The (Slowly) Changing Gender Dynamics in Arab Countries

A now infamous image from 2014 captured the moment Loujain al-Hathloul’s life changed: it shows her sitting behind the wheel of a car, a small smile on her face, as she drives from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). That was it—a young woman driving, as tens of millions of young women around the world do every day. Unfortunately, at the time, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women were not permitted to drive. Hathloul was arrested but quickly released. In May 2018, however, she and several other human rights activists in Saudi Arabia were arrested, ostensibly for “harming national security.” Weeks later, her cause was successful; in 2018, Saudi Arabia finally allowed women to drive. Yet Hathloul remained in prison for three more years.

This case received global attention and advocacy from human rights organizations. For many, Hathloul was a reminder that despite the glitz of the Gulf states, they can still be regressive when it comes to women’s rights. Until recently, for example, unmarried women in the UAE who became pregnant could be punished with deportation or even jail. In Qatar, women are subject to a harsh male guardian system, requiring permission to marry, travel abroad, work in certain industries, and even to receive some forms of health care. Bahrain still has a law that allows a rapist to avoid criminal punishment if he marries his victim. And of course, it is not just the Gulf; according to the 2021 Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), almost all Arab states rank among the worst for women.

Despite their relatively poor ranking as compared to the rest of the world, and a long way to go to equality, the Arab states have made some significant strides in gender parity and women’s rights in recent years, primarily due to the hard and often dangerous work of women’s rights activists from the region. The question thus arises as to how to reconcile stories like Hathloul’s with the overall trajectory of gender dynamics in the region.

The Changing Status of Women in the Arab World

No country in the world has achieved gender parity, according to the GGGI. However, it is undeniable that there is a confluence of factors in the Arab states that lead to poor outcomes for women’s rights and gender equality, including cultural norms and expectations, discrimination in the legal system and in economic opportunities, little political representation in legislation and conflict resolution, and the effects of conflict, displacement, and terrorism. Almost all Arab states have ratified the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (exceptions are Somalia and Sudan), yet many have added reservations to different parts of the articles. This indicates a tension between the desire for progress and the entrenchment of forms of discrimination against women within these systems that will be difficult to root out.

No country in the world has achieved gender parity. However, it is undeniable that there is a confluence of factors in the Arab states that lead to poor outcomes for women’s rights and gender equality.

While Islam, the primary religion of Middle East/North Africa (MENA), is typically blamed for the high gender gap and poor treatment of women in some parts of the region, research suggests that this explanation is not sufficient and that it obscures intersectional factors in discrimination. Gender gaps tend to be worse in rural areas with lower educational attainment, impoverished populations, and more prevalent contexts of conflict and political instability. This is the case worldwide, but MENA is overrepresented in states with these characteristics.

To meet emerging global standards and overcome negative reputations, many states in the Arab world are proposing more progressive gender policies. As a result, leaders of many Arab states are attempting to strike a delicate balance between promoting women’s rights to assuage external audiences and keep up with changing internal dynamics, while still upholding the role of the woman as a central figure in the family to maintain the support of the conservative segments of their societies. This leaves women, and especially young women, in a difficult situation: as one recounted, “I have a job and future plans. Why should I marry? I don’t want to say that marriage erases the dreams, but sometimes with the family commitment you can’t do it.”

Arab Women at Work

The Arab states report the lowest female labor participation rate in the world. At 20 percent, it is less than half the world average (47 percent). Female unemployment is nearly three times the world average (around 15 percent), and Arab women are also less likely to be in managerial positions than their global counterparts—11 percent vs. 27 percent, respectively. The region has been especially slow to incorporate women into political decision-making, although some progress has been made in this sector, spurred by women’s growing presence in politics through activism. The UAE was the first Arab country to appoint a woman as Speaker of the Federal National Council (Parliament) in 2015, and Algeria, Iraq, Mauritania, Sudan, and Tunisia instituted gender quotas for government positions, which brought women’s representation in government to more than 25 percent. Many countries, however, still have little or no female representation in any significant governmental roles.

