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Gender and Inequality in the Middle East


The term gender refers to the cultural and social distinctions linked to being male or female. The sociology of gender explore how the society influences people’s perception and understanding of the difference between femininity and masculinity. In turn, these perceptions and understandings influence identity, as well as social, political and economic practices. For instances, gender inequalities documented in the Islamic world are highly associated with the society’s understanding of the roles of men and women in the society. In other words, the society’s understanding of the gender roles contributes to the economic, social and political disparity in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. There is consensus in an array of MENA-based researches that gender-based inequalities are issues that needs urgent attention. Gender inequality is viewed as the unequal valuing of the roles of men and women. Therefore, gender equality is refers to the equal treatment of men and women in policies and laws, as well as equal access to services and resources within families, communities and the society as a whole. The Arabic culture tend to bind the MENA regions with similar practices and attitudes. As consequence, any existing differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia regarding gender and inequality are overshadowed by predominant similarities. Therefore, the discussion will approach gender inequality from a broader viewpoint of Arab culture in general, Egypt and Saudi Arabia included. In acknowledging the gravity of this complex socioeconomic issue, this paper discusses the gender and inequality in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. To that end, the researcher will advance the gender and inequality discussion in the region.

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Gender and Inequality in the Middle East Region

Women are approximately 50% of the working-age global population but still generates only 37% of the GDP. The lower representation of women in payable work is in sharp contrast to their higher representation in unpaid work. For decades, Western activists, scholars and media have highlighted the inequalities faced by women in the MENA region, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Egypt. At the center of their discussions is the notion that culture and religion (Islam) contributes to various forms of inequalities between men and women in these countries and region. In fact, gender inequality has epitomized discussions regarding political, social and economic issues touching the lives of women in the Arab world. While women in the Middle East region, like women in the Western economies, have their understanding of equality. They have a pivotal role not only within their families, but also in the political and economic spheres of their countries. For example, a recent McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report on the power of parity noted that advancing women’s equality had the potential of adding $12 trillion to the global growth by 2025. In that report, it was noted that MENA has the 48% full potential of incrementing GDP from bridging the existing gender gap. However, the region lags in gender equality in work labor-force participation; enablers and essential services of economic opportunity; education level and healthcare; autonomy and physical security; political representation; political voice and legal protection.

MGI’s gender parity scale gauges the distance a country has travelled toward gender equality (gender parity = 1.00). This implies that an aggregate gender parity score (GPS) of 0.48 in the Middle East and North Africa region is one of the lowest as compared to the Oceania and North America GPS of 0.74. For example, gender equality in work in the MENA region is as low as 0.34, which is slightly above India and South Asia (0.30), but below developed economies in North America and Oceania (0.72). The trend is also similar in political representation (0.12), as well as political voice and legal representation (0.16). According to Woetzel, et al., the share of regional output generated by women is only 18% in the MENA region as compared to 40% in Oceania and North America. Despite these low gender parity scores, recent socioeconomic and political reforms in the Middle Eastern countries has seen a considerable improvement in opportunities for women in political participation, employment and education. Undeniably, equality in the Middle East demands more reforms to ensure that women and men are equally treated in policies and laws, as well as in equal access to resource within and outside families. The ensuing section discussed gender and inequality in Egypt and the Kingdom Saudi Arabia.

Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have many similar gender and equality issues subject to the fact that they are part of the MENA region. Firstly, they are Arabic countries, implying that the perceptions and understanding of people in these countries regarding gender roles is highly influenced by Islam and the Islamic culture. Therefore, gender and inequality issues in these countries is approached from political, social and anthropological perspective. Additionally, the cost of gender inequalities are also discussed at from an economic perspective. For example, gender-based violence in Egypt cost the country around $ 693 million annually. Therefore, it is important to discuss these issues by analyzing the potential of Egyptian and Saudi Arabian women’s collective contribution to their countries developments, which is well understood by covering governance, trade and employment. In the same context, it is essential to cover sociopolitical and economic impediments to women’s empowerments and increased labour force and political participation. The achievement of Egypt and the KSA in various areas of women’s well-being continues to compares favorably with a number or regions. For example, gender parity indicators such as female life expectancy, fertility and education shows that MENA has progressed in these areas in the recent past. However, these countries fall substantially short on indicators of women’s political empowerment and economic participation. The cost of women’s participation in the economic spheres of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are high.

