By Chris Solomon for Global Risk Insights
Women throughout the Middle East face a deeply imbedded culture of misogyny and still remain largely restricted from positions of public leadership. However, the last few years of political upheaval in the MENA region have seen more women beginning to take on roles in political leadership, entrepreneurship, and social activism.
There are a few key areas indicating that women are poised to gain a sustainable foothold in MENA’s politics and economics.
Businesses and education
The IT sector has been the most widely credited for connecting women from traditional family environments to previously inaccessible professional networks and presenting new business opportunities.
It is well known that Middle Eastern women have established their territory online to push social boundaries and cultural norms. Women from the UAE make up 35 percent of the MENA’s IT business sector.
Beyond the realm of technology, women are advancing through tried and tested experiences in political activism, increased global travel, educational opportunities, and economics developments.
GRI spoke with Nadereh Chamlou, International Development Advisor and Former Senior Advisor to the Chief Economist at the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region on the issue.
She explained, “While the progress in MENA has been slow, and at times even pushed back, the underlying conditions are indicative and promising of big changes to come, because women have become more involved in their societies, and are ‘leaning’ in more.”
“Women entrepreneurs and women in the corporate sector are making the biggest marks. Contrary to perceptions, the region has had a strong tradition of women in business, partly because of the strong role model in Islam of Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet, who was a successful business women and trader. As such, women’s economic rights in Islam are quite pronounced and strong.”
She continued, “Today we see a different genre of strong women, partly because they have become better organized inside their countries and outside. This is the case from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, from Iran to Lebanon.”
“Forming associations and organizing events that showcase [women] has also helped raise their profiles within their countries, and being tapped into various task forces, appointed to political positions inside the country and outside. A similar trend is taking place among women in the corporate sector, i.e. vice presidents, etc.”
The trends are playing out even in the most conservative of Arab countries. Saudi Arabia’s new urban economic zones may ultimately yield gender progressive “ripple effects” to the rest of the country, such as the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) North of Jeddah.
KAEC and the Saudi Aramco Entrepreneurship Center just finalized a Memorandum of Understanding to augment cooperation for startups and businesses.
With over 200,000 Saudi students studying abroad, KSA’s government plans for the graduates (more than half female) to return and take up residence in the new cities.
In Iran, women have obtained a higher level of social and professional freedom compared to the Arab Gulf states. Iranian women have made their mark with lucrative ventures in the country’s tech sector.
Women’s contributions to society have been lauded at the highest levels of Iran’s government. President Rouhani congratulated Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani, who won the Fields Medal, the top prize for mathematics.
In coming years, the status of Iran’s women will become more apparent in the West and will contribute to furthering relations between Iran and the United States. Europe could lead the way by establishing business ties with women, given the potential market for high-end consumer goods.
Demographics and political participation
Declining fertility rates in the region offer more education and job opportunities for girls. With 28% of the region’s population aged between 15 and 29, the number of educated girls with overseas experiences and networks is perfectly positioned for the next generation of political leadership.
But how do MENA’s recent political trends factor in?
Tunisia has long been viewed as the vanguard of women’s freedom in the region. Tunisia’s new constitution shows promise, but the National Union of Tunisian Women has faced financial pressure in recent years when the moderately Islamist Ennahda party was in power.
It remains to be seen how Ennahda will reconcile gender equality with the social changes taking place in its rural and traditional support communities.
Even in the Arab Spring’s conflict zones, women have broken barriers. Aside from the renowned female Kurdish fighters with the Syrian YPG and Iraqi Peshmerga, the White Helmets have female volunteers that act as emergency responders in the Syrian Civil War.
One of the first airstrikes to be carried out against the so-called Islamic State was done by a female fighter pilot, Major Mariam al-Mansouri, from the UAE.
Political activist Tawakkol Karman has stayed influential following Yemen’s crisis and is a well-established critic of the Houthi movement. As the Houthis lose ground, the Saudi-backed al-Islah Party (of which Karman is a leading member) could become increasingly influential. Karman could be positioned to moderate its conservative ideology should the party take part in a future political transition.
Through the course of Iraq’s conflict, the country has seen several prominent women rise up in its political system. As Baghdad slowly normalizes in the face of continuing violence, the new mayor, Dr. Thikra Alwash, made headlines as the first female mayor of an Arab capital city.
However, she has struggled to implement any significant development projects following the implementation of the city’s budget cuts, which were planned in response to the country’s struggling oil economy.
GRI reached out to Dr. Amira Mostafa, the Director of the Arab World Center for Democratic Development and Human Rights based in Amman, Jordan. Her view was not optimistic, as she stated that she does not “believe that women in the MENA region have in any way reached equality or gained positions of power.”
“The [region’s] political systems are trying to show the western world that women have reached such positions,” she continued, “but as you might know, even political parties or political trends are yet to be influential for either men or women.”