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Bahraini and Non‑Bahraini Women in Bahrain’s Workforce

Gender, Work and Nationality
Sharon Nagy


Ce document décrit l’entrée parallèle des femmes bahreïnies et non bahreïnies dans la main‑d’œuvre à Bahreïn, et explore les articulations entre le genre, le travail et la nationalité, ainsi que les variations locales dans le marché du travail globalisé. L’article fournit une mise en contexte socioculturelle et historique de l’entrée des femmes dans le monde du travail. Les types de genre et de nationalité qui caractérisent la main‑d’œuvre de Bahreïn aujourd’hui sont à replacer dans un cadre économique et social qui a subi beaucoup de changements depuis début du XXe siècle. Aujourd’hui, dans un contexte où les femmes bahreïnies sont encouragées à chercher un emploi, l’emploi des femmes étrangères aide‑t‑il ou entrave‑t‑il leur entrée sur le marché du travail de Bahreïn? Et, dans un contexte culturel où certaines professions ont longtemps été considérées comme inappropriées aux femmes, l’emploi des femmes étrangères influe‑t‑il sur les représentations culturelles de ces emplois? Ces questions se posent en ce qui concerne les domaines dans lesquels un nombre relativement élevé de femmes travaille, à savoir l’éducation, l’hospitalité, le petit commerce et les travaux ménagers.

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Entrées d’index

Keywords :

labor, workforce, migration, women

Géographique :

BHR, golfe Arabique
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Texte intégral


  • 1 1 Central Informatics Organization, 2011.
  • 2 International Labour Office, 1998, p. 217‑220, Table 7.
  • 3 Of the other gulf cooperation council (GCC) states only Kuwait has a female participation rate over (...)

1Bahrain is distinct from its Gulf neighbors with regard to women’s participation in the workforce. Women —Bahraini and non‑Bahraini— work in a broad range of occupations. This, however, has not always been the case. According to Bahrain’s Central Information Office, women’s participation in public sector employment was slightly over 5% in 1971, and estimated at almost 46% in 2011. Women’s participation in the private sector was reported at 10% for 2011.1 This figure is somewhat less reliable as the private sector includes a larger proportion of foreign women, some of them undocumented or uncounted. An increase in female participation in the public sector from 5% to 45% is significant, if not remarkable. Even the International Labour Organization’s more modest estimates, including both public and private sectors, indicate an increase from 10.3% to 20.6% between 1980 and 1997.2 In this, Bahrain more closely resembles North African countries than the other Arab Gulf states.3

  • 4 Central Informatics Organization, 2011.
  • 5 The difference in public sector salaries leads some Bahrainis to seek employment in Qatar or the U. (...)

2The increase occurred in roughly the same time period in which the number of foreign workers in Bahrain doubled. It is, therefore, tempting to assume that most of the working women are non‑Bahrainis. However, the female workforce includes both Bahraini citizens and foreigners. Excluding household workers (who are not included in official workforce figures) and undocumented migrants, Bahraini women comprised at the end of 2010 65% of the female workforce reported by the Civil Service Bureau and the General Office of Social Insurance.4 Authorities encourage Bahraini women to seek employment and include women’s employment within their efforts to nationalize, or Bahrainize, the labor force. Bahrain per capita oil export revenues and public sector salaries remain low relative to neighboring states5, and the women’s income is often an important contribution to the household.

  • 6 Gamburd, 2000; Osella and Osella, 2000.

3Women’s participation in the work force needs to be considered within the context of transnational labor migration to the Gulf wherein foreigners outnumber citizens in the workforce and in some countries outnumber citizens in the general population. This rapid increase in the number of foreign residents relative to citizens in the Arab Gulf states in the second half of the 20th century has served as the focus of scholarly investigations as well as popular narratives. One concern not yet adequately addressed in the literature on Gulf migration is the gendering of migration. Migrants to the region have long been overwhelmingly male laborers arriving without their families. However, in recent decades more women have joined this flow both as contract labor and as accompanying family. Much justified attention has been drawn to the abuse and exploitation of female household workers in the Gulf and more recently to sex trafficking; while research in sending countries describes the impact women’s emigration has on the families and communities left behind.6 But we have yet to develop a comprehensive picture of the extent of women’s migration to the Gulf. From where do they emigrate, for what positions and purposes, through what means, and how does that impact lives in both sending and receiving communities?

  • 7 Franklin, 1985; Gardner, 2010; Kapiszewski, 2001; Khuri, 1980; Louër, 2008; Onley, 2004; Lawless an (...)

