Rethinking Patriarchy and Kinship in the Arab Gulf States

By Scott Weiner, George Washington University

*This memo was prepared for the Women and gender in Middle East politics workshop, March 11, 2016.

Existing accounts contend that state level patriarchy is rooted in traditional family power arrangements. These accounts describe patriarchy in parliaments, ruling families, and personal status laws, as well as norms and informal practice across societies. Feminists writing on socio-economic class, for example, point out that relations between husbands and wives create unequal divisions of labor and wealth between them (Walby, 1989; Eisenstein, 1999). These effects aggregate to the national economy as a whole. Feminist work on patriarchy and the state focuses on how political actors shape policy based on certain ideals about contemporary families (Geva, 2011).

Work on patriarchy in the Middle Eastern context makes a similar argument, contending that changing family structures among both “urban” and “tribal” kinship groups are the basis of patriarchal policies reinforcing women’s traditional roles (Moghadam, 2004). These roles are reproduced at the state level via “homosocial capital” – networks of men who leverage their resources to maintain power (Bjarnegard, 2013). Family structures also reinforce male roles, in that participation in family gatherings and religious observances is tied to masculinity (Herzog and Yahia-Younes, 2007). Given the rapid changes that have occurred in the region over the past century, Middle Eastern states are excellent cases in which to test hypotheses examining traditional and contemporary structures of patriarchal power. Importantly, the Middle East is also a region where family ties and kinship authority are particularly strong. Foundational work on political kinship and states (Anderson, 1986; Kostiner and Khoury, 1990; Layne, 1994) speak to the utility of these cases.

The linkage between familial and state-level patriarchy, however, is widely asserted but not well specified. It is unclear by what mechanisms patriarchal family relations create and shape patriarchy at the state level. Claims that state-level patriarchy originates in person-to-person relationships within the family may be accurate, but accounts linking the two often draw on similarities that invoke correlation but not necessarily causation. These accounts assert that familial patriarchy is “reproduced” (Moghadam, 2004) without explaining the mechanisms by which that reproduction occurs. This gap impairs scholarly attempts to understand what patriarchy is and how it shapes political access according to gender identity.

The linkage between familial and state authority, furthermore, is by no means implicit. While families and kinship groups operate under traditional forms of authority, states are bureaucratic. While familial patriarchy impacts a specific set of resources and political access, state-level patriarchy is a political “terrain of power” (Hunnicut, 2009) affecting both state and society. While familial patriarchy advantages men in relation to women who are kin, state level patriarchy gives broad advantages to men as a class over women as a class. The idea that patriarchy in a traditional kinship group is “reproduced” cannot be taken at face value given the substantial differences in governance between such groups and states.

Some explanations have accounted for the reproduction of family patriarchy at the state level in a colonial context. In Africa, for example, European powers preserved indigenous familial patriarchy to ensure social stability (Schmidt, 1991). The kinship institutions in which this preservation occurred, however, were manipulated heavily by these colonial powers. They also say little about the experience of Middle Eastern states where manipulation occurred to a much lesser extent. Other accounts use patrimonialism to illustrate the reproduction of familial patriarchy. Accounts of state building in Tunisia, Morocco, and Iraq, for example, describe how kinship-based patrimonial networks were subsumed under the “fatherly” leadership that positioned itself discursively as protecting the “national family” (Charrad, 2011). These accounts explain how leaders legitimized patriarchy but not why they chose to use it. They also highlight symbolic similarities between father-son and state-society relations, but fall short of arguing a casual linkage between the two. Furthermore, similar accounts of leaders providing goods to constituents (e.g. Bueno de Mesquita, 2003) make causal arguments about this provision with no reference to such a relationship.

