Women and the Economy in the Middle East

Gender inequality abounds in many Middle Eastern and North African countries. This is reflected not only in discriminatory laws — such as laws that reduce sentences for those who commit honor crimes — but also in literacy and employment rates. Likewise, the level of women's participation in the economy is an important indicator of their place in society in general. 

In this original article for Diwaniyya, Dayan Center Researcher Paul Rivlin outlines the economic implications of gender discrimination in the Middle East. He shows that societies that keep women out of the public sphere, schools, and the workplace, suffer economically. 

Read the article after the jump.


Women and the Economy in the Middle East

Paul Rivlin

The status and treatment of women are primarily moral issues with major economic implications. By discriminating against women, countries in the Middle East have wasted one of their key resources.

According to the 2005 Arab Human Development Report, Arab society has failed to acknowledge the true extent of women's participation in social and economic activities and in the development of human welfare. Nor has it rewarded them adequately for such participation. Since most women work for their families without pay, their contributions are not recognized economically. (This is, of course, a universal truth.) This long-standing prejudice is reflected in the undervaluing of women’s contributions to different types of human activity in general.

The reason for the inferior status of women is that they are affected by patriarchal kinship patterns, legalized and illegal discrimination, social subordination and male dominance. In Arab countries, women find themselves in a subservient position within the family and receive little protection from the legal system. Furthermore, the penalties for assaults against women, including lethal assaults, may be reduced if the perpetrator is considered to have committed a so-called crime of honor." All of this is true in Iran and, to a lesser extent, in Turkey.

Discrimination manifests itself in much lower average literacy rates and lower labor force participation rates and wages for women. (The latter is also a world-wide phenomenon). In the Middle East and North Africa, 35 percent of females over 15 years of age are illiterate compared with 18 percent of males. Female illiteracy rates within the Arab world range from a low of nine percent in Kuwait to a high of 65 percent in Yemen. In both countries, these rates are higher than those for men as they are elsewhere in the region. Only 26 percent of Arab women participate in the labor force compared with 77 percent for men and this is after a long period during which the female labor force participation rate rose.   

These measures are summarized in the Gender Inequality Index (GII), published in the UN's Human Development Report. This is a composite measure reflecting inequality in achievements between women and men: reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market. According to the 2011 report, the world's lowest (worst) GII was for Yemen (146). Near to the bottom of the world league table were Saudi Arabia (135) and Sudan (128). The Arab highest score was that of Kuwait (32), followed by Qatar (37). Morocco (104) and Iraq (117) also scored badly.

The causes of low female labor force participation rates include the existence of a culture in which some employers prefer to employ men; a scarcity of jobs; employment and wage discrimination against women; and high reproductive rates (though these are falling). Laws restricting women, including those designed to protect them (such as personal status and labor legislation), also restrict women’s freedom by requiring a father’s or a husband’s permission to work, travel or borrow from financial institutions. Additionally, women’s employment opportunities have been undercut by weak support services and economic reform programs.

What does the future hold? Arab countries are moving towards Islamic government and Iran is therefore an example that they may follow. In 2010 the female participation rate in the labor force in Iran was 31.9 percent while that for men was 73 percent. The share of females aged over 25 years who had completed at least secondary education was 39 percent while that of men was 57 percent. These rates suggest that, in some respects the position of women was better than in the Arab world, but the latter is an average of countries, some with better rates and other, more populous ones with worse ones. This is, however, a very limited view of the position of women in Iran. Their position in society has become far more restricted and if Iran is the model that the Arab states follow in their attempt to pursue a more Islamic way of life, then the future for women in the Arab world looks grim.

Paul Rivlin is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center focusing on the Middle East economy and its historical development. He also co-authors and edits the Dayan Center publication Iqtisadi.

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