Gender: Gender and the Economy

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Women's economic participation in developing countries includes issues such as the invisibility of women's economic activities and their concentration mainly in low-wage and menial jobs in farming activities due to the lack of equal education and training, as well as limited access to productive assets, land and property, and credit.

Despite variations in woman's status in the Middle East and North Africa, gender bias in this region remains the highest in the world, thereby obstructing social and political development. Gender bias therefore limits the economic potential of half of the society. In contrast with other parts of the world, Middle Eastern women's economic participation in the labor force and in decision-making sectors is notably among the lowest in the world. Historically, a wide range of cultural, ideological, legislative, and political constraints have hindered women's economic roles and advancement. Moreover, political and economic instability caused by weak states, ongoing conflicts, and the repercussions of chronic war have had a negative impact on women's opportunities for economic advancement.

Restrictive Environment

Ideologically, the inferior status of women in Middle Eastern and North African societies stems from patriarchal interpretations of the religious rulings of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Such interpretations have stressed women's family roles as wives, daughters, and mothers. Therefore, women remained "jural minors," economically, legally, and socially dependent on fathers, brothers, and, after marriage, husbands. Given this historical and ideological context, an autonomous public life for a woman was outside the norm and was often perceived as a threat to her family's honor and reputation.

Following the end of the colonial era, the attaining of independence, and the creation of national governments in the region, gender-biased regulations have been institutionalized in legislation, with the result that women are often deprived of basic rights and privileges enjoyed elsewhere. Personal status laws and other legal codes have limited women's full integration into society. For example, women in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt must obtain the permission of their fathers, brothers, or husbands to attain a passport or travel outside of their country. In certain cases this authorization is required to open a business, receive a bank loan, or get married. A Saudi newspaper reported in November 2002 that Saudi women's bank accounts contained more than $26 billion in unutilized funds because of the laws that prevent women from conducting business autonomously.

Furthermore, women who marry foreigners are denied the right to extend their citizenship to their husbands or any children they may bear, unlike men married to foreign wives. The combination of these new codes and regulations affects the economic rights of women negatively and systematically.

Low female participation in the work force is also the result of limited industrialization in the region. Middle Eastern and North African economies are mainly dependent on oil exports. Therefore, governments chose development strategies that relied on oil and finance. In return, this strategy minimized the use of labor and offered scant employment opportunities for women. In fact, the reliance of Gulf economies on oil and the associated economic boom has affected labor market trends throughout the region, not just women's participation. The oil boom has contributed to the preservation of a patriarchal family structure, according to which men act as breadwinners and women as homemakers, the former having a public role, the latter a private one. High income in oil-producing countries and associated increased remittance to labor-exporting countries in the region make it unnecessary for women to seek paid employment outside the home.

In nonoil exporting economies that adopted import-substitution industrial strategies, such as Egypt, both private and public sectors established industrial projects and opened work opportunities that favored male workers but also created new spaces for female workers. In other countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia, export-led development strategies and associated flows of foreign capital into both countries has enabled active female participation in the work force. Nevertheless, reports revealed that female workers in garment subcontracting workshops in Morocco are exploited, and owners will not hire married women.

Lagging female integration in the region's economy also has political dimensions. During the Cold War, Western countries, mainly the United States, supported the rise of political Islam, including Islamic armed groups, thus limiting women's chances for emancipation. Many of the oppressive governments in the region survived only because of Western military or economic support. In Afghanistan, Taliban rule, originally stemming from the mojahedin movements supported by the United States in its proxy war against the Soviet Union, confined Afghan women to their homes and banned them from education and work for years. Furthermore, the concept no less than the practice of gender equality is opposed by many groups in the region, who view the idea as a manifestation of colonization, since colonial authorities supported women's rights primarily to denigrate and thereby dominate the cultures of the region.

Gender and Socioeconomic Transformation

Until recently, rural women comprised the majority of women in the region. Thus women's traditional economic roles included household labor, farming, and livestock breeding. However, exposure to Western culture in the nineteenth century through increased integration of the region into the world economy, colonization, missionary activities,
and male students' scholarships to study in Europe generated forces within Middle Eastern and North African societies that favored changes in the conditions of women. Egpyt's Qasim Amin, considered the father of feminism in the region, published his influential book The Liberation of Women in 1889.

Unlike Egypt and Turkey, where elites and upper classes partook early in modernity, and where women's status improved notably, in Lebanon, the emigration of peasants to the United States engaged entire, far-reaching networks of Lebanese in modernization processes at home and abroad. According to Khater, this early contact with American society and economy created a new "mobile middle class" that put considerable pressures on the prevailing social and economic arrangements in communities of origin, resulting in changed patterns of marriage and other gender relations.

