Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

In the workplace? In a car? Middle East grapples over women's whereabouts

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As I wrote earlier this year, a great deal of the problems facing the Arab world as it stumbles towards democracy stem from a conservative culture that is inhibiting female participation in society. Some very illuminative data on this issue is provided by Sara Hamdan in today's International Herald Tribune. As Hamdan explains, initiatives to develop an entrepreneurial culture in the public-sector dominated Arab states only address a small part of the issue; a much greater problem facing the Arab states is the absence of a great deal of their population from the workforce, this segment being overwhelmingly female.

Encouraging entrepreneurs to start new companies is one way to tackle this problem and promote job creation ... Analysts say these efforts will not make a big difference, however, if social attitudes do not change in societies that traditionally embrace culturally enforced gender roles and the social traditions of a patriarchal hierarchy - particularly in the Gulf countries.

Out of Saudi Arabia's population of 28 million people, 45 percent are women and 56.5 percent of those women have university degrees ... Yet only 14 percent of women are active in the labor force ... A similar profile is found in the United Arab Emirates, where women make up 30 percent of the population of 4.5 million ... A striking 77 percent of these women are university graduates. Yet only 15.2 percent participate in the work force, often opting for a career in the public sector, where women hold 50 percent of all government jobs, according to Oxford Strategic Consulting.

...A recent report by Booz & Co. on youth unemployment details that "a mix of local norms and traditions, social beliefs and principles emanating from the G.C.C.'s patriarchal system still, to some extent, exert an influence on young women's lives, limiting their opportunities in education, employment and leisure pursuits."

The study, based on a survey of 415 nationals in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, found that 59 percent of men surveyed believe women should first be wives and mothers, compared to 22 percent of women that felt that was true. Twenty-seven percent of men felt that women should seek employment for financial support or independence, while 71 percent of women believed they should do so.

As Hamdan goes on to note, cultural change is a long and difficult process and hope can be hard to come by in a region where it is still culturally acceptible to brutally murder your younger sister for marrying without permission. In fact, as noted by Hussein Ibish, the increasing prominence of Islamism has created a serious risk that much of the Arab world will move backwards not forwards following the Arab Spring.

No sooner had the Islamist Al-Nahda party secured its status as the largest group in Tunisia's new Constituent Assembly, than we saw a misogynist agenda rearing its ugly, familiar head. The party's iconic spokeswoman, Souad Abderrahim, called single mothers a "disgrace" and declared that they "do not have the right to exist."

... The head of Libya's transitional authority, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, added to the alarm by proclaiming that Islamic law, or Sharia, would be the principal source of legislation in post-Qaddafi Libya. He implied that polygamy, a practice almost entirely suppressed under the deposed dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, might be reintroduced.

... wherever Islamists have seized power, whether in Iran, northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, and Gaza, their exercise of power has immediately and intently focused on restricting women's rights.

This behavior ranges from the unspeakable, and thankfully rare, practice of stoning women, largely in rural Iran, to the sexually paranoid restrictions by Hamas on women smoking water pipes (cigarettes are fine) or riding on the back of motorcycles. It really does take a hyperactive pornographic imagination to read impropriety into those latter acts.

... Another serious concern is that some of the Arab world's deposed secular dictatorships held up their purported advocacy of women's issues as a false sign of progress, thereby tainting the agenda.

In Egypt, for example, the Mubarak regime was associated with efforts to strongly discourage female genital mutilation. While this practice has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, and is enforced as enthusiastically by Egyptian Coptic Christians and some African animists as by some Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood was always in practice opposed to official efforts to suppress it.

That said, there is cause for optimism due to some female pioneers who are taking bold steps forward. One example is Afghan police cadet Tamana Tanha, profiled yesterday by Aisha Chowdhry for the New York Times's At War blog. Another is Saudi rally driver Rabab al-Tajir, profiled by Dania Saadi also in today's Tribune

The shock on the faces of drivers and her little training didn't stop Ms. Tajir from pursuing her racing ambition. She went on to participate in several international races and joined the Emirati driver Matar al-Mansouri in 2009 and 2010 in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, an international cross-country race through the treacherous Empty Quarter desert.

A human resources consultant, Ms. Tajir honed her pre-racing driving and navigation skills by commuting between the United Arab Emirates and neighboring Oman for work. Now, she is eager to get her own car and her dream is to take on the off-road Dakar rally as a driver, but for that she is looking for financial backing and training to achieve her goal. "My aim is to become the first U.A.E. national lady to drive and participate internationally, and I want to represent my country as a Arab woman," said Ms. Tajir.

Of course, the relatively liberal attitude (for a Gulf Arab state) that the UAE takes has made the choice to pursue this hobby a little easier for Tajir, it is important to bear in mind how overbearing the ingrained culture can be for Saudi women.

"When we want to go to a shopping center or to the hospital, the driver drops us at the main entrance and drives away. We don't have to care about remembering where we parked our car or parking far away from the door," said Zaina Al-Salem, a 29-year-old banker. When I travel to a country where I can drive, I'm usually burdened about the part when I get to park my car and walk all the way to the store."

"We always complain about Saudi men's driving. What makes women better than them? At least men have been practicing this for a while, and if it happened for women then they would have zero experience," she said. Even the streets are not built well for driving. The streets are damaged and bumpy and most women will not be able to handle them."

In an increasingly globalised and competitive world, especially where oil is set to lose the value that it currently holds as natural gas becomes more available as an energy source, the traditional Arab economic model is simply unsustainable. There is no way in which a country that is absolutely reliant on oil exports for income and the public sector for employment can compete with the productive and ingenious societies being fostered around the planet. Suppressing 50% of the potential workforce makes a substantial contribution to this decline and until Arab leaders can drive serious changes in their social dynamic, they will only continue to become more irrelevant.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz