For centuries, women have fought uphill and often overlooked battles to attain rights equal to those afforded to men—through books, songs and poetry, artwork, political writings and campaigns, and other means—but were often met with resistance, repression, and even violence. Many histories of the global women’s rights movement center on women from the west, including prominent figures like Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Clara Zetkin, among others, whose legacies rightly live on today. Yet often ignored is the work of women from the rest of the world, including the Middle East, many of whom did not see their ideals of gender equality come to fruition in their communities, either in their lifetimes or today.
From Fatima al-Fihri, the Tunisian woman who founded what is considered to be the oldest university in the world around 860 AD, to Palestinian Karimeh Abbud, who lived during the turn of the 19th century and was one of the first female photographers in the Arab world, to the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who was one of the world’s most respected designers upon her death in 2016, Arab women have long made strides in environments where women were not expected—and in some cases, permitted—to succeed. Yet while undeniable progress has been made toward women’s equality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, especially in the last few decades, significant gaps remain.
Rigid religious interpretations, patriarchal cultures, the legacy of colonialism, the prioritization of oil: evidence points to the influence of these and many more factors in creating the gender disparities that continue in the Arab region today, including within the workforce.
Rigid religious interpretations, patriarchal cultures, the legacy of colonialism, the prioritization of oil: evidence points to the influence of these and many more factors in creating the gender disparities that continue in the region today, including within the workforce. In fact, female unemployment in the Arab world has only been increasing in recent decades, from 18 percent in 2000 to nearly 22 percent in 2020, and is likely significantly higher due to the economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the International Labor Organization has predicted that the pandemic could reverse even the most modest gains in workplace gender equality, due to its disproportionate effects on sectors that employ more women (like the service and health care industries) and the increased burden of unpaid caregiving and household work that has fallen largely on women.
Participation in employment is certainly not the only significant measure of equality in a society—indeed, the ability for all humans, of any gender, to build a life of their choosing is a core tenet of universal human rights. Yet in a world where personal freedoms are often tied to economic freedoms, the slow pace of women’s labor force participation in the MENA region is notable, especially when compared to the rest of the world.
Where Are the Women?
On the surface, all signs point to a region where women should be taking a significant foothold in the workforce. Female literacy (15-24) in the Arab world was at 74.5 percent in 2000—in 2020, it was at just over 80 percent (male literacy in this age group is around 85 percent, actually decreasing since 2000). The number of girls out of primary school and the fertility rate (births per woman) have decreased, and across the region women are increasingly becoming the majority in colleges and universities. Historical evidence from other regions suggests that greater educational attainment is the key factor in predicting employment. But this has not borne out in the Arab world; in fact, this region has the lowest female labor force participation in the world, at just around 20 percent in 2020, with Jordan reporting the lowest female employment rate of a country not at war (at 17.47 percent). The global average is about 39 percent, and even when excluding the United States and Europe which are at nearly 50 percent, most of the rest of the world does much better than the Middle East, including in countries with culturally conservative populations: East Asia and the Pacific, the Caribbean small states, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa all report female labor participation rates of greater than 40 percent.
Although Arab women are excluded from the paid workforce at unprecedented rates, they are over-represented in the unpaid workforce—that is, in performing the caregiving and household work that keeps families and communities healthy and functional.
Although Arab women are excluded from the paid workforce at unprecedented rates, they are over-represented in the unpaid workforce—that is, in performing the caregiving and household work that keeps families and communities healthy and functional. In fact, women in the Arab region outperform men in this vital form of work at a rate of nearly 5:1, more than any other region, and in some countries, it is much higher. Women in Palestine spend nearly 34 hours per week on unpaid work, nearly the amount of time required for a full-time job, while women in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia spend 24, 19, and 17 hours on such work, respectively. Additionally, these numbers do not shift significantly between women who gainfully work and women who are unemployed, which means that many employed women have nearly double the work burden when considering their duties in the household.
The State of Women’s Work in the MENA
The countries in the Arab world have the most gender restrictive policies when it comes to women in the workforce. Factors as varied as constrained freedom of movement, workplace laws that implicitly or explicitly exclude women, pay disparities, and restrictions on women-led entrepreneurship have limited their participation in many fields. Not surprisingly, women face significant hurdles when entering the most economically secure positions; for example, the percentage of female-owned firms in the Arab world is a pitiful 14 percent, less than half the global average. Only 20 percent of seats in national parliaments are held by women (admittedly, not much less than the global average of 26 percent), and the region’s first female prime minister, Najla Bouden, was just named in Tunisia in 2021. In the wealthy Gulf states, where all the ruling monarchs and other top decision makers are men, women hold less than 10 percent of seats in government. Several Arab countries have women with ministerial portfolios, but almost all are in social sectors like health and education, and the power of the people in these positions to make policy is questionable.
More than two thirds of women in the region work in agriculture, education, health care, or public administration.
