In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), women have made progress toward establishing equal access to economic opportunities, especially with regard to access to education. Over the past decade, MENA governments have invested about 5.3 percent of their GDP in education—the highest percentage in the world.1
A 2007 report by the World Bank called attention to the rapid gains made by MENA countries:
Between 1980 and 2010, the average years of schooling for females aged 15–19 in MENA more than doubled from 3.5 to 8.1 years—among the fastest increases in the world. Worldwide, it took an average of 3 decades for the share of 6- to 12-year-old girls in school to increase from 75 to 88 percent. MENA achieved the same increase in 2 decades: from 1990 to 2010.2
However, it is important to note that regional statistics tend to mask the fact that women’s economic status varies widely across the region and even within individual countries. For example, while the United Arab Emirates has closed the educational attainment gap, countries like the Republic of Yemen still continue to remain at the bottom of global gender gap indexes published by the World Economic Forum.
However, in many ways and in many MENA countries, girls are defying stereotypical expectations. In eight MENA countries, women are more likely to attend university than men. And, as Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman, points out, many MENA women are outperforming their male peers in math, technology, and engineering.
The number of MENA women employed or owning businesses has nevertheless only increased marginally in the past 30 years (although it should be noted that most global averages of female participation in the labor force have changed very slowly). In 1980, about 22 percent of women in the MENA region participated in the workforce. Today, that number is 25 percent—still half the rate of the global average.1
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations as well as a journalist and the best-selling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, believes that full participation by women in the world’s economies is imperative for turning around economic hardship and inequality. In a blog for the Council on Foreign Relations, Lemmon recently wrote that “if female participation rates in Egypt were equal to those of men, GDP would grow by 34 percent. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates, which continues to hold the top position among Arab countries in women’s economic participation and is the only MENA country to have fully closed the educational attainment gap, could grow its GDP by 12 percent.”3
The potential gains from achieving economic equality for women are tremendous. But women face multiple social and economic barriers to acquiring jobs and starting businesses in MENA. Varying by region, traditional cultural beliefs can limit women’s mobility in the public sphere and have a strong influence on whether women work or eventually drop out of the labor force.1 Not enough investment in job-related skills is another key barrier, as well as policies that disincentivize women from working. For example, according to the World Bank: “In MENA countries, the tax and employment-related benefits that families receive can generally be channeled only through the man.”2
Women in MENA, however, are turning to entrepreneurship in order to create their own rules. According to Lemmon, “Thanks in part to women, entrepreneurship is becoming an increasingly important tool in fighting the high unemployment rates seen across the MENA region.”3
The question of how to support women’s entrepreneurship and employment will be key for the future growth of MENA countries. According to a report by the International Finance Corporation, the business environment in MENA tends to be difficult overall. But women entrepreneurs are disproportionately burdened by the challenges of balancing work and family responsibilities.4 The World Bank also reported that “one possible barrier is that women may have less physical and ‘reputational’ collateral than men.”1
“Women are starting businesses and could use some real resources like support for network building and skills building, and access to finance and markets,” Lemmon said. “The international community is finally starting to pay attention to women’s economic potential—although it’s still regarded as somewhat of a niche issue. Even so, people are now asking, how do we get resources to women micro-entrepreneurs, so that they can become SME owners? People aren’t just talking about how great it is that women are in business—they’re looking at the next step, which is getting them access to finance and support to help them grow.”
What does the future hold for women’s economic empowerment in the MENA region? Many experts still point to violence and instability as the greatest threats to MENA women’s agency (not to mention society as a whole). Achieving peace and an inclusive political climate will help women’s economic and social rights gain a firm foothold—but how soon that will occur remains to be seen.
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program recently published a collection of essays by leading women in MENA in celebration of 2014’s International Women’s Day.5 In the collection, Muna AbuSulayman, co-founder of Medeen.com and cohost of the popular talk show Kalam Nawaem, wrote:
To become a product of personal decision, rather than circumstance, is perhaps the thing that most women aspire to in the Arab world. But for many this goal is not quite possible, at least not yet.
