Women Employment Across the Arab World
By: Haneen Abu Al Neel/Arab America Contributing Writer
Women in the Arab world navigate numerous difficulties. From an early age, women face gender roles enforced by society members around them, their complicated relationship with deep-rooted issues like religion, sexuality, and gender equality. This trio of Issues, while heavily present in daily life in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), is never directly addressed. The residue of these untapped issues later grows to complicate further the intricate marital relationships Arab women are asked to navigate. The marital relationships may or may not come along with the potential toxic masculinity packaged with some men from an early age.
Arab women in marriages today also have to perfect the balancing act between their work and their family duties. These traditional gender roles enforced success criteria based on well-behaved kids, clean home, and flavorful food in abundance. While these issues persisted in earlier generations, they continue impacting young Arab women’s lives today.
More women in the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) have to configure a multitasking strategy early on as data shows a growing number of women entering the labor force. To understand the reason behind this, we must first explore the potential causes. There can be numerous justifications for rising numbers of women in the labor force in Arab countries today.
On the one hand, economic conditions prevail as the most obvious reason. Though it is tempting to blame the Arab Spring revolutions for worsening economic status, it can be argued that these conditions have predated the revolutions. The World Bank graph data shows a spike in female employment in 2013 after a noticeable drop before the Arab Spring. Evidently, one income is no longer an option for households wanting to maintain a particular lifestyle. Fortunately, this need has led us to have 1 out of every 3 new startups being led by women.
On the other hand, the dovetailing of the contemporary feminist thought re-awakening with the shrinking numbers of early marriages catalyzed women to rediscover their independent narratives at a young age. The zeitgeist of the 21st century has been the re-emergence of influential women figures and images that perhaps were actively hidden gems in earlier times. Iconic women authors, political thinkers, philosophers, and many other established professionals today are now more able to publish their ideologies in a manner easily and freely circulated, the internet.
Previously, young intellectual women had to access Arab feminist ideologies through libraries or political parties, both of which had their own limitations. Nonetheless, MENA critical and feminist literature was abundant. Authors like Mona ElTahawi, Nawal El-Sadaawi, Leila Ahmad, Leila Abu Lughod, Mervat Hatem, and Fatema Mernissi, to name a few were inherently political and revolutionary. Many other poets advocated the same ideologies yet under different banners.
These authors’ writings introduced readers to a world where society’s gender roles did not chain them, and in many ways planted the seeds of the feminist thought present today. It is the same seeds that sprouted women unapologetically pursuing their degrees and careers. However, the trends show women of the MENA will have to continue to juggle jobs and societal expectations at their own risk.
By having to navigate gender roles and widespread misogyny, women’s tasks are further complicated. The embodiment of the spirit of the earlier resistance waves comes in the form of highly intellectually rebellious young women across the Arab world and in the diaspora.
We are more furious today than our mothers and grandmothers were 30, 40, or even 50 years ago. If anything, today, we are more intersectional and transnational than generations before, making the roots of our causes spread all across the globe rather than working in silos. Yet again, this transformation places women who live in the MENA region subjects to be tormented by the work-home balancing act. However, miraculously, many women are successfully managing their lives despite these tensions.
The advancement of this independent thought process meant little to women’s family responsibilities. We were still expected to get married and have children – eventually. Family duties and rules later manifest in assessments of how well managed the household is. But worry not! Of the women who do not wish to follow this decree, there were two main camps. Some women choose demanding careers that will always be an adequate excuse in an Arab household for not settling down just yet, like engineering, law, architecture, or medicine. Some other women choose to work for international organizations that require frequent traveling. Sly as it might be, women find their ways to refute society’s gender roles by manipulating the rules and becoming successful career women too busy for marriage.
It is essential to clarify that there is absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing marriage while juggling a buzzing career either. It is merely the options that women resort to in defiance of pre-existing rules that we aim to highlight. However, you will find many of us do all of the above, just because we can.