4Migrations, particularly those driven by employment and economic aspirations, are gendered. Whether men or women migrate may be influenced by the type of employment available at the destination, expectations and stereotypes of who might best provide the labor, education and emigration practices in the sending countries, as well as ideas regarding women’s and men’s contributions to family, community and the national economy. Such dynamics are easily recognized in the policies regulating gender and family structures for migration in the Gulf and include regulations preventing migrants from bringing family or marrying at the new destination; the non‑issuance of emigration documents to single women under a specified age and bi‑national agreements that specify conditions for the hiring/treatment of male and female workers. Gendered patterns are similarly discernible in the practices of international recruitment agencies that often provide wholesale labor to employers in gender exclusive packages, for example, female garment workers, or male drivers and machinery operators. Less explicit are the complex socio‑cultural patterns and perceptions that contribute to the gendering of migration flows. Family and gender dynamics in the sending country may facilitate male migration rather than female.7 National and gender stereotypes in the hiring location impact demand for females in certain occupations, and males in others. In turn, whether men or women migrate, what jobs they fill or seek, and how their participation in those jobs is perceived and experienced by both their home and host communities, shapes, perhaps transforms the experience and expectations of gender in both sending and receiving communities. As discussed below, the entry of foreign women into Bahrain’s workforce shapes, and is shaped by, stereotypes of worker nationalities and cultural attitudes toward particular occupations as potential employers of women.

5Using a modified method of qualitative meta‑analysis, this paper combines an historical outline of women’s entry into the migration flow to Bahrain and the workplace there with a focus on particular occupations in which a relatively high number of women are employed, namely education, healthcare, household work, travel, hospitality and leisure. The research data is derived from a series of ethnographic studies conducted between 1993 and 2010, totaling approximately five years of residence in the region: ethnographic interviews, participant observation and a review of public discourse all focused on topics related to migration, work, gender and urbanization in the Gulf. Throughout these studies, the gendering of work, stereotypes of nationality and occupation frequently emerged as important tropes of understanding. This paper consolidates information from the various ethnographic studies into a focused discussion of gender, nationality and work. Attention to gender in the analysis of Bahrain’s local and migrant work force offers a strategy for examining local variations in a globalizing workforce.

Axes of segmentation in Bahrain’s labor market

  • 8 Tamkeen, the government’s key training program for Bahrainis, was established in 2006 to expand the (...)

6The most prominent features of Bahrain’s labor market are its segmentation between Bahraini and foreign workers and between public and private sectors. The public sector has emerged as the primary employer of Bahraini citizens. According to the Central Statistical Office of Bahrain, approximately 90% of public sector employees were Bahraini citizens by 2000. In contrast, only one third of private sector employees are citizens, the remainder are foreigners. With rapid population growth and the inability to provide all citizens public sector employment, unemployment among Bahraini citizens has gone up and the “Bahrainization” of the work force has become a state priority. Efforts toward Bahrainization include the creation of employment and training opportunities for Bahrainis8, mandated replacement of foreign workers with citizens in targeted sectors, the use of ratios between foreigners and citizens employed by an employer, and increasing costs to employers who employ foreigners. The segmented labor market has, however, proven resilient and strategies to expand employment opportunities for Bahrainis in the private sector have met with limited success. Obstacles to it include: inadequate skill levels, low wage levels, poor working conditions, long working hours, an unwillingness to accept particular jobs (particularly unskilled positions); and employers’ reluctance to hire Bahrainis. The suite of labor and economic reforms introduced in 2006 takes a multi‑pronged approach to enhancing the employment of Bahrainis. These include stimulating job creation in the private sector, providing technical training and skills development for Bahrainis, and reducing the salary differential between citizens and foreigners. The 2009 revision of the kafāla (“sponsorship”) system makes it possible for foreign employees to change employers and has been argued to potentially increase Bahraini employees’ competitiveness in private sector jobs.

7The labor market is not only segmented by nationality; it is also segmented by gender. The range of job opportunities for women is narrow, with most Bahraini women working in health, education and social services. Bahraini women’s reliance on public sector employment and the obstacles to their employment in the private sector make them particularly vulnerable to the current decline in public sector jobs and women’s unemployment rate has been twice that of men since the 1980s. Women’s literacy and education levels are high. In fact, more women complete secondary and tertiary education in Bahrain than men do. However, this high level of education is not matched with job opportunities and there are few opportunities for Bahraini women to receive vocational or technical training.

  • 9 Mills, 2003, p. 42.

