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The Untapped Resource In The MENA Region
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By Fatiha Tabibipour

Women in the Middle East and North Africa are viewed through the eyes of a patriarchal system that has been in place for centuries. As we approach the first quarter of the 21st century, women in the region still live in the shadow of a patriarchal society that continues to dominate despite the efforts and fight for equality. I do not mean to undermine the successful stories of women like the Arab Feminist authors Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Nawal Al-Saadawi, and Hoda Sha’rawi among others who fought to mobilize and be the voice of many marginalized women. However, women in the MENA region make a large part of the population, yet they only comprise 21.6% of the workforce (Gasiorowski and Yom 38). The employment gap between men and women still remains wide. Now more than ever women need to obtain more power and influence in the MENA region, specifically in the fields of economics and politics.

Why is it important for more women to enter the workforce? Why is the participation of more women in the political arena fundamental now more than ever? The economic advancement and prosperity of the MENA region depends on women having a stronger role in the workforce.  In addition, women’s political participation will enhance their lives and represent those who have been living in the shadows of men. Women cannot just be placed in a prescribed role as being devoted to only motherhood and family. While these are indeed two sacred principles and not just for MENA society but globally, devotion to family and motherhood do not preclude pursuing personal aspirations in the workplace.

Natural resources, such as oil and gas, comprise part of MENA’s economy, especially in the Gulf countries. The future will likely see a significant decrease in this natural resource; in fact, several countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) know of this fact. That is why they have been investing in renewable energy and other types of revenue so that they are not completely dependent on oil and gas – i.e. they are diversifying their economy. So, now more than ever more women need to be included in the private and public workplace. “The region loses an estimated 27% of income due to the gap in women’s labor force participation” (World Bank). 

According to a report on female population by the World Bank, women make 48.2% of MENA’s population (World Bank). They can be the backbone of the economy; keeping 48.2 % of the population not fully employed is a huge harm to any country’s economy, future, and prosperity. Female level of literacy is as high as 80% (Milton-Edwards 221). This is beneficial and allows women to help the growth of the economy and simultaneously advance their role in society. The problem is that there are cultural impediments that stand in their way, so governments need to address cultural issues, educate, promote, and encourage women to join the workforce.

Many government policies have been passed and non-governmental organizations have developed and implemented programs to assist in the advancement of women in the workforce and political arena in the region. Some countries have made progress, but as a whole, representation and participation in the economy and politics has not been widely reached. Education is key to changing people’s minds and planting the seed of progress. The reformation of how females are raised (which starts in the homes) is necessary to empower women from a young age. 

Another way to address the issue is by introducing a gender quota in parliaments, for example. A few countries – such as Morocco – have introduced a gender quota; “81 of 395 (21%) seats in the Majliss-annouwab / House of Representatives are held by women” (Gender Quotas Database). This is an example for other countries, and it could work if the quota’s percentage is large enough so that a difference can be made. Lastly, women elites have a big role to play. Using their wealth, knowledge, and influence, they can advance their gender in a region dominated by males to make for a more equal, prosperous and just society that fully benefits from contributions by both genders.

Fatiha Tabibipour is a senior at George Mason University majoring in Government and International Politics with a concentration in International Relations and a minor in Middle East Studies. She is a Research Assistant working with Professors at the Schar school of Policy and Government to build a Legislative Virginia Database modeled on the Pennsylvania Policy Database Project (https://www.cla.temple.edu/pennsylvania-policy-database-project/).

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