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Published On: Fri, Jan 16th, 2015

Opinion: “Female economic activity necessary for democratization”

Egyptian workers march to Shura Council on May Day 2013. Photographer Gigi Ibrahim.

Female economic activity is a measurement of national economic development, taking gender inequality into account, based on the workforce participation by women compared to men. Sometimes used as a rating-system, it is also called Female Economic Activity Rate (FEAR). While there is no direct link between FEAR and economic development in general, there are some evidence pointing to a link between FEAR and democratization. In this article, I explore female economic activity in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt, in an attempt to determine the correlation between democracy and female participation in the national economy.

Firstly, it must be stated the Middle East is many aspects a very heterogeneous region, both demographically, and in regards to natural resources, governance and financial structures. This makes it difficult to conduct “traditional” comparative studies, or to make generalizations about commonality within the region. Some areas, however, do show remarkable uniformity, and one of those areas is female economic activity outside of the household. The MENA region as a whole, according to OECD’s MENA office, has a female labour force participation rate of 24%, well-below the 54% average of low and middle-income countries. Because of this uniformity, an effective comparative study needs to follow a “Most Different Systems” design, as delineated by Przeworski and Teune in The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry (1970). This approach takes its starting point in the shared measures of the studied cases, rather than the variation, in order to understand that single phenomenon. The low female economic activity rate in the MENA region, thusly, is what Przeworski and Teune would call a variable “that does not violate the assumption of the homogeneity of the total population.”

The core of this analysis is the socioeconomic factor of democratization, rather than simply economic development. Considering the weak link between wealth and democracy in the MENA region (see for example Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates), the social factor of economic power might prove to be a more useful variable. It can be approached from several different angles. One such angle is the social power inherent in all populations. In A Political Economy of the Middle East (2013), the four authors point out that “societal interests and social actors penetrate the state and colonize parts of it.” What this means is that the same actors, through the power they harness, interact with economic interests and form a dynamic relationship. A somewhat related aspect is demography. An example of demographic impact is how women’s participation represents a counter-weight to the declining population growth’s negative effect on workforce growth. Another angle is to look at human capital, i.e. the overall well-being and ability to perform in the workforce and thus produce economic wealth. This is an interesting aspect, and two parts of the human capital are, as such, health and education. Health, too, is both a gender issue and connected to education. It could, in fact, argued that female education may be the key to improved health in the region. Higher female autonomy, achieved through education, means higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rate, which translates to increased workforce. This, however, is not entirely unproblematic, why I will focus here on the political, rather than economic, aspects of female economic activity.

Female empowerment, both in terms of education and workforce participation, has indeed been shown to have strong links with democratization. In a study published 2013, in the journal World Development, it was found that precisely these two aspects of female empowerment had “positive and causal effect on movement toward democracy” and that “democracy is more likely to occur in countries with a history of educating girls.” However, for one reason or another, there has been a mismatch in the Arab world, where women have received more and more education, while these achievements still have not been matched with increased workforce participation or influence in decision-making. This is a problem, since female workforce participation is an important factor of democratization. Valentine Moghadam, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Northeastern University in Boston, US, has studied exactly this and provides the possible explanation that cultural and social norms, in these countries, prevent women from participating in public life. This has stifled female economic activity, despite Arab women’s increased education.

So, what factors then can contribute to female empowerment? The Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD) too have found that there is a large gender gap on the labour market in all Arab countries, regardless of education gap. Furthermore, they too point, in part, to cultural attitudes about female workforce participation and an expectation on women to focus on family life. In other words, since the connection between women’s education and female economic activity is absent in the MENA region, there needs to be other measures taken. Since cultural and social issues like these are rarely simple, there are many different approaches that could have effect. It could be argued, for example, that since the market already is heavily male dominated and unlikely to change on its own, there needs to be affirmative state-initiatives, such as hiring more women in top-position in government and state-owned companies. Successful female role-models could prove both inspirational to other women, but also act to exemplify women’s ability to successfully participate in the public sphere.

Another approach is to democratize discourse. I have previously written about women’s rights as democracy issues, and suggested that seeing how a majority of Egyptians holds the (very dangerous) idea that women have themselves to blame for harassment, there needs to be changes in how women are portrayed in media and society. In a forthcoming article, I propose a solution drawn from an op-ed published in Al-Ahram Weekly (26/01-2012), by Awatef Abdel-Rahman, Professor of International Press and Research Methods at Cairo University, Egypt. Professor Abdel-Rahman calls for a reformation of Egyptian state-media, and particularly to better educate the country’s journalists. My assertion is that this education needs to include media responsibility in regards to gender, power and discourse. This can definitely be related to the problem of low female economic activity, as media plays an important role in the perpetuation of social and cultural norms, such as gender roles. Therefore, better and more gender-aware education for journalists could prove to be a good measure to increase women’s workforce participation, and therefore boost the country’s democratization. However, this too, of course, would need to be initiated by the state.

It is possible that investing in gender-aware journalism and affirmative action to raise women’s status on the job-market is not only a measure towards democracy but also an economic investment. Since there is a correlation between women’s education and decrease in population and labour force growth, and Egypt having a very high rate of women completing primary and secondary school, it could be concluded that the exclusion of women acts as a catalyst for negative economic performance nationally. While it is usually proposed that there need to be investments in women’s education, Egypt instead needs to invest in changing normative representations of women, through social and cultural measures, and through political decisions emphasize the necessity of female economic participation; for democratic development, as well as economic progression.



About the Author

- Contributor and co-founder of, and former Director of Studies for Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University. Graduate student at the University of Cambridge, researching feminist activism in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Mostly writes about Arab media, gender, politics and popular culture.

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