The Arab world is struggling on many fronts: the economy, legal rights, governance, women’s rights, unemployment, and, in some parts, education. These are the issues that continually come up when you look at challenges facing the region. These issues are all important to the development of a stable future for the MENA region. Nonetheless, I believe that sectarianism is the greatest threat that women face right now.5
Many of AbuSulayman’s colleagues in the essay collection expressed a similar view. Fahmia Al Fotih, Communication Analyst at United Nations Population Fund, wrote:
[W]omen’s progress or regression ultimately depends more on stability in the region, as well as which power actors will dominate and how they perceive women and gender issues. It also depends on the strength and resistance of women’s movements in the region. The tasks ahead for women in the region are to keep struggling for their rights and to ensure that their fight for gains will not be lost.5
The rewards of advancing women’s political representation are still unfolding in MENA. Women only represent 7 percent of the seats in parliament. But countries like Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates are appointing or electing women to political office. In 2011, Tunisia mandated that an equal number of women and men run for seats in the constituent assembly, and now 27 percent of those seats belong to women. Saudi Arabia is the last of the GCC countries to extend voting rights to women, and will finally do so in 2015. During the 2011 uprisings (often referred to as the “Arab Spring”), women made significant political gains in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, although such gains may still be on paper only. In her essay for the Wilson Center, Sultana Al-Jeham, Chairwoman of Women’s Affairs at the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation, expressed a measured view of the future of women’s progress in the coming year:
Syrian women will continue mourning, even if the Geneva political process results in a peace agreement in 2014. The Lebanese government will have limited abilities to agree on a clear agenda for women because of the historical problem of its government structure. Women in the Palestinian territories have long struggled not only because of Israel but also because of the conflict between the Hamas and Fatah movements. Jordan’s government will have to appease the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood movement in order to continue functioning and, thus, will not be able to make any significant improvement for women. In Tunisia, the newly approved constitution is revolutionary compared to other Arab countries’ constitutions…[S]ignificant opportunities for women will not be seen in the year 2014. However, it will be a year for processing better rights, and opportunities could be seen in following years, given that women in most countries have gained constitutional and legal rights.5
While improving women’s rights is happening very slowly in the region, the voices of women are growing stronger in the public sphere, and this trend should not be underestimated as a catalyst of change. For example, during Saudi Arabia’s 2011 male-only municipal elections, groups of women openly protested their exclusion by lining up at polling stations, and activist Samar Mohammad Badawi filed the country’s first lawsuit for women’s suffrage. While Badawi’s claim was rejected, King Abdullah announced later that year that the elections would be open to women in 2015. Today, activists like Badawi are continuing to push for institutional changes that will recode social norms, such as removing the ban on women driving and lifting the country’s male guardianship laws, which is still the biggest hurdle for women’s agency in Saudi Arabia.
With regard to Iraq, Rend Al Rahim, Executive Director of the Iraq Foundation and former Iraq Ambassador to the United States, weighed in on the future of women in Iraq in her Wilson Center essay. After decrying the disparity between the rhetoric of the country’s constitution and the actual political and social practices toward women, Rahim remarked on the mounting courage exhibited by women:
On the bright side, women are becoming politically bolder. To date, few women have been active in the political arena: none lead or have prominent positions in political parties; few women MPs in the current parliament speak out on national issues. But in the coming elections in April 2014, three women-only lists and two individual women are running independently of men. In a culture where even women are reluctant to vote for women, going it alone without men is a brave move: women do not attract the funding or the allegiance that male-led lists can secure. This is an indication of increased assertiveness, self-confidence, and leadership capacity among women. If any of these women succeed in the elections, it will be an important development for all women in Iraq.5
One can only speculate how quickly legislative gains will occur in the future, but as a result, women’s economic equity could be achieved faster than history has previously shown.
The growing number of young people in MENA is another significant trend to watch, in terms of the potential effect on women’s employment. According to the World Bank, “In most MENA countries, 15–29 year olds constitute approximately one-third of the population. As the bulk of the population moves into the working age group by 2050, younger cohorts will continue to make up a significant proportion of the population.” 1 If education improvements continue in MENA, then young men and women will grow up increasingly educated, and social attitudes about women’s right to work stand to shift as well. Women’s aspirations to participate in the workforce increase as they become more educated. According to a Gallup poll, the more that men in MENA are educated (and employed), the more that they also tend to support women’s right to work.6
Still, the future demographics of MENA are sobering in light of the region’s chronically high unemployment rates—19 percent for the general population and 25 percent for young people.6 According to the World Bank, if these numbers continue, “[b]y 2050, 50 million men of working age would be without jobs, and the corresponding number for women would be a staggering 145 million.”1 The result will likely be even more public pressure on governments to boost job creation, improve the business climate of MENA, and advance institutional reforms.
