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Home arrow Religion arrow Muslim Women at Work: Religious Discourses in Arab Society


Some scholars note that cultural values explain most of the gender gap in the Arab world. While it would be imprudent to discount the role of those values in impacting women’s participation and workforce integration, it would be equally unwise to reduce the causes of existing disparities to the impact of “culture” or “values.” There are a host of political, historical, economic, social, and demographic factors that explain the status of women as they try to negotiate their evolving societal roles. Without a proper understanding of how these forces work together within various subcultures, one would not be able to properly diagnose the problems, let alone suggest potential remedies. Minding the above differences, I present below some of the characteristics of women’s careers in the Arab world that would possibly explain their current status.

In general, women in the Arab world suffer from interrupted careers. When a female engineer in Jordan put a seven-word ad in a newspaper asking for “female engineers required to work from home,” she received 700 resumes within a week.49 She discovered that most female engineers (estimated at over 60%) leave their jobs after their first child is born. Childcare services are extremely expensive, and engineering work typically requires long hours of work. Leaving her job has lots of implications on the engineer and her career progress. While she would be able to allocate more valuable time to her family and child, she will lose contact with the developments occurring in the profession. She loses training and development opportunities, loses touch with the field, and becomes less able to build a network of contacts, both within and outside the firm, all of which are necessary for long-term upward mobility.

Women also face challenges in accessing resources that are commonly available to men. This applies whether they are working as employees

(e.g. training and development opportunities) or as entrepreneurs (access to capital and networks).50 When a woman decides to temporarily exit the job market to raise her children, her long-term employability usually suffers. Her career path becomes interrupted, and she loses the cumulative experience that many employers value for career progression.

Conflicts between work and family obligations also pose significant problems for working women. In a survey of hundreds of Lebanese women, both single and married, it was found that increased workforce integration for women did not mean that they were relieved from family responsibilities. Similar to women elsewhere, working women face a double burden, having to dedicate efforts to their jobs, while still paying close attention to the family affairs. A higher female participation in the labor force did not result in significant increases in male contribution to work at home. What seems to be peculiar to women in this region, however, is that even single women face many of those conflicts. Women are still expected to contribute to their family work, even if not married. Family norms in the Arab world expect more home chores to be done by daughters and sisters than what is expected to be done by sons and brothers. Single women “generally face a host of strains that, to a certain extent, make the interconnection between conflicts at home and at work similar to those faced by married individuals.”51

Norms in many parts of the Arab world consider that males have the responsibility to be the breadwinners of their families. When a woman works, her salary is considered to be the second (secondary) income to the family. This means that some employers may discount her value and contributions. Basing their salary decisions partially on her economic need, they would consider—implicitly most of the time—that her family does not need this secondary income compared to the primary male-generated income. Many female workers thus end up being considered cheap labor.52 This leads to lower earned incomes for females compared to their male counterparts, and women end up having limited overall participation in paid employment53 and lower levels of economic activity.54 Such a perspective on the secondary nature of women’s work has also impacted legal frameworks in many Arab countries. In many cases what the law gives to the male worker—in terms of benefits and amenities—are not available to the same degree for working women (e.g. social security benefits).

Another feature of female work is their undocumented work in the informal economy. Women’s share of home-based businesses is significant, but there are no reliable data that capture this phenomenon. The textile industry is an example where many women work, in an informal way, to meet their basic survival needs.55 Those are usually micro-businesses led by women who suffer a lot in terms of getting access to capital, growing their businesses, marketing their products, and scaling their operations. Limited mobility for women sometimes forces them to rely on such home-based and informal arrangements.56 Many funding organizations, such as the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, target women working in the informal economy as entrepreneurs and help them streamline and formalize their opera- tions.57 As doors to jobs in the traditional labor force get tighter, entrepreneurship has steadily become an option for aspiring working women in many countries in the Arab world including the UAE,58 Tunisia,59 Oman,60 Bahrain,61 Lebanon,62 and Saudi Arabia.63 This has been coupled with gradually changing positive attitudes toward the work of women. For example, the Financial Times reports that in Saudi Arabia there has been a major transformation despite persistent traditional structures. More women are participating in the labor force, and entrepreneurial activities are increasingly getting more popular.64

As discussed earlier, there are many differences among women in affluent oil-producing Arab countries compared to less prosperous countries. In the former, women work out of a desire for self-fulfillment and self-actualiza- tion.65 They are increasingly getting interested in work and entrepreneurial activities. They see an intrinsic value in their work irrespective of the economic need. These are not the major drivers for women’s work in less affluent Arab countries; there is no option for those women but to work because of economic necessities.66 Thus, as women face distinct institutional arrangements in different Arab countries, their responses to such arrangements vary. In many of the oil-producing Arab countries, a discourse that emphasizes the positive role of women in early Islam is usually invoked. In other countries, while the religious discourse remains important, there is a significant emphasis on the economic role of women and the missed opportunities if women stay at home.

Changing societal dynamics have necessitated a growing discourse about the role of women at work in Arab society. This discourse often reflects intense debates, objections, arguments, and counter-arguments. Some propose a religious starting point for the issue; others prefer to invoke a model based on Western experiences. A third group cites a negative role for religious understandings and cultural norms. Almost invariably, religion and religious understandings are part of the debate. Some consider that Islam discourages female work participation; others have a completely opposite perspective arguing that a sensible religious understanding would actually support more female participation.

The above suggest that there are various explanations of the primary problems facing women at work in Arab society. There is still a need, however, to analyze the prevalent religious and cultural norms. Such norms extend to how women should dress and how men and women should behave in mixed work settings.67 This produces dilemmas, perhaps unique to the Arab region, in work contexts that are gender-mixed.68 How religion interfaces with cultural values has thus become an area ofincreased interest. In the following chapters, I focus on the religious arguments and understandings that encourage or discourage women’s participation. I explain various propositions, how they are presented, how they are understood, and how they are practiced. Special attention is given to an issue that has proven to be extremely contentious in the Arab context and beyond, the Muslim woman’s dress. I reflect opposing points of view on this topic, and what this means for women’s participation and career progress. In the next chapter, I explain where this all started by revisiting the most important religious text for Muslims, the Qur’an.

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