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Arab women's economic plight

Arab women are at a crossroad. Currently, just 19 percent of the Arab world’s labor force is female, the lowest in the world.

Two female university students converse on break at their Egyptian university

Female students on break during a long day of lectures and studies at Ain Shams University. (Creative Commons)

The lowest female employment rate globally was in Yemen, according to ILO data (2020), with Iraq having the second lowest female employment rates worldwide. Progressive countries like Jordan reported in 2020, that female employment was less than 20 percent of the work force, with the global average being about 39 percent.

Despite policies across several Arab countries to address the gender gap in employment, a secondary problem exists. In several Arab countries, women remain on the sidelines when they are employed. For example, less than 10 percent of Arab women attain a managerial position in their career either in Government, or the public sector, which tends to be one of their largest employers. 

And, female education is not the core problem. Female literacy in the Arab world stands at approximately 75 percent as of 2020, with women outperforming men in national examinations in select countries both at the primary and secondary levels. This includes math and science.

While these very low female labor force participation rates could be due to cultural norms in the Middle East, coupled with high rates of general unemployment, other countries in the world have similar norms with significantly different results. Culturally conservative nations in East Asia and the Pacific, along with sub-Saharan Africa, have female labor participation rates of greater than 40 percent.

The fundamental plight of Arab women is that they are excluded from the paid workforce at unprecedented rates. They are significantly over represented in the unpaid workforce, working instead in areas of caregiving and household work. Arab women who are employed, technically are at work 24/7. They are in the formal work force by day, and responsible for caregiving and household work by night.

Which leads me to why I’ve written today about this topic. An Egyptian shock jock TV hostess, has recently taken to the airwaves to speak directly to Arab women. She regularly reminds them that their primary responsibility is caregiving and household work. She says, for the married women among them, they need to address their men with a title, “sir”, at the very least. They shouldn’t make too much noise when they’re cooking. Especially annoying, she said, is the sound of frying French fries if a man is tired from a long day in the office. Her advice to women is to procure a bell so her man can ring for her, avoiding the unnecessary use of his vocal cords. She even said to women on a national broadcast, that any man that will have her has to be her prince, and eventually her king. 

In response, I would remind this TV anchor of a fairy tale she must have read as a child. Cinderella never actually asked for a prince. She just wanted a night off, and a new dress. 



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