8Socio‑cultural values and expectations for women prevent some of them from working and also limit the range of acceptable occupations for those women who do seek work. As elsewhere, certain occupations are considered more or less appropriate for women within the dominant values of society and culture. While not entirely inflexible, the values that impact women’s employment choices and options are an assemblage of social, cultural and religious preferences. The relatively closed social hierarchy along lines of nationality, class, sect, and national/tribal origins can challenge status/management hierarchies in the workplace. For this reason, it may be awkward for a Bahraini woman to be supervised by an Asian person or a Bahraini man of lower family status. Privacy, modesty and gender segregation being prized, as well as the prevalence of arranged, endogamous marriages, all this contributes to a preference for limited cross‑gender interaction and less public exposure. The social responsibilities of childcare and social rituals around visiting people can limit women’s (and men’s) availability for extended work hours. In the case of positions deemed unacceptable for Bahraini women, women and men are recruited among international workers, contributing to an ethnically segmented work force.9

Early migration flows: limited national diversity

9Given Bahrain’s location on trade and pilgrimage routes, most of the early population mobility circulated through the Indian Ocean and to a lesser degree the Eastern Mediterranean. Using milestones in the political and economic history of the area as punctuation marks, Gulf migration might be divided into broad overlapping phases associated with pearl trading, British imperialism, the discovery of oil, and economic diversification and globalization. As we will see, the entry of women into the workforce gains momentum in the later phases, while the earlier ones shaped patterns of migration and the segmentation of the labor market by both nationality and gender.

Pearl trading

  • 10 Women, especially foreign women, are rarely mentioned in the early accounts of Bahrain and Arabia. (...)

10By the 19th century Bahrain had emerged as a principal market for pearls and an important node in Indian Ocean mercantile networks. Bahrain’s importance in the pearl trade, combined with its location on the sea route from India to Mecca used by many Muslim pilgrims, as well as the availability of fresh water, all contributed to a diverse population. Pearling ships were owned by local Sunni Arabs, but manned by crews comprised of men of Arabian, Persian and African origins. By the 19th century, merchants originating from, and selling to, India were purchasing the bulk of Bahrain’s pearls. These trade links established networks for the movement of people as well as pearls; and, by the middle of the 19th century, Bahrain’s population was notably diverse and included merchants, pilgrims, slaves and economic refugees from the Indian Subcontinent, East Africa, and Persia, as well as the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.10 Those foreign women living in Bahrain during this period would have rarely engaged in occupations or work beyond the household, except for healers and midwives serving a community of women. Women were included, albeit in smaller numbers than men, among the people brought from South Asia and Africa to work in the region, either paid or unpaid. In addition, merchants would marry and establish households in other ports and some are known to have brought foreign wives to live in Bahrain. The wives and domestic servants/retainers would likely have been fairly well integrated into the households, and not particularly noticeable as “foreign” to outside observers.

British imperialism

  • 11 Onley, 2004.

11Britain’s political involvement in the Gulf region was officially marked by the 1820 General Treaty of Peace in which rulers of the Trucial States (now the United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain agreed to abstain from maritime raiding in exchange for Britain’s protection at sea. Britain appointed a resident political agent in Bushihr who reported to the government of British India. The British political resident, in turn, had a representative in Bahrain. During the 19th century this “native agent”, as he was called, was recruited from among local Arab and Indian merchants. After a series of exclusive agreements in 1880 and 1892, Britain took over the sheikhdoms’ external relations, in addition to protecting trade and, by the 20th century, the “native agent” had evolved into the “political agent” and was henceforth a Briton.11

12British administrative entrenchment in the region reinforced connections to the subcontinent and trade with India continued to grow, as did the number of Indian merchants and traders. It was during this period that many of the prominent Indian families operating businesses in the Gulf today established their businesses and residences in the region. These Indian merchants leveraged their good standing with the British to gain access to markets and resources in the Gulf. In interviews with businessmen of Gujarati origins, I was told that the agents of the British made it easy for Indian businessmen to enter Bahrain in the late 19th century: “In most cases, we just had to ask permission from the agent to try a business in Bahrain. They knew that Gujaratis were good at business. So, it was easy to get permission to come.”

13Between 1930 and 1950, Bahrain’s ruler formally enlisted British assistance with the creation of a modern government in Bahrain, British air force and naval bases were established in Bahrain, and the Political Residency was relocated from Bushihr to Bahrain. So, in addition to Indian merchants and traders, Bahrain began to host Indians and Britons staffing the military, banks, companies, and government agencies. As schools, courts and other government‑run institutions grew, administrative and clerical staff was recruited from India. Non‑Gulf Arabs were sought to fill positions where Arabic was needed. Migrants and economic refugees from nearby Hadramaut, Iran, and Oman remained a resource for unskilled, manual and household labor.

