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The Price of Sexism

12 minute read
Carla Power

During the arab spring, the Moroccan-born, London-based rap artist Master Mimz posted “Back Down Mubarak,” a song for the Egyptian protesters, on YouTube. “First give me a job,” she rapped. “Then let’s talk about my hijab.” The lyrics weren’t merely catchy but also prescient. Over a year into the new Middle East, jobs and hijabs — or rather, women’s roles in society — are still the biggest roadblocks to powering up postrevolutionary states. Across the region, governments are facing youth unemployment rates that in some countries are nudging 50%, while the issue of women’s position in society and the economy continues to be fiercely contested in streets and salons, mosques and newly drafted constitutions.

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Women played a starring role in the Arab Spring until attacks on female protesters in Egypt soured the prospect of women bettering their lot across the region. The percentage of women in Algeria’s Parliament increased to 31% in May, but the number of Islamists grew as well in Tunisia, Egypt and Kuwait, where conservatives want new constitutions that chip away at women’s rights.

Women’s mores and gender issues are often a convenient touchstone for religiously inspired politicians eager to deflect attention from the more pressing issues of jobs and growth. (Just look at the presidential-primary season in the U.S.) That’s especially true in the Arab world, where women’s freedoms are caught in a centuries-old tussle between modernity and tradition. Tunisia’s conservative Salafis staged university sit-ins this year demanding gender-segregated classes and the repeal of a ban on face veils. In the run-up to Egypt’s elections, candidates all but ignored female voters for most of the campaign. Rather than confront the region’s dire economic situation head-on, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) — who opposes women’s running for the presidency and on CNN recently championed protecting Egyptian women as he would “my sisters, my daughters, my wife and my mother” — has used religion as a distraction from a much bigger women’s issue: jobs.

The economy and women’s rights have long been separate issues in Middle Eastern public debate. But sexism is a costly business, holding back not just women but entire economies. This is true the world over but particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, which have the lowest rate of female participation in the global workforce. Only a quarter of Middle Eastern and North African women participate in the labor market, compared with over 50% in other developing regions, including sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. Moreover, as the region’s unemployment rates have shot up, the gap between female and male rates has grown, doubling over the past generation. If you’re an Egyptian, Kuwaiti or Saudi Arabian woman, you’re four times as likely to be unemployed as a man in your country. “Women’s disenchantment is very high,” says Simel Esim, an economist at the International Labor Organization’s Office for Arab States. “You give them education, but then there aren’t the jobs out there.”

Even without the region’s other economic challenges — like slow growth, crony capitalism and bloated public sectors — gender discrimination is a recipe for disaster. A 50% rise in the wage gap between men and women lowers a nation’s per capita income by 25%, economists Tiago Cavalcanti and José Tavares found. Getting women into the workforce correlates with higher growth and lower poverty rates and can yield far better growth than more conventional market reforms. A study last year from the Cass Business School Dubai argued that putting 2 million of the Gulf region’s women into paid work would boost the GDP of the Gulf countries by 30% — or $363 billion.

To avoid the fate of their predecessors, the new Arab leaders know they need to create more jobs. To keep unemployment rates from rising further, the region will need almost 200 million new jobs by 2050 — three-quarters of them for women. In the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Index, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) lagged behind the rest of the world, with Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the bottom 10 of the 135 countries surveyed. At current rates, catching up with the world average for female labor participation will take the region 150 years.

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It needn’t. “In the West, there was a very large increase in female labor after World War II,” observes Cavalcanti. “Men went to war, so women went into the labor market. A shock like that changed society’s preferences about women in the workplace. For the Middle East, the revolution could be a shock that improves economic participation.” With proper planning and political buy-in, it’s just possible the Arab Spring could galvanize women into new roles. Already it’s clear that the women who came out on the streets to topple dictators won’t go quietly back to their homes, despite harassment by conservative Islamists or the military police. “What’s refreshing in the post — Arab Spring environment is that women are coming out and articulating, very vocally, the need to have their rights,” says Tara Vishwanath, lead economist at the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction and Economic Management group.

Libyan women, who were pivotal in toppling Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, still want a greater role in the public sphere, and many are expected to run in the June elections. In Egypt, activists are pushing sexual-harassment issues into the mainstream, with the liberal Free Egyptians Party recently marching alongside women’s groups demanding antiharassment laws.

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That’s to the good. The MENA region’s women have long been hampered by discrimination within the family, at work and under the law. And yet Islam doesn’t actually discourage women from working: the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadija was a successful businesswoman who hired the Prophet to oversee her caravans. In other Muslim countries, women work in droves. Indonesia has a similar economic DNA to Egypt’s — and twice the rate of female labor participation. Conservative Arab social and cultural mores play a greater part in keeping women out of the workforce. “Though women are educated, their fathers and husbands often want them to stay at home and take care of families rather than contributing to earning,” says Tania Moussallem, head of strategic development and financial management at Lebanon’s BLC Bank.

Hitting Where It Hurts
laws in the mena region don’t help matters, hampering women’s freedom of movement, work opportunities and access to capital. If you’re a girl in Iran, you can legally be married at 13; a Bahraini girl can be married at 15. An Egyptian woman can’t work the night shift, by law. An Omani or Saudi businesswoman can’t get a passport without permission from a male family member. A Yemeni woman can’t leave her house without an escort or permission from a male family member. And across the region, aspiring female entrepreneurs have more trouble getting bank loans than their brothers do. Since women customarily inherit less than men, they often lack collateral to get a loan. “Inheritance laws don’t favor women,” notes Moussallem. “And even if they are equitable in some countries, there is a mentality where families give assets to a boy because he holds the family’s name.”

