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Education Is Not Significantly Closing the Gender Gap

The Arab world has developed significantly in terms of education. Schools now exist in many urban and rural communities, but such penetration is not enough. It is estimated that there are still about 80 million illiterate Arabs. Yet, in comparison to the first half of the twentieth century, female education has significantly improved. In some Arab countries, such as the UAE, females are faring even better compared to their male counterparts. In Saudi Arabia, where societal constraints—at one point in time—put obstacles in front of women’s education, schools and universities are now dedicated to help women earn their education in a variety of fields. Moreover, women are increasingly becoming able to pursue education in what were traditionally male occupations. In some Arab countries, female enrollment in business education slightly exceeds male enrollment at a number of universities. The gap in education between males and females is narrowing, and females are even outperforming males in terms of quality measures.11

Two observations can be made regarding educational accomplishments so far. Despite all the improvements, the level of education in the Arab world does not compare well to other regions. Rates of illiteracy are still worrisome, and penetration into different classes and regions is not even. A second problem is that the relationship between education and gender parity is not straightforward. Any purported advantages of education on gender equity are still below expectations. In some countries, such as the UAE, where women have accomplished remarkable achievements in education, there are no corresponding increases in participation rates in the political and economic spheres. In Saudi Arabia, institutional contingencies make participation less dependent on education and more dependent on cultural frameworks that significantly limit such participation. Yet, the fact remains that “in the Arab world, girls’ education is one of the best investments Arab states can make in their social and economic well-being.”12

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