14The majority of these workers were male, even within the home. Household workers were generally men, not women, from Africa, Yemen, Oman and South Asia. Foreign women arrived in Bahrain in small numbers compared to men. As the economy grew and standards of living in Bahrain improved, Indian and Iranian merchants began to bring family members to reside in Bahrain. The great grandson of a Gujarati merchant who established a family business in Bahrain circa 1890 explained that as the family business was being developed, the four collaborating brothers alternated between their home in Bombay and their business in Bahrain. One of them would always be residing in Bahrain and another in Bombay, while the other two may have been in transit. It was not until the 1950s, that their primary family residence shifted to Bahrain. Other foreign women residing in Bahrain at this time were family members of diplomats, missionaries, or foreign men with well‑paid positions in the administration. Other than teachers, mission nurses and midwives, very few women, foreign or Bahraini, worked outside of the home. This was to change in the next phases of Bahrain’s economic and migration history.

Migration in support of the oil economy: expanded national diversity and women in specific occupations

Discovery and exploitation of oil

  • 12 The linguistic bifurcation of the skilled labor market has not been systematically addressed in the (...)
  • 13 Personal communication with male and female employees of Bapco and the American mission and their o (...)

15Oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1931 and wells were operating by the end of 1932. With the development of oil and other support industries along with the continued growth of the British‑managed government the need for both unskilled and skilled labor grew steadily and the range of nationalities working in Bahrain expanded. Egyptians, Jordanians and Syrians entered Bahrain’s workforce particularly at the level of skilled administrative, technical and managerial staff where Arabic was required. South Asians were recruited, often en masse, for unskilled and manual labor, as well as some technical and clerical positions where English was needed.12 Language was similarly important in the recruitment of women. The earliest intentional recruitment of foreign women was as teachers in Bahrain’s public schools for girls that opened in 1928. Some of the foreign firms establishing operations in Bahrain relocated women from their home offices to perform clerical and secretarial work in Bahrain.13

Teachers and nurses: circumscribed interaction hence acceptable occupations

16While the number of women in the workforce slowly increased and foreign women became more commonplace in Bahrain, their positions were restricted by attitudes and perceptions of women, work and morality. Women were hired primarily in the fields of education, healthcare, and childcare (men still filled other household positions). Few of these occupations put female workers in contact with a diverse clientele or customer base. Furthermore, practices in housing female foreign workers at this early stage of women’s employment, kept women isolated and restricted their access to public space. Household workers were housed in the home of their employer and their movements largely restricted. The early cohorts of teachers and nurses were housed in dormitories or employee compounds. They were subject to curfews, visitors were restricted, and their employers and/or supervisors closely supervised their movements. Due to the nature of their work, mainly with other women and children, their close supervision, and to the fact that they were predominantly Arab and Muslim, all this kept them from standing out as foreigners from the population and limited the social or cultural censure their presence might otherwise have caused.

Independence and boom years

  • 14 15 Algeria, South Yemen and Syria restricted emigration to the GCC. Syria relaxed its emigration re (...)
  • 15 Ibid.
  • 16 Abella, 1992; Acacio, 2005.

17Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf in 1970, Bahraini independence in 1971, and the successful 1973 oil embargo ushered in a decade of unprecedented prosperity and growth. The immediate increase in oil revenues led to a sharp increase in labor demand in the GCC and triggered a massive labor migration wave from poorer Arab countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and North Yemen,14 as well as war‑torn Lebanon and Palestine.15 Existing recruitment networks in South Asia were expanded and the number of skilled, unskilled, legal, illegal, male and female workers from South Asia continued to increase. Although hired on short‑term contracts, many managed to extend their contracts, found new employment or overstayed illegally; and, some of these, in turn, would find work for family members and others from the sending community. At the same time, international recruitment agencies started to specialize in human resource recruitment for Gulf employers. Governments in sending countries also began officiating labor export to the Middle East. For example, the 1974 Labor Code of the Philippines institutionalized the exportation of labor under the name of “overseas employment program”, designing the state as the only institution for the management and marketing of labor export.16

  • 17 Lynch, 1999; Mills, 2003, p. 49.

18By the 1970s, the dual labor market had already emerged as a prominent feature of Bahrain’s economy, with one market for citizens employed almost entirely by the public sector with high salaries and favorable working conditions, and the other for foreign labor employed primarily in the private sector at low salaries. Early graduates of Bahrain’s schools and beneficiaries of the state’s support of overseas training for nationals were given positions in the public sector. The small number of women among early Bahraini graduates seeking employment took positions in education and healthcare, which were still seen as the most, if not only, appropriate fields for respectable women. Like women entering industrial work elsewhere, Bahraini, women taking employment in schools were further hailed as important contributors to the nationalist project of educating the new generations ensuring Bahrain’s modernization and growth.17

  • 18 Sabban, 2002.