Historically, many MENA countries have increased the number of public sector jobs and subsidies in response to high levels of unemployment. However, the World Bank observes that such policies are already becoming fiscally unsustainable for many MENA countries and will soon become burdensome even for wealthy GCC countries, which will see oil revenues taper off in the long run.1 Thus, economics have the potential to significantly pressure MENA governments to work harder toward establishing more inclusive economic models that reverse the underutilization of women in the labor force.
That young women are increasingly voicing their aspirations for more economic opportunities is another factor that will likely boost the number of women in MENA who work. For example, a 2010 World Bank survey of Jordanian female community college graduates reported that 92 percent planned to work after graduation and 76 percent expected to be working full time. This matches a 2012 Gallup poll, which asked women in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen whether they agreed with the statement, “Women should be allowed to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home.”6 92 percent of women in Bahrain, 89 percent in Egypt, 89 percent in Tunisia, 87 percent in Yemen, 66 percent in Libya, and 58 percent in Syria agreed with the statement.
By increasingly expressing their views publically, women are influencing their peers and reshaping societal expectations. During the 2011 uprisings in MENA, women used social media to engage in cyberactivism and played central roles in the political changes that occurred. While there is still a digital divide when it comes to women and social media use in MENA (women make up about a third of the region’s social media users), they have continued to use social media to express their views on economic empowerment, among other issues. For example, according to journalist Khaled Aburas, as quoted by Arab News, “Saudi women, especially university graduates, are using Twitter and other social media outlets to mobilize support for their rights. Many of them have been waiting for years to get employed. They have formed a group now on Twitter to make their voice heard by officials.”7
Digital platforms have also emerged as powerful tools for increasing women’s mobility and for connecting them to markets. Handasiyat.net, an online hub for contract engineers based in Jordan, is seeing an unprecedented number of women engineers seeking to return to the labor force by working from home.8 But not only are women in MENA using more technology, they are also becoming pioneers in the field.
“At Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, [a global student technology competition], there were only three all-women teams,” Lemmon said. “One was a one-woman team from Portugal. And the other two were from Oman and Qatar, which have sent all-female teams two years in a row.”
In an article for Fast Company, Lemmon describes how the Oman and Qatar teams didn’t expect so many people to be surprised that they were all-female:
“We really didn’t think about it until we came and everyone was surprised,” says Latifa Al-Naimi, 20. She and her teammates from Qatar University developed Artouch, a device that allows museum-goers to connect with artifacts on exhibit. They got the idea after watching Qatar pour resources into art collecting and museum investment, led by Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chair of the Qatar Museums Authority and sister of Qatar’s emir.
At Qatar University, both her computer science and computer engineering classes have more women than men, notes Al-Naimi’s teammate Amna Al-Kaabi, 20. “I don’t find any difference between being in an all-girl team or all-guys or mixed,” she says.9
The so-called “Arab Spring” and its rapid progression caught much of the world off guard—prompting some commentators to point out that the “West” was surprised because of its own failure to recognize the region’s complex and long history of revolution. Similarly, the all-female Imagine Cup teams from Oman and Qatar should perhaps come as no surprise, if we recognize not only the tremendous challenges that women in MENA face, but also their immense collective brainpower and the efforts of tireless activists and everyday women who are continuing to press for the right to lead self-determined lives. With the Internet opening new possibilities for personal expression, citizen engagement, and networking, women’s societal influence in MENA could catalyze tremendous change within the coming decade.
Lemmon reported that Safa Almukhaini of the Oman team has plans to pursue a computer science-related Master’s degree and then open her own technology firm. Almukhaini had this to say: “It [will be] challenging, but it is achievable. The environment has been prepared for women to do whatever they want.”