Unlike in some regions, these disparities are not reflected as strongly in education. For the most part, outside of the most rural and impoverished areas, Arab women are highly educated, performing as well as—and often better than—men. However, patriarchal norms lead to an environment where educated women are explicitly or implicitly discouraged from working. The MENA region also performs worse than any other region on business and legal policies for women, including on mobility issues (i.e., the ability to travel independently), pay, workplace policies, entrepreneurship, and other sectors. Coupled with familial duties and expectations, an inhospitable working environment discourages many women from fighting to enter the workforce only to face low pay, poor benefits, and insufficient workplace protections.

For the most part, outside of the most rural and impoverished areas, Arab women are highly educated, performing as well as—and often better than—men.

Recognizing that change is needed for advancing internal development as well as for remaining competitive globally, many states are changing their policies toward women in the workplace, albeit slowly. Saudi Arabia, for example, set a target for the female labor participation rate to reach 30 percent by 2030, a number they claim they have already surpassed. The UAE has also made strides in economic empowerment under its Gender Balance Council, introducing criminal penalties for sexual harassment, prohibiting gender-based discrimination in hiring and firing, and allowing women to work in sectors previously barred to them. Still, most employed women in Arab states work in low-paying jobs in limited industries that are considered acceptable for women. As a result, many women with even advanced degrees may exit the workforce once they are married and especially once they have children. In many Arab states, highly educated women are actually more likely to be unemployed than women with less education.

Arab Women at Home

While disproportionately underrepresented in the workplace, Arab women are expected to shoulder most of the burden at home. Women in Arab states perform nearly five times as much unpaid care work than men—the highest disparity in the world. Married women perform twice as much care work as unmarried women. Although the fertility rate has fallen significantly as education levels have increased, from about seven children per woman in 1960 to three in 2019, it remains slightly higher than the world average. However, smaller families and more progressive attitudes among Arab men about their role in household tasks and caregiving are slowly shifting expectations of women in the home, especially as more women desire to enter the workforce. Other expectations about marriage are slowly changing as well. Tunisia, seen as one of the more socially progressive Arab states, recently lifted laws that had banned women from marrying non-Muslim men. Child marriage rates in the region have also been decreasing. Many states are passing laws allowing women to initiate divorce and pass nationality on to their children, and more young people from the region believe they—and not their families—should have final say in their choice of a spouse.

The home is often the last place to see effective reform, especially as many women fear speaking out due to the possibility of being punished. About one third of partnered women in MENA have experienced interpersonal violence, with much higher rates in some countries. Gender-based violence only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In states that report high levels of so-called “honor killings,” legislatures are slow to enact reform or even, in some cases, to acknowledge the issue. As one Kuwaiti women’s rights activist opined, “They [government ministers] think what happens at home, even murder, is a private matter.” Yet some governments, like the UAE, have taken steps to treat these cases like any other murders, changing sentencing guidelines from a minimum of three years to, now, the potential for life imprisonment or the death penalty. Female genital mutilation (FGM), reported in an astounding 92 percent of Egyptian women aged 15-49, is showing signs of decline as a practice in younger women, at 70 percent of women aged 15-19. Egypt has vowed to eliminate FGM altogether by 2030. While there remains a host of discriminatory laws and norms against women in the region, the collective view of these initiatives portends a better future for Arab women than existed even just a few years ago.

While there remains a host of discriminatory laws and norms against women in the region, the collective view of some government initiatives portends a better future for Arab women than existed even just a few years ago.