19Foreign women, in contrast, entered a broader range of occupations. They began to work alongside men in household work, especially childcare and other tasks performed in spaces frequented by women of the family. Drivers, gardeners, cooks and house cleaners were just as likely to be men or women.18 Both male and female household workers were originally recruited from other Arab, African or South Asian countries through both informal networks and recruitment agencies. The demand for foreign women in other fields also grew in this period, particularly in schools, hospitals and factories. As the new pool of educated Bahrainis was not sufficient to staff the growing public sector and the schools, the Ministry of Education continued to employ non‑Gulf Arabs. Bahrain’s hospitals recruited Indian women to work as nurses. European women, sometimes the spouses or dependents of skilled foreign workers or single unaccompanied male or female Europeans also took jobs in Bahrain. Because of Bahrain’s history as a British protectorate, British citizens could enter Bahrain without applying for a visa. Young Britons took advantage of this to find work in Bahrain. The women among them often found office jobs in businesses where proficiency in English was an asset. Also, companies serving a cosmopolitan clientele such as hotels and airlines recruited women from Europe.

“Gulf Air Girls”: a questionable occupation

  • 19 Nagy, 2004.

20Women’s employment in some of these occupations challenged cultural preferences for limited cross‑gender interaction, making these women and their professions vulnerable to social and cultural censure. The non‑Arab women recruited to work as flight attendants for Bahrain’s national airline, Gulf Air, provide an illustrative example. Although housed together in employer‑provided apartments, by nature of their work, flight attendants had considerable freedom to move about and socialize in mixed gender settings. Viewed from the perspective of Arab‑Islamic norms these unaccompanied European women raised some consternation and many eyebrows. What sort of families would “allow” their daughters to migrate unaccompanied and unsupervised? Or encourage them to work and socialize among unrelated men? Not only did these women lack the social legitimacy and respectability of a family, but they also worked in public and engaged in relatively open practices regarding mixed gender socializing. These factors stacked up to sully the reputations of many of these women and stigmatize their profession as immoral. The “Gulf Air Girls”, as they are commonly called in Bahrain, quickly came to be viewed as dating stock for upper class Bahrainis. To this day derogatory comments can still be heard about these women and the men they date or marry. For example, I was recently introduced to an American woman married to a Bahraini. The Bahraini woman who introduced us told me: “She’s a respectable one, not like those ‘trolley dollies”. Referring to the in‑flight drink trolley, the phrase “trolley dolly” encapsulates the perception of flight attendant as an occupation that displays one’s feminine sexuality.19

  • 20, visited in 2009.
  • 21, visited in 2009.

21The contested morality and eroticization of women working in the airline industry continues until today. Local nightclubs continue to post “flight crew discounts” to attract flight attendants and the men hoping to meet or see them. While the women working in these positions are often the target of moral critiques, the airline has itself begun to face public accusations of sexism and sexual harassment. In 2009, two cases were widely reported in the news and in on‑line forums raising challenges to the airline’s treatment of its female employees. In one instance, a Swedish flight attendant who survived a knife attack during a layover in Malaysia was allegedly encouraged to resign and eventually was fired. She claimed that the airline told her that the visible scars were too unattractive for her to keep on serving. This prompted previous Gulf Air flight attendants to come forward with reports of being fired for reasons of appearance.20 The second case, involved a British trainee who accused two male colleagues of rape and was then dismissed from the training program.21

22In August 2010, only a year after these particularly public allegations, Gulf Air recruited and trained the first cohort of Bahraini women to serve in “key customer facing positions” including flight crew. Tamkeen, the government‑funded program for creating and broadening training and employment options for Bahrainis, supported the recruitment and training of these women. Gulf Air’s announcement of the graduation of their first cohort of all Bahraini female crew read:

The girls were the first group to graduate from a joint‑initiative run by the airline and Tamkeen to encourage more Bahrainis, particularly females, to join the national carrier in key customer‑facing positions such as flight crew by offering flexible scheduling benefits.”

23And Gulf Air Chief Executive Officer Samer Majali commented:

  • 22 Gulf Air Site, 2010.

Today is a proud day for Bahrain and Gulf Air, the country has eight new ambassadors and the airline has eight new cabin crew. Cabin crew are the face of Gulf Air as they hold one of the most important positions in the company that set the standards of service we offer our customers. The induction of Bahraini cabin crew underpins one of the key components of our new strategy of providing passengers with warm and friendly traditional Arabian hospitality on which Gulf Air’s reputation is built. And who could be better at this, than our national workforce, who intrinsically understands our core values and ethos.”22

24The CEO’s comments may be read as intending to address some of the recent criticism by nationalizing its image as well as its staff. At a minimum he excludes this particular cohort of Bahraini graduates from the stigma of moral ambiguity. It should be noted that the recruitment of Bahraini women was made possible by offering scheduling options that do not require long periods of time away from home.

