It’s Time for Laws That Protect
Women in Arab Countries
New Book by Top Female Arab CEO Shows Need for Legislation Through Interviews with Women Abused by Spouses, Deprived of Inheritance and Separated from Children—With No Legal Recourse
Despite the significant advancement in recent years of women’s rights in Arab countries, there’s a lot more work to be done to empower women and ensure their safety in all areas of society, from business to family life.
Most importantly, says Suzan “Suzy” Kanoo, one of the most successful female business leaders in Bahrain and one of the top CEOs in the Arab world, it’s time to bring legislation in line with the formidable modernization that’s taken place in these influential countries.
Kanoo makes this important point in her new book Hear Us Speak: Letters From Arab Women (Forbes Books, 2021) through a series of candid interviews with women from countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain who have faced the difficult consequences of a lack of legislation. From being jailed for expressing their opinions on social media, receiving inheritances that are a fraction of those given to their brothers, having their children abducted—legally—by their husbands and suffering physical and emotional abuse with little chance for protection from the courts, these women, like countless others in their region, have faced dire circumstances.
While notable legislative improvements have been made such as those in Saudi Arabia granting women the right to drive and travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian, legislation still does painfully little to protect Arab women overall as mothers, wives and citizens. In some cases, women’s rights abuses are woven into the law. For example, most Arab nations have declined to accept a number of Articles in the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that allow women to pass their nationality on to their children, freely choose a residence or have equal rights in marriage and its dissolution. This leaves countless women vulnerable to being trapped in abusive marriages or seeing their children abducted by their husbands.
The interviews in Hear Us Speak lay bare these stark realities and their contradiction with the inherently beautiful culture and sleekly modernized cities of the Arab world. Kanoo writes: “The pace of modernization has outrun the pace of our legislation. It’s time to create a conversation around women’s rights and elevate voices that have often been relegated to the shadows. These voices must be heard.”
Those interviewed, whose identities have been concealed for their protection, come from a variety of backgrounds. Among the dozen women readers of Hear Us Speak will meet are:
- A Kuwaiti painter whose family shunned her when she told them her husband was abusive.
- A mother whose sons have no nationality because their father abandoned them. Thus, they can’t ever leave their country of residence or go to school.
- A Bahraini journalist who could not secure help from the court or her family when she became the target of domestic violence.
- Several women whose husbands divorced them simply by saying, “You are divorced.” In Arab countries, this is all it takes for a divorce to become official—and for a woman to lose many civil rights.
Remarkably, the women interviewed emerged from their ordeals without hatred or bitterness—but rather, filled with wisdom and hope.
Hear Us Speak also includes powerful notes of hope for change. An interview with an Arabic dad reveals that many men want to see changes for their daughters and for future generations. A Kuwaiti influencer travels and teaches women and girls in the Arab world about sex. A Kuwaiti CEO talks about the powerful role she played uniting Kuwaitis after a terrorist attack. And an interview with Kanoo’s own Gen Z daughter and her daughter’s friends make it clear that the women in this young generation don’t feel a need to follow all the same customs and norms as generations before them. They are empowering themselves to fight for the rights they deserve.
With the population of Arab Americans 3.7 million1 strong, and with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates becoming international hubs for business and tourism, the issues facing Arab women concern us all. By improving their legislation, these influential nations can also set an important example for other areas of the world.
Other topics Kanoo can address include:
- The paradox of success for women in the Arab world and the implications for women in the West.
- What laws are needed to empower Arab women?
- What women need to know in order to stand up for their rights.
- What is “passport injustice” and what must be done to end it?
- Dispelling the myth that women behind hijabs are submissive and weak.
- How women everywhere can find their voices in the wake of suppression.
- Why curiosity can be a woman’s best tool for overcoming obstacles of any sort.
“To be a woman is a gift,” Kanoo writes. “We give birth to future generations. We give love unconditionally. And we face unique daily challenges and adversity with grace, strength, and courage. This is universal. Hear us speak.”
Suzan “Suzy” Kanoo, CEO of Khalil bin Ebrahim Kanoo Company and International Motor Trading Agency, is one of the most successful female business leaders in Bahrain and one of the top CEOs in the Arab world. She has chosen to use her influence to advocate for the empowerment of Arab women and worldwide awareness of the need for legislation to ensure their safety and well-being.
After studying at Harvard, Suzy returned home to work in her family’s business, taking over its trading division with her father’s blessing. Within six years, the automotive division she ran was among the top five in the country for its industry. She is a member of the YPO “Top-CEO” network and was the first Arab woman elected to chair the YPO’s MENA (Middle East and North Africa) division. A tech investor, Suzy has launched tech funds, enjoys mentoring startups, and sits on numerous public and private boards. She travels to and volunteers at refugee camps around the world. The proud mother of three, Suzy is a sought-after speaker, poet and author of Hear Us Speak: Letters From Arab Women (Forbes Books).