Progress is Evident, but MENA Still Lags

Many Arab states have reported significant progress in gender equality in recent decades; however, these leaps are largely dependent on revisions of policies that were actively repressive and discriminatory. Saudi Arabia was lauded for making the biggest improvements in business and legal rights for women, but this is because laws that obliged a woman to obtain permission from a male guardian to receive a passport, forbade women from choosing where to live, and required a woman to obey her husband have been repealed in recent years. While these are certainly achievements, the fact that such laws existed well into the 21st century is hardly cause for celebration. Many of the region’s recent gender achievements rest on the lifting of such arcane restrictions; examples include Jordan eliminating laws that forbid women from working at night, Bahrain recently allowing a woman to be the head of her household, and many states in the region instituting sexual harassment laws for the first time. These reforms are clearly needed, but they still only bring these countries to a baseline of acceptability. At this stage, more targeted policies are needed that will go farther to shifting gender dynamics more meaningfully.

There are several policies that both Arab states and external actors can pursue that could lead to the gender parity the region will need to be viable in the coming decades. Countries like the United States and other donor countries that claim to prioritize human rights need to be more consistent in their treatment of the region. While criticizing some states for their treatment of women, the United States pursues partnerships and remains silent on human rights abuses in countries with equally poor records on women’s rights; these are countries it deems useful to its foreign policy, like Saudi Arabia. Many other countries, like Lebanon, have also been slow to incorporate United Nations-recommended reforms to end discrimination and abuse of women and girls, to little consequence. Often, the tensions and instability in the region are used to justify this inconsistent approach to women’s rights and human rights more broadly, despite copious evidence that countries that treat women poorly develop more slowly and are more likely to engage in other human rights abuses. Conditioning aid or favorable political treatment on whether countries take action on women’s issues, from freeing unjustly imprisoned women to changing laws that limit women’s societal participation, would offer considerable leverage that could tangibly change policy and practice.

While criticizing some states for their treatment of women, the United States pursues partnerships and remains silent on human rights abuses in countries with equally poor records on women’s rights; these are countries it deems useful to its foreign policy, like Saudi Arabia.

Countries genuinely interested in promoting women’s rights need to start early, as evidence from the Arab region suggests that educated populations are more likely to support egalitarian attitudes. School curricula in the region should also be adapted to reflect equality within societies, and girls should not be discouraged from pursuing fields like math and science (nor boys from careers typically considered a female’s domain). Further, women who do enter the workforce face an uphill, often solitary, climb. They have less experience interacting with high-level executives (typically men) and thus less access to informal professional networks, they may not receive support from colleagues (male or female), and there are few role models for them to seek as mentors. Educational and training programs for women working in professional environments—as well as colleagues and superiors who may themselves harbor bias toward women in the workplace—are needed to encourage and support women through skill building, networking, and promotion.

Many countries in MENA are taking steps to incorporate workplace protections for women, and these reforms are welcomed. Yet, a more comprehensive assessment of labor is needed; for many women, the types of jobs they were educated to pursue are simply not available. For decades, these countries depended on bloated public sectors to employ the majority of their citizens, but their ability to wholly support the highly educated workers of today is limited, and women disproportionately feel the brunt of these limitations. To accommodate a diverse and growing workforce, Arab states need to support entrepreneurship and a robust private sector. Reforms in the public sector to ensure positions are achieved by merit, and that workers are held accountable for outcomes, would make this type of employment more competitive for women. Other reforms regarding maternity and paternity leave, paid sick leave, and flexible working hours would also make employment more accessible. Women who choose to stay home should continue to be recognized as respected members of society, as human rights include the ability to choose one’s vocation and not to be seen as less valuable than anyone else.

Ultimately, the freedoms of women—and of men, in some regards—in this region are highly dependent on freeing them from environments of conflict, resource scarcity, and ineffective or authoritarian rule (and unelected rule, in the case of the monarchies). Such rulers often regard human rights not as inherent, but as transactional, and the same whims that motivate them to increase access to women’s rights may be just as easily shifted to more restrictive postures, if deemed politically expedient. The calls of activists and the many women’s groups that have emerged recently must be centered in the discourse about women’s rights to ensure they meet the needs of women, and not merely the immediate needs of politicians.