Economic diversification and bahrainization: distribution of women by nationality and occupation

25With the downturn in oil prices and overall sobering of the economy in the mid‑1980s, Bahrain intensified its efforts to diversify the economy, particularly by investing in the financial, insurance and real estate sectors, and tourism. The newly educated generation of Bahrainis was encouraged to pursue employment in these sectors to ease the burden of public sector employment. Despite a drop in new opportunities for foreign workers, the overall number of foreigners in the work force did not drop. There was, however, an explicit move to hire Asians rather than Arabs, because they were less costly and posed less of a political threat to local regimes. The new recruitment from Asia extended beyond South Asian into South East Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, resulting in a shift in the gender balance of the foreign workforce. The South Asian laboring population in Bahrain had long been overwhelmingly men without their families. In contrast, the population of workers recruited from South East Asia tips slightly toward women —many of whom are young, single, and unaccompanied.

  • 23 Constable, 1997.

26Overseas Contract Workers from the Philippines provide a useful example of this change. Although Filipinas of all social circumstances emigrate for work, many of those working in Bahrain are young, single women between 20 and 35. On the one hand, these women fit the profile of personable, attractive service workers sought by recruiters. On the other hand, they are prime candidates for labor emigration. It is common in the Philippines for an unmarried woman to work overseas to support her parents and younger siblings. These unmarried women are not prevented from migrating because of marriage or children and provide a potential income for their birth families. Another common profile of a Filipina émigré is the single/divorced mother in need of income to support her children.23

Household workers: perpetuating gendered responsibilities in the household

  • 24 Nagy, 1998.
  • 25 Mills, 2003, p. 46.

27The feminization of household work that began in the 1970s intensified with the recruitment of women from South and South East Asia and by the early 1990s, it had become as common to hire women as men for household work. This feminization of household labor did not include Bahraini women. Household work by this point in Bahrain’s development is perceived as a job for foreigners, and below the status of Bahrainis. As elsewhere, household work is plagued by complex stereotypes and stigma that, in many cases, lead to mistreatment and abuse.24 With the rise in overall income and the emergence of the ethos of consumerism, the number of households employing workers increased. For many Bahraini women, household help is now considered necessary to enable them to fulfill social obligations such as visiting people, pursuing education or working outside of the house. As elsewhere, the availability of low paid household labor allows their employers (Bahrainis) to enter professions that may challenge gender barriers in the workplace without disrupting gender responsibilities within the household.25

Hospitality, leisure and retail: opening the door for nationalization

  • 26 Nagy, 2004.

28Household work is only one of the many occupations held by South East Asian women in the Gulf. They work in jobs of all skill levels from waitresses to doctors, from manicurists to investment bankers, and are particularly well represented in the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors. Efforts toward economic diversification led to a growth in these parts of the economy. This included five star resort style hotels with beaches, spas and multiple food and beverage outlets, as well as three star hotel and nightclub complexes known to cater to weekend visitors from more conservative Saudi Arabia since the opening of the King Fahd Causeway in 1985. The flow of regional tourism, growing household incomes and ethos of consumerism were met with the introduction of department stores, shopping malls and amusement centers. Indeed, through the 1970s, hotels, restaurants, and shops were staffed almost exclusively by foreign men. In the 1980s, the scale and style of these industries changed and foreign women were hired to work the cash registers and reception desks, to wait tables and clean rooms, to cut hair, teach aerobics and entertain. These new occupational spaces did not fall neatly into any of the traditional gender categories. Yet, by the mid‑1990s the fields of hospitality, retail, personal services, entertainment and leisure were all fully feminized. Like flight attendants, women’s entry into these fields contradicts dominant Arab‑Islamic ideas and preferences for women working in the public arena.26

29Before the 1980s, it would have been rare to be served by a woman in a restaurant or shop. The entry of women into the service sector, particularly as retail clerks, waitresses and entertainers represents significant shifts in the use of Bahrain’s public spaces. These women are placed in positions where they are in contact with a large and diverse clientele. In addition, curfews and dormitories are no longer the norm. More commonly employees share employer‑provided apartments with co‑workers or compatriots. The level of supervision during their off time is not as strict as for those living in dormitories. Employees may be restricted from entertaining guests of the opposite sex in their apartments, but are only rarely subject to curfews. Such public access and mobility contradicts conservative Bahraini values of gender separation, privacy and modesty and the morality of the foreign women in these positions is subject to criticism. The complaints about, and calls to shut down, the night clubs and three star hotels along Exhibition Road in Bahrain have become to be an annual campaign in both Arabic and English language papers at the start of Ramadan every year. But, throughout the year too, foreign women in public occupations are frequently the subject of critique regarding what are perceived to be corrupting and immoral foreign influences in Bahrain.