Theorizing the relationship between familial and state-level patriarchy should be a systematic endeavor. If state-level patriarchy is a reproduction of kinship patriarchy, we might expect states where kinship authority is more politically salient at the state level to have more patriarchal forms of governance. Since state level patriarchy is reproduced from patriarchy in kinship groups, the strong presence of kinship authority should be an indicator of patriarchy at the state level. The seven months of field work I conducted in Kuwait and Oman presented an opportunity to evaluate some of these claims. In Kuwait, where kinship’s political salience is high, there is evidence that state-level patriarchy is strong as well. Women could not vote until 2005 in Kuwait. Only four women were elected to a parliament of fifty in the 2009 parliamentary elections and the parliament has had no women since the resignation of Safa al-Hashem in May, 2014. Women have only been permitted to serve as prosecutors for the Kuwaiti government since January 2014. Kuwaiti women who marry non-Kuwaiti men cannot pass their Kuwaiti citizenship to their children. Yet the picture is more complex than it first appears. Slightly more than half of public sector employees in Kuwait and female. Under the Labor Act of 2010, pregnant Kuwaiti women are entitled to 100 percent pay during seventy days of maternity leave, followed by two hours break for nursing when they return to work.[1] Kuwait ranked highest among Middle Eastern countries in the 2014 Global Gender Gap Index, and has the highest percentage of working women citizens among GCC states. Kuwaiti women are represented in business, medicine, and academia, and have a history of participation in the workforce as Quran teachers (mutawaat) dating back to at least the late 1800s.[2] Thus, the correlation between familial patriarchy and state level patriarchy is not as obvious as existing accounts might predict. Furthermore, as Lindsey Benstead points out in this POMEPS study, using different measures of patriarchy produces vastly different assessments of which states are more or less patriarchal.

Kinship’s political salience at the national level in Oman is much lower than Kuwait, but patriarchy still exists. In Oman’s October 2015 elections, only one woman was elected to the eighty-four member Majlis al-Shura. Women comprise slightly more than one-third of government employees. Out of 117 lawyers with permission to appeal to Oman’s high court, two were women as of 2010. Furthermore, women require their husband’s permission to obtain a passport under Omani law.[3] Even where kinship authority has lower penetration into the national bureaucracy, patriarchy exists at the state level. Oman specialist Rafiah al-Talei points out that “despite progress, women [in Oman] face discrimination in almost all areas of life, and men are traditionally and legally seen as heads of household.”[4]

Women in Oman have challenged patriarchy successfully on a number of important levels that should not be understated.[5] Yet it is puzzling that patriarchy remains strong in Oman if kinship authority is the means by which patriarchy is reproduced at the state level. Such a puzzle, however, opens new avenues of scholarly inquiry to identify the means by which the reproduction of patriarchy occurs. However, these avenues themselves require specification.

For instance, patriarchy in states where kinship has low political salience at the state level could be the result of capitalist economic development. Scholars point out that such development concentrates capital in the hands of men as a class.[6] Thus, states with more development should see more patriarchy. However, other accounts point out that such development should have the opposite effect. It should “eradicate all arbitrary differences of status among laborers” and level the playing field for women.[7] This hypothesis also presumes that capitalism and patriarchy have any relation at all.[8] The role of development in state-level patriarchy, therefore, must be further specified.

Perhaps patriarchy in such cases results from social expectations that persist independently of kinship authority itself. Interviews I conducted with female college students at universities in the capital region of Oman revealed these social expectations. Female students from Muscat sometimes felt they were being judged by their more conservative classmates from the interior for more liberal practices normally considered frowned upon (‘aib). One student from Muscat remarked, “for them, everything is ‘aib.” These women also took steps to hide their identity when attending soccer matches, where Omani society frowns upon women’s attendance.[9] At the same time, these women’s liberal gender identity is itself the product of social changes that Oman’s government instituted following the 1970 coup d’etat. These changes happened more quickly in the urban centers than in Oman’s interior. Women I interviewed from the interior described culture shock upon arriving at at university in Muscat, noting differences in “words, traditions, dress, and accents.”[10] In addition, despite the persistence of patriarchy, classes at Oman’s national university (Sultan Qaboos University) have been co-educational since the university opened in 1986. Social expectations, therefore, are not themselves a convincing explanation for patriarchy because they were shaped by the state in Oman, rather than vice versa. Such a causal explanation would also need to explain the origins of these expectations.

