A Persistent Participation Gap
Men are the wool of the tribe,
But women are the ones who weave the pattern (Arab Proverb)
There is a recurring image, very much dominant in the West, of subjugated powerless Arab and Muslim women. Those women are seen as being marginalized by powerful forces of patriarchy and rigid societal institutions that include the family, political structures, and religious bodies. Reports and statistics by international organization, some of which will be presented in this chapter, tell of a dismal situation for those women. Issues of discrimination, education gaps, harassment, and prejudice are brought forward attesting to a situation that is extremely problematic.
While still acknowledging that something is indeed wrong, another perspective asserts that this issue cannot be separated from a larger development problem that sweeps many parts of the Arab world. This predicament is worsened by ineffective public administration structures, autocratic regimes, corruption, and deficient educational systems. Talking about a “woman problem” that is separate from a larger crisis would not lead to proper diagnosis of the challenges faced. Women do suffer from a power differential vis-a-vis strong societal and political structures. Yet, such structures also impact other marginalized groups including lower-status men,
© The Author(s) 2018
Y.M. Sidani, Muslim Women at Work,
deprived ethnic groups, and historically disadvantaged social classes. Fixing one side of the equation needs to be complemented by fixing the other side as well.
Irrespective of which position one adopts, most would agree that the current status of women in Arab societies is not alright. Scholars, activists, and women’s rights advocates, whether Arabs or non-Arabs, overwhelmingly acknowledge the existence of significant gender gaps at many levels. Some Arab countries have gone a long way in addressing those gaps; others seem to be running in circles. All in all, however, narrowing gender disparities in education, workforce participation, and political representation has proven to be an arduous task.
There is little agreement as to the reasons behind this gap. Determining who, or what, is responsible for the gender disparity, and how best to address it, are questions with various, often divergent, explanations. Some blame deeply rooted customs, traditions, and religious understandings. Others blame patriarchal forces entrenched in the whole region, which transcend countries, ethnicities, and religions. Yet, a third group offers explanations associated with the discovery of oil, labor migration, population growth, and changes in fertility rates.1 Those and other factors, through a complicated web of cause and effect, have particularly impacted women in a negative way.
Some Arab feminists see parallels between what has been happening in Arab countries and what happened in Western countries a couple of centuries ago in terms of the role of culture, religion, and patriarchy. Others look suspiciously at what they consider to be Western-inspired feminism and tell a story that is, in many respects, different. Some, more interested in sustaining the status quo, imply that the “women issue” is blown way out of proportion. Another group may link raising this issue to a host of neocolonial attempts that aim to disintegrate Arab societies.
Regardless of the various standpoints, serious analysts concur that there is something clearly wrong. Reports by international organizations note that the gender gap in the Arab World is greater than almost any other region of the world. Gaps have been highlighted in education, health, labor participation, pay equity, ascension to leadership positions, and harassment on the job. While women suffer from such problems in multiple contexts including the Western world, the gravity of the problem in the Arab World looks overwhelming. I am going to describe below some aspects of the problem indicating where successes, in relative terms, have been made and where problems still persist.