Published on Arab Voices

Will people power empower women?

Will people power empower women?The democratic movements sprouting all over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are arousing high optimism for greater voice and inclusiveness. Democracies are about sharing power, and about reflecting the will of the people through peaceful processes at the ballot box.  But, will the will of the people and people power usher in greater gender equality and women’s empowerment, particularly as women fought shoulder to shoulder with men for change?

MENA’s experience in the past three decades or so has been that regime changes resulted in backtracking on women’s rights. The Iranian revolution of 1979 is one example: most rights that women had painstakingly advocated for over a century, and acquired in the 1950s and 60s were immediately repealed after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, even before a new constitution was drafted.  Today, Iranian women and civil society work hard to regain some of those lost rights. Iraq provides another example. This country appointed its first female judge in 1959--in a profession seen as a male domain across the world and in nearly every religion. But with the fall of Saddam, women’s rights were seen as a high priority for reversal, again before a new constitution was put in place. Women would have lost their rights, were it not for the immediate, concerted, and proactive efforts of international and local women’s rights groups to push for a 25 percent quota in parliament, and to prepare a cadre of qualified women candidates to stand for election and fill those slots.
What are the prospects now in MENA? Will these revolutions that were sparked and spurred by a tech-savvy young generation of men and women be any different?

Let’s look at some evidence. In 2008/2009, the Bank conducted a survey in the three cities of Amman, Cairo, and Sana’a on the working patterns of men and women. The three cities are a cross-section of the region as a whole. And, capital cities were selected because capitals can be better compared across countries, as they offer better access to infrastructure, connectivity, and their inhabitants are better educated, more cosmopolitan, and modern in comparison to the hinterland. The survey data covered 8,000 households and altogether 40,000 men and women across age groups, five income strata, and educational levels. Aside from individual and employment characteristics, questions were asked about attitudes and social norms.  

One survey question asked whether women should work outside the home. Disposition toward women’s outside work is usually seen as a precursor to the acceptance of women’s empowerment in the public sphere -- a litmus test for modernity, open- mindedness, and gender equality.   

The data showed that female labor force participation depended heavily on social norms, above all the institution of marriage, but hardly on the presence of children.  Women’s participation rate in households with at least one objector to women’s work was a fraction of the participation rate in households without an objector, as can be seen from the adjacent figure.

The unexpected, surprising, and disconcerting evidence was that the objection to women’s work was much higher among younger than older men.  The figures in the left panel below show the rising years of schooling for both men and women surveyed.  Not only is the younger generation far better educated than their parents, there is nearly no gender gap in education among the younger age cohorts of men and women.

But, as the figures in the right panel show, despite this higher education, there is an alarming rise of conservatism vis-à-vis women’s outside work among men among men aged 15-44.  Roughly 1 in 2.5 men thinks that women should not work outside. Objection to women’s work outside also exists in other regions, but at most at the rate of one in every 10 or 20.  University education reduces the objection rate to roughly 1 in 5, which his still high.  As such, this evidence debunks the myth that people become less conservative with more schooling and disappearance of the gender gap in education.    

With 70 percent of the population under 35, and the bulk of the voting population having at most a high school education and fairly conservative attitudes, what are the odds that women’s empowerment will move forward, if not backward? It also begs the question about what content of education has reinforced over the past decades such conservative attitudes among younger men towards women? And, what can be done to mitigate further marginalization of women?


Nadereh Chamlou

Former Senior Advisor to the Chief Economist

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