Gender issues often depend on economics

Financially, politically and intellectually, as well as religiously and socially, the women of the Middle East have set themselves on a course to make themselves count.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Powered by automated translation

The new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, has announced that he will be appointing a female vice president. It's a strong signal in a region that is sceptical about the Islamist commitment to women's rights.

Mr Morsi's wife Naglaa Ali Mahmoud is also breaking with tradition - albeit reluctantly - when it comes to women in the public space. She does not want to be called the first lady, but rather has said if she is to be given any title, she prefers "first servant". She does not want the fawning her predecessor received but prefers to be treated like her millions of ordinary peers.

These two women are symbols, and important statements of intent, but improving the reality of daily life for hundreds of millions of women across the region will take more than a couple of women in the political spotlight.

The first thing we need to do is to draw a nuanced, multifaceted portrait of Arab and Muslim women. We must understand that they are not one monolithic mass, but rather consider their situations, aspirations and the tools available to them to reach their goals, all of which vary widely by country and class.

Only then can we draw any valid analysis on which to base policy recommendations. And while women's political rights and roles are crucial, such an approach also requires us to see women in a wider context: in the workplace, as social participants, both creators and consumers, but also within an economic climate that is precarious for both men and women. And religion cannot be discounted - primarily because women themselves don't want it to be thrown out, much as that might surprise many.

A Gallup poll released last week After the Arab Uprisings: Women on Rights, Religion, and Rebuilding concludes that along with a dearth of perceived security, it is socio-economic factors that are the real barriers for women's empowerment - not religion. Also, what might seem counterintuitive to some is that many women as well as men want religion to have some level of influence on the legal framework. In some cases, religious Arabs are even more likely to support women's rights.

The simple conclusion is that we need to leave prejudices about the role of religion by the door if we are committed to making real change. It is in fact socio-economic factors that are the prime shapers of life's chances.

Women see socio-economic development as the fundamental underpinning of their own and their family's progress. It's well documented that as women's education levels and economic activity grow, they invest their finances in improving the situation of their families, creating a virtuous circle.

A YouGov and poll this week on the perceptions and attitudes of working women in the Mena region found financial independence is the key motivation to start work reported by 57 per cent of women, rising to 65 per cent in Saudi Arabia. In itself, this is a strong signal that women are keen to take charge of their own destinies. As the report states, working women want to "make oneself count" through financial, intellectual and social independence.

Variations across age and country are equally telling. Older women do not want only their own financial security, but to contribute to the household and the education of their children. Understandably, respondents aged 18 to 25 are keen to make use of their education. Geography - and presumably affluence - play a role too. Women in the GCC see work as a means to broaden their perspective on life, whereas in other countries it is improving the family's finances that motivates.

So it's not a lack of aspiration to work that must be addressed, but rather the barriers blocking the opportunity for employment and career progression. Two in five women say they have faced discrimination at the interview stage. Four in five women said they work equal or longer hours than their male counterparts, but two in five believe they are paid less. Lack of job security was a major concern, but this is a problem facing both men and women.

It's quite simple: the more jobs of quality and security there are generally, the more there are for women. Gallup's finding that socio-economic barriers are the root problem explains this pragmatically: "The more men are thriving, employed and educated, the more they support women's rights."

While political and economic participation might seem the hallowed prizes by which to judge women's emancipation, their social engagement is an equally critical sphere to address.

Last month, the research company TNS looked at Middle East women's attitudes as consumers. They found that women are motivated by technology, education and media, and are now demanding respect in all aspects of their lives, fuelled by external pressures and trends, including the growth of nuclear families and an increasing desire to expand social networks.

Key aspirations are freedom, fun, self-expression and respect, as well as an increasing priority on health and wellbeing. These are all clear indicators of a more overt, proud expression of womanhood, and again point to a stronger self-belief.

Within the social sphere there has been much talk of social networking as a rising force for change in the Middle East. But what has it done for women, and how are women using it?

Last year, Dubai School of Government looked at social media's role in the empowerment of women. They asked about the "virtual" gender gap that leaves many fewer Arab women than Arab men using social media, as well as far fewer Arab women than women worldwide.

One cause is a lack of training or access to social-media technology, along with worries about reputation and how someone using such media would be perceived.

On the other hand, both men and women see it as a powerful first step to allow women to overcome real-life social barriers to access.

Both men and women see social media as a tool for empowerment. Nonetheless, social media is not a universal panacea: real-life barriers cannot be underestimated.

Women in the Middle East are too often and too easily reduced to a single aspect - religion or politics. But with this breadth of analysis and research we can start to see a woman as a multilayered, complex individual: political participant, religious worshipper, civic engager, family member and professional, but also consumer, agent of change and pioneering technology user.

Of course, variations exist across country and class, but what unites women is the increasingly overt expression of womanhood, as well as the ever-strengthening belief in asserting their rights.

Financially, politically and intellectually, as well as religiously and socially, the women of the Middle East have set themselves on a course to make themselves count. Removing the barriers that they themselves highlight, as well as upholding a view of women as complex and nuanced, are the first steps to contributing to this future.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at