30These women are subject to cultural censure not only for their public occupations, but also for their unaccompanied status, and mixed gender socializing. This is particularly true for South East Asian women who now share the reputation of flight attendants as accessible and approachable dating options for Bahraini and foreign men. This perception is exacerbated by an eroticization of “Asian‑ness”. Asian women, and Asian homosexual men, have become eroticized in Bahraini formulations of gender and sexuality. Employees hired to serve the public are recruited based on the perceived appeal they will have to prospective clientele. This extends beyond efficiency and communication skills. Employers explicitly set height and weight standards; impose dress codes; and, screen applicants for personability, physical appearance and personal hygiene. In this context, Bahraini men and women generally perceive South East Asian and European women to be more consistently pleasing and attractive than South Asian or African women. The concentration of South East Asian women in the leisure, entertainment and luxury consumption industries suggests an association between pleasure and Asian women.

31Furthermore, the unfortunate overrepresentation of Asians in the sex and entertainment industry, the vulnerability of Asian workers to sexual harassment and abuse, and the often‑misplaced blame for such incidents, all serve to sexualize or eroticize the Asian body. These women are considered “sexy” by Bahrain’s new transnationalized standards. Many of the cultural and physical features of South East Asian and European women are advantages in the labor market, and the continued placement of such women in positions associated with consumption and leisure reinforce perceptions of attractiveness. However, these same features and the nature of work in the public arena contribute to suggestions of immorality and sexual promiscuity.

32Despite this, more and more foreign women began working beside foreign men in hospitality, retail and leisure occupations. As these industries stabilized, select positions within them have been targeted for Bahrainization. In‑country training programs in hospitality now prepare both Bahraini men and women for jobs in hotels, particularly as receptionists, cashiers, and wait staff. As the Bahrainization of the hotel industry progresses, a tiered system is emerging among hotels and within the staff of particular hotels. Within the range of hotels in Bahrain, one is more likely to find Bahrainis working in customer service roles in five‑star hotels, whereas foreigners still largely staff four and three star hotels. Inside any hotel, the distribution of nationalities among particular positions is far from random. Lower wages and less desirable positions are still performed by foreign workers. The retail sector supports Bahrainis in sales and clerical positions working beside foreign colleagues. Within the past five years, Bahrain’s supermarkets and hypermarkets have phased out the employment of Asian cashiers. The Bahraini women and men working the cash registers today are supported by South Asian “bag boys”. The entertainment, personal services (masseurs, manicurists, etc.) remain, like household work, the domain of foreign workers.


33As we have seen above, the entry of women into Bahrain’s workforce is an intricate dance of migration trends, cultural values regarding appropriate occupations for women, questions of morality and national stereotypes. Labor migration to Bahrain is primarily a migration of unskilled and semi‑skilled laborers. Women were at first only a very small part of this labor migration and the earliest women to arrive were employed in positions where and managed in such a way that their public interactions were relatively limited. It was not until the 1980s, with the growth in the service industry and a shift to South East Asian labor, that foreign women became ubiquitous in jobs that require frequent public interaction. As foreign women were making their way into a broader range of occupations in Bahrain, Bahraini women were negotiating challenges in a segmented labor market and in cultural attitudes and expectations narrowing the range of occupations available to them. The success and aspirations of each of these groups has impacted the success and aspirations of the other. In some cases, foreign women’s employment opened new opportunities for Bahrainis, but other occupations remain unacceptable.

34A review of the highlighted occupations can serve as an illustration. Education and healthcare were two of the earliest occupations held by foreign women. These are in fact among the few occupations that foreign women holding visas associated with their spouse’s employment have been able take up without the complications of applying for their own work visa. They are also two occupational sectors considered appropriate for Bahraini women. Teacher training for Bahraini men and women was an early priority and few cultural obstacles existed to women’s employment in this field. Today, Bahrainis largely staff Bahrain’s public schools. Nonetheless, foreigners are still needed to meet the demand for teaching staff in all educational sectors. Healthcare has also been shifting away from its reliance on foreign labor, but at a slower pace than education. Not only was training in the health services introduced later than teacher training but the close physical contact and evening/night shifts required in some healthcare jobs remain a cultural deterrent for both Bahraini women and men.

  • 27 Mills, 2003, p. 46.

