for establishing an eight-person equality and diversity advisory panel featuring seven white people.
So yes. We should all roll our eyes at the photos from the UAE, and feel sympathetic to Emirati women who have to see their country’s gender balance awards handed out to men. But we should also remember that when it comes to this kind of event, the West’s track record is far from flawless.
Images: Getty Images