Gaps Within Arab Countries

One common myth that is frequently propagated, sometimes in scholarly circles but often in popular media, is the notion of a single monolithic Arab culture. Arabs are seen to represent one ethnic group with one religion and one history. This is an overgeneralization of the diversity that comprises the Arab world. Arabs do not represent one ethnic group, there are sizable Christian minorities, and most Muslims are not Arabs. Actually, the “true” Arabs in terms of ethnicity now comprise a minority within most Arab countries. The Arab world covers a vast geographic area with various groups, disparate historic experiences,39 and diverse traditions and social norms. There are indeed some common features among those societies, but there are also many areas of difference. Those differences often represent better explanations of group behavior than the commonalities. As far as women’s role in society is concerned, it would be important to uncover the unique features that characterize each Arab community and sub-community. A few examples will illustrate this point.

The experiences of working women in the oil-producing countries are unique. Historically, women were active in agriculture, trade, and light industries. While their social role was still subject to prevalent communal traditions, their participation was impactful. As oil was discovered and economic development increased, women felt less urge to stay in the workforce. The new affluent economic status acted as a disincentive for their economic involvement. A growing religious discourse also discouraged women from work unless there was a need. As a “real need” for women to work became less crucial, women were encouraged to stay at home. This led to dismal participation rates in the 1960s and 1970s. However, in many such countries, a counter-argument has been causing a gradual reverse in this trend. Women have been faring better in many Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE.40 Bahrain is also good illustrator of this trend. Women in 1970 comprised a mere 4.9% of the Bahraini workforce. In 2013, they comprised 31.8% of this workforce.

Saudi Arabia, which is the principal country among the Arab Gulf countries, is an anomaly in this regard. Women are employed in the public sector mainly in the education and health sectors, but their presence in the private sector is limited. The Saudi Arabian cultural context emphasizes strict segregation between males and females in the public sphere. This rather unique case does not extend—at least not to the same degree—to other neighboring countries, let alone other Arab countries. The participation rate of females in Saudi Arabia is still limited. Although it gradually improved over the last few decades, it seems to be plateauing at about 20%.

Jordan also represents a case worthy of exploration. While the Jordanian culture does not impose the same social restrictions on women as Saudi Arabia, female participation rates are even lower than those of Saudi Arabia. The tribal Jordanian society is conservative,41 and despite a less conservative social agenda by the state, the economic role of women is limited. Both male and female labor force participation rates in Jordan are among the lowest in the whole region. This suggests that there are economic factors, rather than mere cultural factors, that impact labor participation rates of both genders in those two countries.

Egypt represents another distinctive case. Its huge population and struggling economy have prompted millions of Egyptian men to seek employment outside the country. This—in theory—should have put more pressures toward employment of more women inside the country. Coupled with increased levels of education for Egyptian women, one would expect increased levels of female labor force participation. Yet statistics show a depressing trend where the intuitive link between education and participation does not hold. In fact, this link has been weakening, and many educated women remain outside the labor force.42 Working women also have to balance between economic needs and conservative values that do not look favorably at their work outside their homes.43 The impact of labor migration resulted in an increase of working women in rural areas coupled with a reduction of their participation in urban areas.44 Some scholars argue that the problem of the stagnant participation trend, in spite of rising educational attainment, is due to the “economic and policy environment and is therefore amenable to policy action.”45

Finally, Lebanon is a diverse Arab country where Christians represent a sizable minority with significant economic and political powers. It is the only Arab country with a Christian president, and its social customs are considered to be liberal compared to most of its Arab counterparts. Women enjoy lots of freedoms at the social, economic, and political levels. This facade of liberalism is not, however, translated into higher levels of participation. Lebanon has one of the worst gender gaps in the world ranking 135 out of 144 in the global index of gender equity.46 It ranks 133 on economic participation and opportunity, 108 on educational attainment, 102 on health and survival, and a dismal next to last ranking of 143 on political empowerment. Lebanon also ranks 136 on female to male ratio of labor participation, and 135 on female to male estimated earned income. It ranks 118 out of 123 ranked countries in terms of female presence as legislators, senior officials, and managers.47 These figures are striking for a country that has long been seen as the “Switzerland of the East” in terms of its freedom and openness to the West. The Lebanese case suggests that, beyond economic factors, there are forces that, independent of religious affiliation, operate in a way that is not conducive to women empowerment and participation. Perhaps unique to the Lebanese case, Yessayan and colleagues note that “contrary to what many believe, the main obstacle to women’s political participation may not be the patriarchal or family-based culture itself, but rather the political culture, the state structure, and the sectarian divides inherent in it. ”48

The above suggest that while there are shared attributes among Arab countries, falling into the trap of overgeneralization would not be helpful in explaining the situation of Arab women and their participation levels within each Arab country. Many Arab countries seem to be doing relatively better on education and health equity for women, but not as well on economic and political participation. Some countries have strict explicit societal controls on the work of women; others have more implicit and subtle constraints. Social freedoms vary, but even in those contexts where women enjoy such liberties, those are not translated into real and significant empowerment.

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