A full account of the origins of state-level patriarchy will help scholars better identity its political effects. While kinship patriarchy may play an important role in the story, it cannot alone account for empirical manifestations of state-level patriarchy. Leveraging methodological rigor and deep familiarity with the region’s states and societies, scholars of Middle East politics are positioned to make valuable contributions to understanding patriarchy not only in the region, but in all gendered societies.

Scott Weiner graduates with a Ph.D in Political Science at The George Washington University in May 2016.



Anderson, Lisa, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya 1830-1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986).

Bjarnegard, Elin, Gender, Informal Institutions and Political Recruitment: Explaining Male  Dominance in Parliamentary Representation (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, et al. The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,   2003).

Charrad, Mounira M., “Central and Local Patrimonialism: State-Building in Kin-Based Societies,” Annals of the American Academic of Political and Social Science 636 (July, 2011): 49-68.

Geva, Dorit, “Where the State Feared to Tread: Conscription and Local Patriarchalism in Modern France,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 636 (July, 2011): 111-128.

Eisenstein, Zillah, “Constructing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and Socialist Feminism,” Critical Sociology 25 no. 2/3 (1999): 196-217.

Hartmann, Heidi, “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex,” Signs 1 no. 3 (Spring 1976): 137-169.

Herzog, Hanna, and Taghreed Yahia-Younis, “Men’s Bargaining With Patriarchy: The Case of Primaries Within Hamulas in Palestinian Arab Communities in Israel,” Gender and Society 21 no. 4 (August, 2007): 579-602.

Hunnicut, Gwen, “Varieties of Patriarchy and Violence Against Women,” Violence Against Women 15 (May, 2009): 553-573.

Khoury, Philip S., and Joseph Kostiner, Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).

“Kuwait,” United National Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 2015. Online:

Layne, Linda, The Dialogics of Tribal and National Identities in Jordan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Limbert, Mandana E., In the Time of Oil: Piety, Social Memory, and Social Life in an Omani Town (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).

Mies, Maria, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (London: Zed Books, 1986).

Moghadam, Valentine M., “Patriarchy in Transition: Women and the Changing Family in the  Middle East,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 35 no. 2 (Spring 2004): 137-162.

Schmidt, Elizabeth, “Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Colonial State in Zimbabwe,” Signs 16 no 4. (Summer, 1991): 732-756.

al-Talei, Rafiah, “Oman,” in Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance, ed. Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin (New York: Freedom House, 2010):             337-358.

Walby, Sylvia, “Theorising Patriarchy,” Sociology 23 no. 2 (May 1989): 213-234.

Weiner, Scott, “The Muscat Commute: A Young Generations Journey Between Tradition and Modernity,” The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, June 18, 2015. Online:


[1] “Kuwait,” United National Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 2015. Online:

[2] Interview, al-Nuzha, Kuwait, February 15, 2014.

[3] Rafiah al-Talei, “Oman,” in Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance, ed. Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin (New York: Freedom House, 2010): 12.

[4] al-Talei, 2010.

[5] Mandana Limbert, In The Time Of Oil: Piety, Memory and Social Life in an Omani Town (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010): 43; See also: Scott Weiner, “The Muscat Commute: A Young Generations Journey Between Tradition and Modernity,” The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, June 18, 2015. Online:

[6] See: Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (London: Zed Books, 1986): 38.

[7] Heidi Hartmann, “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex,” Signs 1 no. 3 (Spring 1976): 139.

[8] See, for example: Sylvia Walby, “Theorising Patriarchy,” Sociology 23 no. 2 (May 1989): 214.

[9] Interview, German University of Technology, Halban, Oman, March 6, 2014.

[10] Interview, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman, March 24, 2014.

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