Revolution has shaken the Middle East, sending unrest throughout the region. The rhetoric of revolution proclaimed out with the old and in with the new, but only time will tell how deep the social and political changes in Egypt and Tunisia will be. For western onlookers, one burning question is what rights the new governments will accord to women. Will women be included in a new democracy, or will there be a revival of strict fundamentalist law?
The question of women’s rights is not so straight-forward as simply introducing western-style reforms. After all, there is no single, unitary movement for women’s equal rights that unites all women internationally. For example, western onlookers may be confused when Middle Eastern women seemingly embrace fundamentalist values such as wearing the veil.
Lisa Blaydes, an expert in the Middle East, wondered why so many of the region’s women seemingly support a social system that gives them less power than men. Noting that Muslim women are distinctly more likely to adopt patriarchal gender norms if they live in a poor country, Blaydes reasoned that economic opportunity must shape the way that individual Muslim women respond to patriarchy.
Blaydes argues that when employment opportunities for women are scarce, many women will look to marriage as their best road to economic security. In Muslim countries, adherence to patriarchy is associated with piety, and piety is a valuable commodity on the marriage market. After all, pious women are perceived as better suited to raising children and instructing them in religion. By contrast, when economic opportunity is plentiful, women will pursue economic security through paid employment, and they will be less likely to profess patriarchal values.In her research, Blaydes looked at eighteen countries with significant Muslim populations, analyzing raw data from the World Values Survey. In this survey, 22,000 individual Muslim respondents answered such questions as “Must a wife always obey her husband?,” “Is a university education more important for a boy or a girl?,” and “Is wearing a veil in public places an important trait for a woman?”
Blaydes then compared this cultural data to economic data. She discovered that women in countries that have a low GDP per capita and a high male-female wage gap—for example, Nigeria, Egypt, and Jordan—are the most likely to adopt fundamentalist gender norms. Women in countries with somewhat better economic opportunities—for example, Turkey and Singapore—are less likely to identify with fundamentalism.
Blaydes emphasizes that the Muslim women she studies are in a double bind. To a large extent, they are forced to make a choice between two mutually exclusive options. Securing a favorable marriage requires outward displays of fundamentalism. But securing a good job requires outward displays of secularism. For many Muslim women, then, the choice of whether to adopt fundamentalist gender norms represents a careful calculation of economic risk.
In Egypt, for example, the most sought-after positions in televised media, advertising, hospitality, and tourism, along with jobs for multinational corporations, often have an unwritten policy against hiring the religiously observant. To secure one of these jobs, a woman would need to dis-identify with fundamentalism, for example by not wearing the veil. But once she adopted behaviors identified with secularism, such as “unveiling,” she would find her marriage options in her own community limited. By reserving the best jobs for secular women, employers who promote western values contribute to the tug-of-war between employment and marriage.
For westerners who want to help women in the Middle East, Blaydes has a simple message. The answer, she says, is not to focus narrowly on cultural practices such as veiling but instead to provide economic opportunities for women. Over the course of the twentieth century, countries that had strong job market sectors in traditionally female employment areas such as textile manufacture made gradual gains in gender equity. Women entered the labor force through these low-paying positions and gradually moved into more lucrative employment. As women gained economic power, they also gained social rights.
In the meantime, a diversified economy with greater job possibilities would provide welcome opportunities for many people in the Middle East, secular and fundamentalist, male and female.
Lisa Blaydes in an assistant professor of political science and a faculty fellow at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research.