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Muslim Women at Work pdf

Muslim Women at Work: Religious Discourses in Arab Society

  • Book Title:
 Muslim Women At Work
  • Book Author:
Yusuf M. Sidani
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A Persistent Participation Gap – MUSLIM WOMEN AT WORK

There is a recurring image, very much dominant in the West, of subjugated powerless Arab and Muslim women. Those women are seen as being marginalized by powerful forces of patriarchy and rigid societal institutions that include the family, political structures, and religious bodies. Reports and statistics by international organization, some of which will be presented in this chapter, tell of a dismal situation for those women. Issues of discrimination, education gaps, harassment, and prejudice are brought forward attesting to a situation that is extremely problematic.

While still acknowledging that something is indeed wrong, another perspective asserts that this issue cannot be separated from a larger development problem that sweeps many parts of the Arab world. This predicament is worsened by ineffective public administration structures, autocratic regimes, corruption, and deficient educational systems. Talking about a “woman problem” that is separate from a larger crisis would not lead to proper diagnosis of the challenges faced.

Women do suffer from a power differential vis-à-vis strong societal and political structures. Yet, such structures also impact other marginalized groups including lower-status men, deprived ethnic groups, and historically disadvantaged social classes. Fixing one side of the equation needs to be complemented by fixing the other side as well.

Irrespective of which position one adopts, most would agree that the current status of women in Arab societies is not alright. Scholars, activists, and women’s rights advocates, whether Arabs or non-Arabs, overwhelmingly acknowledge the existence of significant gender gaps at many levels. Some Arab countries have gone a long way in addressing those gaps; others seem to be running in circles. All in all, however, narrowing gender disparities in education, workforce participation, and political representation has proven to be an arduous task.

There is little agreement as to the reasons behind this gap. Determining who, or what, is responsible for the gender disparity, and how best to address it, are questions with various, often divergent, explanations. Some blame deeply rooted customs, traditions, and religious understandings. Others blame patriarchal forces entrenched in the whole region, which transcend countries, ethnicities, and religions. Yet, a third group offers explanations associated with the discovery of oil, labor migration, popula-tion growth, and changes in fertility rates.1

Those and other factors, through a complicated web of cause and effect, have particularly impacted women in a negative way.

Some Arab feminists see parallels between what has been happening in Arab countries and what happened in Western countries a couple of centu-ries ago in terms of the role of culture, religion, and patriarchy. Others look suspiciously at what they consider to be Western-inspired feminism and tell a story that is, in many respects, different. Some, more interested in sus-taining the status quo, imply that the “women issue” is blown way out of proportion. Another group may link raising this issue to a host of neocolo-nial attempts that aim to disintegrate Arab societies.

Regardless of the various standpoints, serious analysts concur that there is something clearly wrong. Reports by international organizations note that the gender gap in the Arab World is greater than almost any other region of the world. Gaps have been highlighted in education, health, labor partici-pation, pay equity, ascension to leadership positions, and harassment on the job. While women suffer from such problems in multiple contexts including the Western world, the gravity of the problem in the Arab World looks overwhelming. I am going to describe below some aspects of the problem indicating where successes, in relative terms, have been made and where problems still persist.

In a book2 dated 1873 written by an American missionary in Mount Leba-non, the author described the educational situation in one Arab country, Lebanon, which was then part of a greater Syria.3 He explained the situation of girls whose parents were not welcoming to the idea of sending their children to school. Particularly, girls were not expected to pursue formal education.

Protestant Missionaries were among the first to establish a school system that took into great consideration the importance of education for girls, whether Muslim or Christian. Such initiatives were not very welcome, not only by Muslim families, but also by other opposing Christian churches in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Irrespective of the resistance, the drive to educate girls prompted many like-minded organizations to be established to educate children, both male and female.

At that time, rarely did a girl reach a high school level, let alone pursue university education. This changed toward the end of the nineteenth cen-tury as more Muslim and Christian schools started to open doors. The pace of progress, however, especially for Muslim families, was slow. It was only in the 1950s and the 1960s that an influx of women began to pursue higher levels of education.

This was also the case in neighboring Arab countries in the Levant area, in North Africa, and more recently in the Arab Gulf region. Nowadays, as far as education is concerned, the situation is much better. Significant improvements concerning women’s education have been realized.

There is still much to be done for Arab women as they lag behind their male counterparts in many respects. Females still account for the majority of the illiterates in the Arab world.4 Their literacy rates have increased from 41% in 1990 to 69% in 2010, while male literacy increased from 67% to 85%during the same period. So, effectively, women’s literacy rates (across age levels) lag by about 20 years. The gap has decreased from 26% in 1990 to 16% in 2010. Youth literacy rates for males remain higher than those of females, but the gap is narrowing.5

Gender parity still does not exist in pre-primary education in most Arab countries. According to one study,6 males are favored above females in seven Arab countries, females are favored in one country (Sudan), and there is gender parity in seven other Arab countries. Primary enrollment growth for females (slightly above 20%) has, however, been higher than males (slightly less than 15%). There is also a rise in the primary completion rates, though still less than the male rates.7 Females have made impressive…


Since 1990, labor participation rates in the Arab world have tended to stabilize for both men and for women. Female labor force participation rate was 21% in the Arab world in 1990, compared to 76% for males. The rates were 23% for females in 2016 and 75% for males (see Table 2.1).

Compared to other regions, the Arab world suffers from the lowest female-to-male participation rates (computed by dividing female labor force participation rate by male labor force participation rate).

Not only are the female labor force participation rates lower compared to those of males, the participation rates have plateaued for the past 20 years. Female labor force participation increased by a mere nine percentage points within the 1980–2008 period (from 18% to 27%).10 This indicates that the gender gap in labor force participation is not likely to be significantly narrowed anytime soon.

Looking at male versus female labor force participation rates in individual Arab countries, one can notice the extent of the problem. There is not a single Arab country where the female rate comes even close to the male rate. It is true that the gender participation gap represents a global phenomenon, yet nowhere does the difference appear as strong. In all but three cases, the differences between the two rates exceed 40 percentage points. In nine countries, the differences even exceed 50 percentage points.

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