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Social Modernization Did Not Close the Gender Gap

It could be thought that countries that are socially liberal are more likely to include women in decision-making circles in political institutions (through representation in legislative and executive bodies), or in economic spheres of activity (through increased recruitment, appointment, and development of more qualified female elements). Yet evidence in the Arab world does not suggest that this is happening. As explained earlier, Lebanon is a case in point. It is one of the most socially liberal countries. Compared to some of its Arab counterparts, there are no restrictions (at least explicit ones) on women’s social functioning, education, or access to work opportunities. Women are free to drive, enroll in coed schools and universities, and work in all types of institutions (including the military). There is an acceptable level of freedom of the press—compared to many other countries in the region.4 The country is home to many religions including diverse sects within islam and Christianity. It is open to the West given the fact that it was colonized by France till 1943, and many of its citizens make it a point to adhere to a Western lifestyle. The Lebanese people travel extensively especially to Western Europe, North America, and Australia, and they are accustomed to various styles of living.

Despite all of the above, Lebanon fares miserably in relation to female participation.5 Only about 3% of parliamentary seats are occupied by women. There are also a low number of women representatives in municipalities and other public service positions. Lebanese women occupy few seats in the upper echelon in Lebanese businesses, and they comprise a low percentage of corporate boards. The social liberalism of the country has not translated in any way into better participation. participation rates are actually higher in some countries commonly perceived to be less socially liberal than Lebanon.6

The above example clearly shows the fallacy of linking social freedoms to higher participation, whether political or economic. There are other factors that better resolve the quandary of participation. In some cases, as far as low participation is concerned, more can be explained by socioeconomic class affiliations than by social attitudes. In other cases, it is the combination of socio-economic class and social attitudes. If a family does not need a second income, the first to leave the workplace is the wife/mother. This leads to scarcity of women who belong to the upper middle-class and rich social classes. Economic need thus emerges as a major determinant of women’s participation.7 In the Arab Gulf countries, female labor force participation before the discovery of oil was higher compared to later periods. Many industries that traditionally employed women, such as those in agriculture or light manufacturing, were negatively impacted by oil production.8 The rapid prosperity that materialized after the discovery of oil deterred the entry of women back into the labor force. In other Arab countries that have little or no oil, women, more than men, lost their work in the fields and were not able to move into the emerging industries.9 This confirms earlier studies showing how women’s labor participation goes down as agriculture is replaced with industry.10

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