More than two thirds of women in the region work in agriculture, education, health care, or public administration. It is alarming, then, that female employment in agriculture has plummeted, from 41 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2022. Female employment in industry, which was never a significant proportion, is less than 11 percent. Only in the services sector has female employment showed any significant gains, climbing an additional 20 percent in the past two decades. Employment in the paid care industry, especially in the public sector, remains predominantly the domain of women, as is the global norm. However, such industries that are dominated by women are typically devalued in society, rendering them more likely to offer lower pay, less generous benefits, and lower societal standing.
Effects on the Arab Region
All people, regardless of personal characteristics, are entitled to the full range of human rights. Achievement of these rights as societal priorities should be pursued on its own merit, and not due to economic or political considerations. The legal and social factors that limit women’s employment should be recognized as violations of those rights and must be changed accordingly. Unfortunately, however, such moral arguments rarely sway policymakers. At the same time, there are tangible costs to policies that limit large segments of a population from engaging in society autonomously. In a region beset by obstacles and likely to be facing many more in the coming decades, gender equality is not a luxury, but a necessity if these nations have any chance of building the kind of resilient societies that will be needed to meet these challenges.
Poverty, poor infrastructure, and inadequate social services are among the top contributors to the deficient societal indicators from many states throughout the region.
Poverty, poor infrastructure, and inadequate social services are among the top contributors to the deficient societal indicators from many states throughout the region. As many Arab nations seek to make themselves more economically competitive by diversifying industries and adapting new technologies, they cannot ignore the economic effects of gender inequality in the workplace. It is estimated that the regional GDP could increase by $2.7 trillion if women were able to participate equally in the market. But at current rates, closing the gender gap in the region won’t happen for another 142 years, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. This represents a lack of recognition of the real challenges that face these societies, and the inability to treat gender inequality as a threat will only contribute to the economic deterioration in the region that has already caused such political and economic upheaval and injustice.
Among the many challenges in the region are several protracted and violent conflicts that disrupt society at every level. While there have been many peace talks, handshakes, and summits in the region, none of the leaders involved have been women. Yet evidence suggests that when women participate in peace processes and negotiations, they are more likely to bring broader perspectives to the table and ensure more democratized processes, which contributes to a greater chance of sustainable peace. In fact, some of the Arab region’s worst humanitarian outcomes are in the areas deemed most gender unequal, like the Gaza Strip, Yemen, and Syria. Many of the region’s other heavily patriarchal states are among the most authoritarian and repressive, including many of the Gulf nations and Egypt. The MENA region, aside from being among the most gender unequal, is the least democratic in the world, and these two distinctions should not be seen as unrelated. While ensuring female representation is no guarantee of peace or prosperity, ignoring the perspective of half the population, which happens to be overly responsible for keeping households and communities alive and healthy, is undoubtedly an oversight to peacemaking that the region can hardly afford.
Aside from the societal effects, the negative impact of poor economic options for women are felt in the home, according to UNICEF. Women with economic freedom invest more in the health and education of their children, factors that are essential to reducing poverty. When women are unable to provide for themselves economically, the whole family may suffer. Women are disproportionately responsible for ensuring households have adequate food and nutrition while themselves being at greater risk of malnutrition and related health effects, including death. The entire household is at greater risk of food insecurity if women are unable to independently access food, or if the women in the household are threatened or forced to flee, as in the cases of war and forced migration. Indeed, evidence suggests that women with lower incomes are at greater risk of having children with stunted growth or other negative health consequences. Ensuring that women have economic security supports community health and well-being in immeasurable ways, and until gender parity is a priority in the MENA, it is unlikely that significant improvements to population health and well-being, especially among children, are possible.
Until gender parity is a priority in the MENA, it is unlikely that significant improvements to population health and well-being, especially among children, are possible.
Women are more likely to prefer employers who offer family-friendly policies, like daycare, flexible hours, remote work, and shorter commutes. Inability to find such employers may limit women’s labor force participation. Yet the expectation that men should suffer in poor job conditions because they are not recognized as primary caregivers is a policy that affects both men and women. Cultural and social norms aside, employers in the region who continue to offer exclusionary policies will perpetuate the alarming employment trends there for women, of course, but also for men who may want to achieve a greater quality of life than they may have prioritized in previous generations.
International organizations and humanitarian agencies have written hundreds of reports detailing the gender inequities of the Arab world in the past 50 years. To fail to acknowledge the progress that has been made in that time, including in the workforce, would neglect the efforts of the many people, often women, who made this progress possible. Undoubtedly, conditions today are better for many Arab women than before, with greater access to health care, better opportunities for education and dignified work, and levels of personal autonomy that the current generation’s mothers and grandmothers only hoped for. But these gains are insufficient in a world that is moving along much more quickly than these gender norms are shifting, especially in light of a global pandemic that reminds us that our best predictions and estimates are only useful until they aren’t any longer. The region needs the energy, creativity, and diversity in thought that can only be harnessed by a workforce that looks like the communities around them. Until gender equality is seen as a benefit to society, and not as a threat, the Arab states will continue to be unnecessarily held back from achieving the much-needed development their peoples desire and deserve.