35Household work while feminized remains fully the province of foreigners. The household workers’ impact on Bahraini women’s employment is more accurately viewed as support to allow Bahraini women to seek employment outside of the home. This allows Bahraini women to potentially rework patterns of gender in the workplace without disrupting gender responsibilities within the household.27

36Air travel, not only in the Gulf, is an industry wherein female workers have been vulnerable to accusations of immorality, and their subordination has at times been maintained through an eroticization of the profession and various forms of sexual harassment. For the foreign women employed as flight attendants in Bahrain, global hierarchies and dominant cultural values regarding women and work in Bahrain exacerbated the industry‑wide pattern of eroticization. Among my interviewees, were Asian women working for Gulf Air who rationalized the working conditions while finding other means to find economic autonomy. A popular means was the suitcase trade in which they used their frequent travel between Asia and the Gulf to carry items for sale at each end of their route. The cultural stigma and travels of this position have remained strong deterrents against Bahraini women’s employment in the field. And, as we have seen above, efforts to Bahrainize the profession have required amending working conditions to be more sensitive to women’s social and familial responsibilities.

37Retail and hospitality may be the most heterogeneous sectors with Bahrainis, non‑Bahrainis, men and women working amongst one‑another or sharing the tasks by gender or nationality. On the other hand, personal services and entertainment remain subject to strong cultural challenges and are still staffed predominantly by foreigners.

  • 28 Louër, 2008; Nagy, 1998.

38We find that within a context where Bahraini women are encouraged and motivated to seek employment, foreign women in the workforce have alternatively been an aid and a hindrance to Bahraini women entering the work force. They aid by performing reproductive and other undesirable labor providing opportunities for Bahraini women to pursue education and other career paths outside of the home; yet, hinder by competing for similar positions, available at a lesser cost to employers, or preferred based on national stereotypes.28 Foreign women are not exempt from critique by dominant cultural discourses of modesty, gender segregation and privacy. Rather, their employment in positions challenging dominant Arab‑Islamic mores frequently serves as a focus for the public critique of “foreign” values. The changing demographics and migration patterns have altered structured relations to allow for Bahraini women to enter a broader range of occupations. Yet, this was achieved without any major transformation in dominant meanings and ideologies about hierarchies of gender and ethnicity.

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1 1 Central Informatics Organization, 2011.

2 International Labour Office, 1998, p. 217‑220, Table 7.

3 Of the other gulf cooperation council (GCC) states only Kuwait has a female participation rate over 20%.

4 Central Informatics Organization, 2011.

5 The difference in public sector salaries leads some Bahrainis to seek employment in Qatar or the U.A.E. (personal communication with Bahrainis employed in Qatar and the U.A.E.). In July 2011, Bahrain implemented an unprecedentedly high increase of up to 36.5% for salaries paid to public sector employees and up to 37.5% for retirees? See Al‑Jayūsī, 2011.

6 Gamburd, 2000; Osella and Osella, 2000.

7 Franklin, 1985; Gardner, 2010; Kapiszewski, 2001; Khuri, 1980; Louër, 2008; Onley, 2004; Lawless and Seccombe, 1986; Winckler, 2005; Zahlan, 1989.

8 Tamkeen, the government’s key training program for Bahrainis, was established in 2006 to expand the range of training and employment opportunities for Bahraini citizens and works in collaboration with private enterprise to channel trainees into the private sector.

9 Mills, 2003, p. 42.

10 Women, especially foreign women, are rarely mentioned in the early accounts of Bahrain and Arabia. This may partly be attributed to the limited access western observers may have had beyond public spaces.

11 Onley, 2004.

12 The linguistic bifurcation of the skilled labor market has not been systematically addressed in the migration literature and is a topic worthy of further examination.

13 Personal communication with male and female employees of Bapco and the American mission and their offspring conducted in Bahrain between 1978 and 2000.

14 15 Algeria, South Yemen and Syria restricted emigration to the GCC. Syria relaxed its emigration restrictions in the 1980s. See Winckler, 2005, p. 87‑88.

15 Ibid.

16 Abella, 1992; Acacio, 2005.

17 Lynch, 1999; Mills, 2003, p. 49.

18 Sabban, 2002.

19 Nagy, 2004.

20, visited in 2009.

21, visited in 2009.

22 Gulf Air Site, 2010.

23 Constable, 1997.

24 Nagy, 1998.

25 Mills, 2003, p. 46.

26 Nagy, 2004.

27 Mills, 2003, p. 46.

28 Louër, 2008; Nagy, 1998.

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Sharon Nagy, « Bahraini and Non‑Bahraini Women in Bahrain’s Workforce », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 06 mars 2013, consulté le 18 avril 2014. URL :

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