Despite being affluent and developing rapidly, MENA states, including KSA and Egypt still comprises of a significant segment of the population that does not enjoy equal rights. Due to the nature of their political history, alongside their recent political reforms, the population of these countries is diversified, including migrant workers. These migrants represent a form of inequality, which entails lags in various rights. However, across both citizens and non-citizens, women emerge as the most biased or marginalized group in MENA states. This gender disparity can only be understood by recognizing the role played by the Arabic culture in creating various inequalities in these countries. As a key point, it is arguable that the Arab culture induces gender inequalities. In fact, at the global level, the image of an Arab woman is that of an oppressed, secluded and marginalized second class citizen. One of the reasons this stereotype is predominant in both Middle Eastern and Western economies is the role played by the media in transferring ethnographic studies linked to gender inequalities. For the most part, the media coverage, especially social networking sites virally report incidences of gender-based injustices, including trafficking of young women meant to work as prostitutes or domestic workers. To an extent, the Arab culture appears to be mysterious to non-Muslims because little is known about the content of the culture and gender roles. Besides depicting the role of women as more linked to the Dark Ages, with a number of issues revolving around human rights, the dynamics of the Middle East society is blurred by the connection between religion and the state. In this context, the gender and inequality issues in Saudi Arabia and Egypt raises a number of questions, regarding legal and religious barriers to equality.

As evidenced by the Saudi Arabian constitution, the gender inequality in the Middle East region is subject to the predominance of Islam, not only as a religion, but also as way of life, which tends to influence all the political, social and economic aspects of life in the MENA region. For this reason, most of the legal rights granted to women in the MENA regional are subject to Islamic (Sharia) law. The widening socioeconomic gaps between women and men is attributed to religious, as well as social, political and economic factors. For instance, the Arab Spring is an apt example of a reactionary tide against the socioeconomic inequalities in the MENA region. Additionally, the widening socioeconomic gaps between various social classes in Egypt led to the polarization of the country; and the absence of a democratic system can be noted as the underlying factors in the 2011 revolution. This argument is opposed to the notion that the Uprising was more of an Islamic movement. Women in these countries have also fallen victim of the encapsulation of social, political and economic hardships within the context of religion. In other words, women in the MENA region are victims of religion being used as a pretext, which appears to provide refuge for the vulnerable and marginalized groups. As noted by Aspden some women hoped that the 2011 Arab Spring would address some of the inequalities faced by the Egyptian Women.

Interestingly, Islam gives both men and women the right to have education. As a matter of fact, the religion emphasizes the benefits of education for everyone. Egypt and Saudi Arabia support the right to education in their constitution. The past two decades has witnessed a rise in the number of educated females as education expanded in these countries. Despite numerous measures taken to improve accessibility to education, there is a discrepancy in the level of literacy in the MENA region with respect to gender. Evidently, illiteracy is higher among females than males. Additionally, the percentage of males in all stages of the education system surpasses those of females. A logical impact of this discrepancy is the variation in the number of the women in well-paid jobs. That is to say, the high level of illiteracy among females in the MENA regions translates to low income generation among females because they are forced settle for menial jobs. However, a logical and inherence sequence on the noted increasing number of Arabic women in in education is the corresponding growth in the labor market. Job opportunities have increased following the presence of a legislative framework (Affirmative Action) guaranteeing equality before law. In the same context, Islam induces a strong work ethic, which includes women. Even in the presence of legislations guaranteeing equality before the law, there is a discrepancy in the participation of men and women in economic activity.

The lower rate of female participation in economic activities in these countries is rooted to the cultural attitude towards female employments. For the most part, this attitude lie in the Arabic culture emphasizing seclusion. In the same light, the cultural barriers, linked to falsely extrapolated religious dogma contributes to the reluctance of many women in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to seek employment, because the propagated controversial belief is that Islam prohibits women from working. This argument can is complimented by the fact that there a many educated women in Middle East states, but few are employed. One would counter this position by pointing that there are limited job opportunities, but that is not the case for highly educated women who simply decides to sit back at their homes as housewives because they believe women are supposed take care of the of their men instead of working. In other words, the inequality in economic participation can be understood within the context of prevailing norms and values in the Arabic society. Despite the fact that globalization and other market forces have pushed female education forward across the world, the traditional pillar of the Egyptian and KSA societies are yet to synchronize with this global trend. In simple terms, female employment is yet to be fully accepted in the Arab world. Even for those who are employed, the labor market in Middle East is epitomized by division of labour. This point explains the prevalence of women over men in the service industry of both Egypt and the KSA. In contrast to Saudi Arabia, there are more women in the Egyptian agricultural sector because the county relies on agriculture along the Nile. In Egypt, Gender bias is also evident in unpaid female labor, typified by household chores and agricultural labor.


From the discussion and illustrations above, it is apparent that there is gender inequality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are apt case studies of this complex socioeconomic issue in the Arab world. The complexity of the gender equality in this regions needs a holistic approach to create sustainable solutions. As of this writing, there is gender conditioning, and institutions have continued to give more support to men than women in terms of social, economic and political opportunities. For equality to be achieved in these countries, different aspirations, needs and behavior of both men and women must be taken into account, favored and valued equally. In summary, the gravity of this issue should be given adequate attention; thus sparking a national and regional debates meant to address gender and inequality issues in these countries.

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