In the early twentieth century, modernization and urbanization further improved the conditions of women, including access to education and health care. Education has enabled women with skills to enter the non-agricultural work force and to practice extra-domestic income-generating activities. Thanks to accelerated modernization, combined with widespread gender advocacy led by women's organizations, many societies in the region have witnessed an unprecedented rise in woman's literacy rates. This has resulted in women's increasing engagement in public life. In countries such as Israel, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey, women have become heads of government. Furthermore, groups of highly educated and professional women have become significant agents of reform and change, such as Hanan Ashrawi of Palestine, Nawwal as-Saʿdawi of Egypt, and Shirin Ebadi of Iran.

Increased rates of urbanization, literacy, and employment have changed attitudes, practices, and perceptions. Women in the region are trying to move toward egalitarian ideas and the reconstruction of modern life, especially the family structure and its associated gender roles and relations. Growing access to the Internet and other communication technologies in recent years is expected to enhance such reforms.

Women's Economic Status

Official statistics for the region indicate that women's empowerment policies have effectively targeted female education and health services, which have improved significantly over the last few decades. These improvements are essentially due to increased public spending on education and health care and the spread of mass media. In the year 2000, average spending on education reached 5.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)the highest in the worldand 2.9 percent on health care. As a result, the welfare of women has improved significantly. Female life expectancy has increased by ten years since 1980 and the female literacy rate increased from less than 17 percent in 1970 to more than 52 percent in 2000.

Yet, as the UN's Human Development Report for 2003 has noted, the region has the lowest gender empowerment ratings, which reflects the participation of women in economic, professional, and political activities using indicators of per capita income, women's percentage share for professional and technical positions, and women's percentage share of parliamentary seats. More specifically, Israel is rated highest at 61.2 percent, followed by the United Arab Emirates (31.5%), Turkey (29%), and Egypt (25.3%). Yemen is the lowest on the list, with a rate of 12.7 percent. By contrast, the measure for countries in Latin America exceeded 50 percent and 75 percent of rates for specific European and North American countries. No data was available for SubSaharan Africa and other Middle Eastern and North African countries. The Arab Human Development Report (2002) explained that the lack of such data is an index of official disregard for women's empowerment in the region.

The report also reveals that women's economic participation remains lower than prevailing rates elsewhere. Similarly, female participation in the labor market remains among the lowest rates in the world, despite an evident increase over the last three decades from less than 23 percent in 1970 to 32 percent in 2000. Official statistics suggests that female participation in work force rates varies significantly among individual countries in the region. In Israel, female participation is around 41 percent compared with only 16 percent in Saudi Arabia (see table 1). International comparisons suggest that the highest recorded rate was in East Asia and the Pacific (76%), followed by Europe and Central Africa (67%), and sub-Saharan Africa (62%). Thus, the gender gap in labor force participation remains profound in the Middle East and North Africa.

gender and the economy
countrypopulation (in millions)female population (% total)total labor force (in millions)female labor force (% total)unemployment rate
*unemployment data for lebanon refers to 1995. n.a.: not available.
source: World Bank online Database of Gender Statistics
Table by GGS Information Services, The Gale Group.
saudi arabia20.745.7716n.a.n.a.

In addition to the lower work force participation rate, the distribution of men and women workers among economic sectors presents a continuation of traditional trends. In countries such as Turkey and Yemen, the largest share of women is employed in agriculture as unpaid family workers. Women's employment in other countries has increased mainly in the traditionally accepted public services such as health and education, which channels traditional female skills into paid forms of care giving. In contrast, female employment remains low in manufacturing and minimal in communication, trade, and tourism activities. In Israel, the most dynamic and diversified economy in the region, women's work is also mostly concentrated in lower-paying jobs, services, education, health, welfare, and clerical positions. Israeli women are significantly less represented in prestigious occupations such as technology, management, government, the military, and engineering.

In 2002 a study conducted by the United Nation Development Fund on women's participation in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Jordan found that women make up only 28 percent of the ICT labor force. The larger proportion of Jordanian women is employed in the low-skilled jobs, such as data entry and support jobs. The findings also suggested that only 7 percent of the female ICT workers are decision makers and only 2 percent are project mangers and team leaders. Equivalent estimates for other Arab countries in the region are expected to be much lower, since Jordan is considered one of the ICT hubs of the Arab mashriq region.

