‘Arab Women’ are the subject of Western and Eastern curiosity and, often, fascination. However, most attempts to investigate ‘Arab Women’ reduce them to one entity, ignoring their multitude of experience. The fact is Arab women are very different from each other. Just like everyone else, their realities are shaped by different personal, social, economic, religious and political factors. Arab women are the products of their diverse societies. Yet, the impact of differences on women’s lives are rarely captured or studied, much less understood.
Among the least understood forces shaping Arab women’s reality are economic ones. There are radical differences between the economic forces affecting Arab women in different countries. These are rarely acknowledged. Women belonging to prosperous countries, like most of the Gulf States, live far a different reality than those women who live in economically challenged countries in the Arab world.
Women belonging to less prosperous societies tend to work out of necessity, regardless of their level of educational attainment, in low-skill, low-wage jobs. Meanwhile, women in economically prosperous countries choose whether or not to work, even if they hold university degrees.
If these differences seem obvious, why aren’t they discussed more widely? Perhaps it’s because, ironically, these divergent experiences lead to the same outcome: unemployment (forced or voluntary) is in the rise and is proving to become one of the major problems facing the youth across Arab countries. This impacts Arab women in a unique way. That doesn’t mean all Arab women are the same. It’s important to delve into their differences.
Women in Gulf States have benefitted immensely from the economic growth of their countries. They have access to education, health services and employment. Education has proved itself to be the strongest force for change, driving an emerging discourse of women’s empowerment in these nations.
A new generation of educated women in the Gulf is re-shaping their societies’ long- held traditions, some of which used to restrict women’s movements and deny them access to the public life. Today, there are more female than male graduates in most of the Gulf countries. For example, Qatar and UAE have the highest female-to-male university enrolment ratio worldwide. However, Gulf States witness the same paradox that other countries in the MENA region face: a mismatch between the increasing number of female graduates and the low number of women joining the job market.
In Qatar, where I live and work, the number of Qatari females in 2010 with a university degree or above was 80,029 but only 27,108 (33.8%) of them are economically active. In other words, only one third of university graduates move onto the work place. (Kuwait is an interesting counterpoint. There, women account for half of the labour force.)
Another aspect of women’s economic involvement in Gulf States that deserves more attention and considering is their participation in the ‘invisible economy’. Home businesses have emerged as an interesting and increasingly powerful socio-economic phenomenon. These businesses are largely owned and operated by women who work in textile, crafts and food making.
The invisible economy is a feminized phenomenon. Women from all walks actively engage in it, but they do so for different reasons. Some women choose to build their livelihoods from their homes because they lack credentials needed in the job market. Other women in more prosperous Arab countries choose this form of businesses for opposite reasons: over-qualification, disinterest in public economy or in some cases to avoid the gender-mixed job market.
Are home businesses a good thing for women? Although some are innovative in their approach, the fact that they are not legal or registered limits their impact on a nation’s economy. It limit’s these business’s ability to grow and women’s opportunities for personal and professional growth. Clearly, it’s an area that requires further study.
It is evident that economic factors predetermine Arab women’s level of participation in their nations’ economies. But what is interesting and equally important is that we become aware that the similar outcomes of low economic participation are not the result of similar experiences. Women in different Arab countries function within different boundaries that prevent them from fully and actively participating in their nations’ economies. Let’s remember: women go through unique experiences, maneuver within unique boundaries and make unique decisions, even if the outcome looks very similar.