Particularly in the era of globalization, the region has paid dearly for such discrimination. Much of the success of East Asian economies like China, Vietnam and Indonesia has hinged on getting women into work and building a competitive export-oriented manufacturing sector on female labor, notes Stephan Klasen, a professor of development economics at the University of Göttingen. Comparing these tigers to the MENA region’s sluggish economies, Klasen and economist Francesca Lamanna estimated that the MENA economies would have grown 1% faster per year than their 1.6% growth rates during the 1990s had the region tapped into its female talent as the East Asians did. And by comparing female-to-male earnings ratios, economists Calvacanti and Tavares found that were it not for Saudi Arabia’s wage gap, the Saudi population would be as rich as that of the U.S. on a per capita basis. If American women faced pay inequalities on a par with Egyptian women, U.S. output per capita would plummet by 66%. “When men discriminate, they may be better off individually, simply because they are doing better than women,” says Tavares. “But overall, the economy suffers. If you’re barring women from the workforce or paying them a lesser wage, then you’re not bringing women in as productive members of the economy.”

So far, across the MENA region, governments remain the biggest suppliers of jobs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for women, who “prefer to work in the public sector because it pays much better and offers more generous benefits than a private-sector job,” says the World Bank’s Vishwanath. Studies show that the region’s women tend to see working in the private sector as riskier to their reputation than government work because of longer hours, long commutes and the potential for harassment. The jitters are mutual, notes Vishwanath: “Firms, too, perceive women to be less productive and more costly,” since their leaving the workforce when they marry increases turnover.

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Post — Arab Spring, the region’s economies must promote the high-growth private sector in order to succeed. The fact that in many parts of MENA, women outperform men in terms of education can help. The Gulf in particular has already poured money into female education, producing what development experts call a reverse gender gap: Primary-school girls in the Middle East are the only ones on the planet who trounce boys in math tests. In Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries, there are more women than men in universities — and they tend to do better there too. The tough part is translating all this education into jobs. Unemployment in the region is particularly high for college graduates; 43% of Saudi Arabia’s graduates, for example, are out of work. “There’s a waste going on,” says Saadia Zahidi, a senior director at the World Economic Forum. “Governments have made investments in education, but they’re not reaping the returns.”

And the political environment in which to do so is becoming more challenging. After Egypt’s FJP — the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood — swept 47% of parliamentary seats, investors and feminists worried about the tone coming from its conservative flank. In the new Egypt, the issue of women’s empowerment has been tainted by its associations with President Hosni Mubarak’s government: conservatives dismiss progressive legislation on women’s rights, championed by the former First Lady, as Western-influenced window dressing by a corrupt regime. Egyptian women fear a more conservative constitution. Egypt’s parliament is now only 2% female, down from 12% under Mubarak. “Women’s unemployment was and is not a real priority with any serious political commitment,” says Hoda Rashad, a social scientist at the American University of Cairo. “If anything, the commitment is much weaker postrevolution.” One parliamentarian has sponsored a bill to roll back women’s right to request divorce. Another has tut-tutted over school textbooks, claiming that they encourage girls to abandon their roles as homemakers to work in men’s jobs. A bill currently making its way through parliament would lower the legal age of marriage from 18 to 16, a change that Gauri van Gulik of Human Rights Watch says could drag more women away from the labor force.

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Green Shoots
there are pragmatists in egypt’s Islamist FJP, however, who argue that women must be as involved in building the new Egypt as they were in tearing down the old one. Earlier this year, an official statement asserted the party’s “commitment to equality and justice to women, particularly at this time when Egypt needs the efforts and creativity of every Egyptian citizen.” Parliament recently voted to add 5 million female heads of household to the national-health-insurance program. There’s a new registration drive for the 4 million Egyptian women who lack national IDs, without which they have trouble getting everything from education to jobs to capital. The Muslim Brotherhood does “believe in a free-market economy, but they’ve also made a commitment to help the most needy in society,” says Maha Azzam, a Chatham House expert on Islamist movements. “I haven’t encountered any resistance to the integration of women into the economy — on the contrary. The main stumbling block is to get the economy up and running.”

The country that’s done best at getting women into jobs is the one in which the Arab Spring began: Tunisia. That’s not surprising given that it had been comparatively progressive within the region and developed a more diversified economy in female-friendly sectors like textiles, tourism and light manufacturing. It’s also the country with the most-progressive legal protections for women, who have been guaranteed everything from workplace rights to access to abortion since 1956. And yet for all the structural and cultural reasons outlined, young women’s unemployment still hovers around 28%, with many of the employed stuck in low-paid and insecure jobs. What the region needs, says economist Klasen, “is new thinking about a growth strategy, one with more intensive labor — and more female labor.”

Those best placed to provide it may be female leaders themselves. Bothaina Kamel, the only female candidate in Egypt’s presidential elections, withdrew from the race last month, having failed to secure enough signatures to get on the ballot. But the broadcast journalist’s campaign, with its bell-clear denunciation of the interim ruling council, shook things up. Kamel has pledged to keep fighting corruption and fraud. Her failed electoral bid is yet another reminder to Egypt’s women that while the old regime is gone, the old military and Islamist patriarchy remains. “We haven’t made a revolution yet,” she told interviewers. “There’s still a lot more to do.”

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