Clearly, the public sector is the preferred employment venue for female workers throughout the region. Government jobs assure women of more equal treatment and benefits. Conversely, women employed in private enterprises suffer gender discrimination, including lower wages and limited professional prospects. In the case of Egypt, an employed woman in the private sector receives only 50 percent of a male coworker's wage despite having equal qualifications. This phenomenon might be attributed to non-wage benefits, including shorter working hours, lengthy maternity leaves, and early access to pension.

However, ongoing economic restructuring strategies in the region have a significant impact on women and have reduced female job opportunities in public institutions. This trend has pushed women workers into the informal employment sector, with low remuneration and no social protection, as suggested by the Moroccan case.

Women's low participation in the labor market has serious economic implications. At the individual level, it is costly for women and their families. The welfare of the familyincluding consumption of food, housing, healthcare, and other goods and servicesis determined by the available income for the entire family. Logically, two workers in the household earn more income. During the oil boom in the 1970s and early 1980s, higher real wages made it possible for the small number of workers to support large number of dependents within their families while still enjoying high standards of living. Since the mid-1980s, real wages stagnated or declined. Consequently, fewer workers were able to support their families and maintain the same living standards. Nationally, lower participation rates for women in Middle Eastern and North African economies mean that almost half of the available human resources remain unutilized. Research has revealed that lower female participation in the labor market in the region has negatively affected successful structural adjustment reforms and competitiveness in the context of the global economy.

No Access to Assets

In addition to the significant gap in the labor market, limited access to assets and opportunities further restrict overall female economic participation in the region. For example, women's entitlement to land is minimal. Traditionally, sons are entitled to inherit the father's properties while women are discouraged to claim inheritance rights. In Egypt, the overall share of female landholders is less than 6 percent of all holders, although female labor is concentrated in agriculture activities.

Women's access to credit services is also restricted because formal credit institutions offer loans to those who have collateral such as land. Hence, women are almost excluded from such services since they do not have the required collateral. Moreover, females' access to new information and communication technologies is minimal.

Despite the quantitative improvement in female education, a closer look at female enrollment rates by subject suggests significant difference relative to males. For example, in the academic year 1995/1996 around 64.4 percent of female students in Jordan were enrolled in humanities and only 17.7 percent in engineering and physical and technical sciences. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) estimates this gap is more severe in other Arab countries. In the Arab world, the number of male students enrolled in fields of study such as engineering, commercial studies, and law is four times higher than that of female students. As a result, male students will have better career prospects and greater economic potential compared to that of their female colleagues.

Living in Poverty

The overall economic imbalance is also reflected in income and wages earned by female workers compared to those of their male counterparts. Wage discrimination against female workers is significant in the region compared to other countries. On average, a woman is paid only 73 percent of a man holding similar qualifications. According to the World Bank, if women in the region were paid for their qualifications in a manner equivalent to men, women's earnings would increase by an average of 32 percent, so they would earn 93 cents for every dollar earned by men, instead of 73 cents. Wage and income discrimination have increased the vulnerability of women and of female-headed households.

Based on the patriarchal notions according to which the man is the income earner, family benefits and non-wage allowances are usually channeled only through men. This practice increases discrimination against female workers and hinders female participation in general. Women's vulnerability also increased in recent years because of rising unemployment and poverty rates in the region due to increased political instability and associated economic decline. At the same time, war and conflicts have increased the number of households headed by women in the region.

Addressing the Imbalance

In order to reduce gender imbalance and empower women in the region, various initiatives are currently being implemented in the region by civil organizations, governments, and international organizations, including the United Nations and the World Bank. In 2002 the first Arab Human Development Report urged enhancing women's roles in Arab society and economy.

This approach implies legal education as well as training and infrastructure components. The legal component requires the review of legislative regulations to amend legal provisions that fail to recognize gender equality and women's rights. The legal component also requires the reform of the labor market law to reflect the emerging development model based mainly on the private sector in job creation.

The report also calls for continued attention to education to provide women with better market skills through vocational and lifelong learning opportunities. Female supportive infrastructure is needed to allow women to combine work and family roles easily and with minimum sacrifice. Nevertheless, the successful implementation of this approach requires a profound change at all levels of society, from top-level government to local communities and individual households.


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Khater, Akram. Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 18791920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Khoury, Nabil, and Moghadam, Valentine, eds. Gender and Development in the Arab World: Women's Economic Participation, Patterns and Policies. London: Zed Books, 1995.

United Nations Development Programme and Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. Arab Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations. New York: Author, 2002.

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Khaled Islaih

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Gender: Gender and the Economy

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