Conflict threatens to reverse Arab women’s gains

Centuries of gains by Arab women at risk from rise of extremism in the Middle East, says Jordan's Queen Rania

Conflict and extremism are threatening to reverse centuries of gains by Arab women, creating an urgent need for “leaps in progress” on education and women’s rights, Queen Rania of Jordan warned Tuesday.

“We need to actively fight [extremist ideological] currents that are trying to throw us centuries behind,” she said in the opening plenary of the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai. “[The Arab region] is beginning to see the spread of illiteracy in communities that once saw women graduate as pioneers and scientists.”

The region must leverage technology and digital tools to give women a louder voice, transform education and create jobs, she told delegates attending the two-day event. These tools will enable women to overcome stereotypes and break the cultural – rather than religious – bonds that hinder women’s empowerment, she added.

“Innovation breaks moulds,” she said. “I urge [those here today], with your creative skills and unconventional solutions, to… create a new progressive reality for Arab women and their societies. A society’s expectation of women directly reflects its confidence in its own abilities and potential.”

Female joblessness is a particular issue in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Just one in four women in the region are employed or looking for work – about half the global average, according to the World Bank. At the current rate, it will take 150 years for Arab women’s labour force participation to reach the world average.

For young women, the situation is particularly dire. Joblessness among this group exceeds 40 per cent in some MENA countries, while the employment gap between men and women has almost doubled in the past 25 years, shows World Bank data.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), urged governments globally to invest in equal education for girls and boys and to loosen credit lines to would-be female entrepreneurs.

Increasing women’s participation in the labour force would have far-reaching benefits for all. According to McKinsey Global Institute, gender parity could boost the economy of the Middle East by some $600bn by 2025.

Getting to gender parity requires overcoming many entrenched barriers, including legal discrimination. Some 90 per cent of 143 countries in an IMF study have laws that stop women having the same rights as men, according to Lagarde. “Those rules need to be changed,” she said.

Traditional views of women’s roles persist, too. In 2010, the World Bank conducted a survey of women graduating from community colleges in Jordan. Among them 92 per cent were planning to look for work; a year later, only 7 per cent of the graduates who had married were employed.

On an individual level, Lagarde urged young women to “pick a champion” who could help them climb the ladder at work and smash the glass ceiling, and hailed the “multiplier effect” of more women in leadership positions.

Gender equality needs political will, too, she said. “The countries where I’ve seen much progress for women’s empowerment are those environments where at the top someone takes the view that everyone can succeed, not just the few.”

The Global Women’s Forum seeks to break down stereotypes of women in the Arab world. “I hope this event will enhance the role of women and show our support and eagerness as men to you,” said Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation. “And also not allow anything that will have a negative impact on the role of women.”