Discrimination against women in Arab societies is not news, in a region characterized by the lowest levels of female public participation, in spite of the countless government and civil society programs seeking to empower women socially, economically, and politically.
This idea is cemented in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report 2016, which measures equality across four axes: Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, Economic Participation and Opportunity, and Political Empowerment.
The report states that “if economies are to fully utilize their talent, there needs to be a corresponding narrowing of the economic gender gap to benefit from women’s strong performance on educational qualifications.”
Arab Countries Exhibit the Lowest Gender Parity
Arab countries exhibit a low level of achieving parity, whereby the Global Index in the report recorded that the overall worldwide gender gap had been closed by 68%, while the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has closed only 60% of the gender gap—an improvement from previous indices. Nonetheless, “the region continues to rank last globally on the overall Index, behind South Asia.”
The report further indicates that the area most urgently in need of closing the gap in the MENA region is that of Economic Participation and Opportunity, whereby the report predicted that it would take 356 years to close the economic gender gap in the region. This compares to an approximately sixty-year period in Sub-Saharan Africa—a region that, until very recently, was gripped by war and famine.
Qatar topped the Arab countries in terms of gender parity, however coming in the 119th ranking out of 144 countries worldwide. It is followed by Jordan, which is ranked 120 worldwide. Moreover, eleven Arab countries were ranked among the twenty lowest-ranking countries in the world. Most notably, Saudi Arabia ranked 141st, followed by Syria at 142nd, while Yemen occupied the lowest ranking, at 144.
Yet, in spite of the low overall rankings, the MENA region nonetheless witnessed some of the highest levels of improvement in gender parity in terms of economic participation since the report was first issued in 2006.
“The Index does not seek to set priorities for countries but rather to provide a comprehensive set of data and a clear method for tracking gaps on critical indicators so that countries may set priorities within their own economic, political and cultural contexts,” the preface to the report reads, compiled by Richard Samans, Head of the Centre for the Global Agenda and Member of the Managing Board of the WEF, and Saadia Zahidi, Head of Education, Gender and Work and Member of the Executive Committee of the WEF.
The Middle East continues to lag behind in terms of closing the gender gap
The gender gap in the Arab World remains one of the largest threats to its economic development
Meanwhile, Scandinavian countries occupied the top four spots of the Global Index, having achieved the highest levels of gender parity. Iceland occupied the top spot for the eighth consecutive year, followed by Finland, Norway, and Sweden, in that order.
As for the fifth spot, this was reserved for the once war-torn Rwanda’s breakout number, whereby the report notes that it “crosse[d] the threshold of closing 80% of its gender gap” for the first time.
Conversely, the United States’ ranking dropped by seventeen spots since last year’s rankings, coming in at 45th. This was attributed to “a revised estimate of the size of the gender gap in estimated earned income” due to higher levels of transparency in reporting.
Moreover, among the other economic leaders that made it into the top twenty came Germany, in thirteenth place, as well as France in seventeenth, and the United Kingdom in twentieth.
The report further notes that “the gaps between women and men on economic participation and political empowerment remain wide: only 59% of the economic participation gap has been closed—a continued reversal on several years of progress and the lowest value measured by the Index since 2008.”
This is attributable to a number of factors, among which are wages, whereby women’s average salaries worldwide barely surpass half of the average salaries earned by their male counterparts, despite the fact that women work more hours than men on average, taking into consideration both paid and unpaid work.
As for the Arab world, the situation is even worse there, whereby a report issued by the International Labour Organization at the end of 2016 revealed that women’s rates of participation in the workforce were much lower than those exhibited by men. The report cites a 20.4% unemployment rate among Arab women, compared to 7.8% among Arab men, making the gap between them almost 12%.
Arab states also suffer from a wide wage gap, whereby women receive much lower compensations than men for the same type of work.
The ILO ascribes this to the discrepancy in educational attainment and training opportunities between the two genders. The report states that while, in general, women have made leaps in education, nonetheless, in certain countries, females spend fewer years than males in the educational system, as educating females is still considered less beneficial than educating males, according to local traditions. Additionally, it attributes the wage gap to part-time versus full-time work, and gender-based occupational segregation.
The WEF states, “Talent and technology together will determine how the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to deliver sustainable economic growth and innumerable benefits to society. Yet if half of the world’s talent is not integrated—as both beneficiary and shaper—into the transformations underway, we will compromise innovation and risk a rise in inequality. This urgency is at the core of a fresh call to action to accelerate progress towards gender equality, adding to the well-established economic case for gender equality.”
Additionally, the UN Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report 2016: Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality cites discrimination against young women in terms of public, social, and economic empowerment as a major obstacle towards empowering youth in general in the region.
The report states that young women suffer from gender inequality in most Arab countries, and bear the brunt of lack of youth empowerment due to inherited ideas and practices. In the period before marriage, for example, social expectation plays the operative role in determining the options available to them, particularly those related to economic status and available resources.
Moreover, boss discrimination against women in the workplace is still prevalent, and women are not entitled to the same rights in marriage and divorce as men. More critically, women are infinitely more exposed to domestic and institutional violence, on a continual basis.
Additionally, governments continue to fall short of protecting women against violence, rape, and murder under the banner of “honor crimes,” which acts as an additional burden for young women seeking to live as independent adults.
The report further points out that the growing influence of rigid social and political forces, characterized by their discriminatory ideologies, and which increasingly seek to build alliances, will undoubtedly exacerbate the already existing gap in empowering young women. Moreover, these forces may stall, or even reverse, the small gains that have been made in gender relations over the past few decades.