No society can meet its aspirations for growth and advancement with half of its population hindered. That theory is generally accepted in the Arab world when it comes to the place of women in society and the workforce. However, putting it into practice remains a challenge. Legislation in areas of civic rights, as well as workforce participation and cultural barriers all require improvement in the Arab world, albeit at varying levels according to the countries, cities and towns involved.
The title of this year’s Arab Youth Survey, “A Decade of Hopes and Fears”, is fitting for women across the region. There has been significant progress in certain countries, allowing for the hope of continued improvement. However, for those countries suffering from conflict and war, it has been a decade of fears. In countries like Iraq and Syria, hard won rights are being threatened by militants. While Tunisia and the UAE topped advancement in women’s rights last year, according to the WEF’s Gender Gap Report, Yemen and Syria witnessed a regression as wars continue to rage.
In other countries with weakened economies, women’s fears for their futures and those of their children are high.
There has, of course, been one particular country with marked changes: Saudi Arabia.
Last September witnessed a landmark moment with the decision to allow women to drive, a key part of the necessary reforms to ensure economic transformation – and the success of the new Crown Prince’s signature Vision 2030.
Removing the decades-old ban comes as part of a wider series of social reforms affecting women, including allowing them to serve in the army and the return of physical education to girls’ schools.
All of these decisions allow for an expanded place for women in the public sphere.
It is no surprise that 88 percent of those surveyed support the Saudi government’s decision to allow women to drive. However, it is also telling that 17 percent of Saudi women oppose the move. The idea that over a sixth of young Saudi women would oppose the decision reflects an ultra-conservative minority that cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, close to a fifth of Saudi young men also oppose it. And yet there is wide-ranging buy-in for the move that has been discussed and postponed for years.
The ban on Saudi women driving has been the most evident challenge to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia for those observing the Kingdom from abroad. That is understandable as it is an issue that is visible and can easily be identified with – so it has become a good barometer for the wider discussion on women’s rights in the region. However, some in Saudi circles will say that the driving ban itself is over-emphasised as an obstacle, and that there needs to be greater advancements of rights related to work and travel which will require further steps.
The need for greater efforts to improve women’s rights is a theme across the Arab world. The overwhelming majority of young Arabs surveyed say more needs to be done to advance “the personal freedoms and human rights of women”. The highest number of those was among young Saudi men, 92 percent of whom said more needs to be done. So, while Saudi Arabia has lagged behind previously on women’s issues, it is their youth who are most vocal in calling for the advancement of women’s rights.
Surprisingly, only 76 percent of young people from North Africa agreed with the Survey’s position on the need to do more for women’s rights. That means close to a quarter of North Africa’s youth need to be encouraged to advance women’s rights, an issue usually tied in with greater civic rights and more stable societies.
The issue of education and literacy is closely tied to personal freedoms and the economic advancement of women. One of the more remarkable traits of the region is the interest of young women in STEM subjects. In the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, more than 60 per cent of graduates in the sciences are women. And yet according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in the US, the Arab world has the lowest number of women in the workforce – estimated to be just 22.5 percent.
Workforce participation and economic independence will continue to present a challenge to greater women’s rights in the region.
Another crucial factor is tied to legislation. Until governments make decisions that secure the role of women in society and the public sphere, this will remain a challenge for the Arab world. The World Bank’s Survey on Women, Business and the Law in 2016 found at least 10 legal biases on women’s work in Arab economies.
While the region remains behind other parts of the world in advancing women’s rights, the #MeToo movement has shown the extent to which all countries and industries must work on enshrining protection for women – in both laws and societal practices.
One bright spot in the region has been the elevated position of female role models. From the late Zaha Hadid reigning over the architecture industry, to the role of Princess Reema bint Bandar of Saudi Arabia in championing women in work and sports, more successful and visible women play a vital enabling role.
With more women rising in the public and private sectors of the Arab world, more girls can be supported in finding their rightful place in society. However, this is a mission that is equally the responsibility of men and women.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.