What the Qur’an Says
Tell the believing men to lower [from] their gaze and be modest.... And tell the believing women to lower [from] their gaze and be modest.... (The Qur’an; Annur; 24:31)
Whether the Muslim women’s veil is a reason for women’s lack of participation is a question of continuous interest as this arguably influences labor market indicators. If some employers become concerned about the impact of a dress code on their operations, this could lead to an unavoidable lack of participation. Yet, a dress code cannot be separated from the host of institutional factors that could lead to women’s exclusion from the public sphere. Beyond what is sometimes argued about the impact of the veil on participation rates, there are no comprehensive studies that show that participation rates are linked to the degree to which women take on the veil.
Lebanon is a case in point. Veiling rates among Muslim women are less than those found in most Arab countries, such as Egypt, Bahrain, or Kuwait. Yet the female labor force participation in 2016 was a mere 24%.1 Compare this to the rates found in more conservative Arab countries, where the veil is overwhelmingly present. The female labor force participation rate is 48% in Kuwait, 39% in Bahrain, 30% in Oman, 26% in Yemen, and 20% in the
© The Author(s) 2018
Y.M. Sidani, Muslim Women at Work,
ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. This suggests that participation rates are dependent on a host of factors that go beyond how a woman is dressed.
Despite the above, understanding the extent to which women become involved in the public sphere would benefit from engaging the religious texts that seemingly put men and women in two different realms, roles, and expectations. This is linked to the fact that, to some, a certain explanatory variable for women’s lack of participation is the influence of religion on male- female dynamics and on women’s roles in the public sphere. This argument suggests that the lack of participation of Muslim women in economic and political affairs is related —at least partially— to basic assumptions within the Muslim faith that limit female participation. Those assumptions include the following:
- 1. Within conventional Islamic understandings, there should be specific gender roles within any society. A good society is one where men participate more in the public sphere, and women participate more in the private sphere. A woman’s biology is evidence that she bears the children, nurses them, and is most influential during the early years of their lives. Although it is acknowledged that both parents are needed to raise a healthy family, the domestic role of the father is limited especially in those early years. Those differences in role expectations have immediate impact on participation as women are not encouraged to enter domains that are not in line with their true “natures.”
- 2. The strong mutual attraction between women and men has to be organized through certain rules, including how people should dress in public. The female dress, particularly, has to adhere to specific requirements that are more restrictive than males. The reason for this additional restriction is that males and females respond differently to visual images. While both men and women have to dress modestly, avoiding tight and transparent clothes, the restrictions on women are different. According to mainstream understandings of the women’s dress, a female has to cover her hair and body, exposing just her face and hands in public. There are other more extreme understandings of the limits of female dress yet those do not represent the majority of what Muslim women practice.
The implications of the above constraints are immense as argued by critics. A free secular work environment is one where both males and females are able to participate freely. Productivity would suffer when there are religious constraints on either or both genders. A free work environment is one where workers can participate, move, relocate, supervise, and be supervised closely or at a distance by a member of the same or different sex. Work conditions would permit and even require that a male employee work on the same assignment or project with a work colleague who is of the opposite sex. This interaction may be incidental or short, or may be integral to the job and more permanent. The latter condition may occur, for example, when a manager forms a group of two individuals, one male and the other female, to work on the design of a new product or service. Design work requires lots of interactions, long meetings, thorough discussions, and essentially a great deal of connection and socialization in the workplace. Sometimes the issue is not restricted to two individuals but a group of individuals, both males and females. A project team assembled to address a product defect may have to meet for long hours extending beyond the office hours. This may require interactions outside the office premises among various members of this group. Sometimes work may also require team members to travel or to relocate for short or more extended periods of time. Arguably all such work relations could be severely hampered by religious prohibitions. In those contemporary times, some would argue, Islamic restrictions on interactions between males and females significantly limit such interactions. But what are those prohibitions, and where do they come from?