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Is xenophobia fuelling female empowerment in the Gulf?

The Middle East is renowned for female seclusion, cousin marriage, and discriminatory family laws. Gulf countries are especially conservative, but have actually seen the world’s greatest leap in female employment.

This confounds every single theory about gender in the Middle East!


To survive the harsh deserts of Arabia, pastoral nomads closely co-operated with kin and reinforced bonds through cousin marriage. Close-knit families share honour collectively (‘ird’), and a woman’s impropriety stains the entire family. A woman operating outside the home is often perceived as sexually promiscuous. Women are thus veiled, secluded, and tightly policed. Until now! As rising female employment reveals, geography is not destiny.


Others emphasise oil. As Michael Ross famously argued, natural resource wealth reduces the cost of imports, so curbs labour-intensive manufacturing. Plus, oil makes men so wealthy they can provide for their families single-handedly. But clearly this is not necessarily true.


And no, rising female employment isn’t just a function of migration. The trend holds for citizens.

‘Emirisation’ has created labour shortages


Oil-rich Gulf states are strongly dependent on migrant labour. Emiratis are only 11% of UAE’s population. From the 1980s, governments sought to indigenise employment. All UAE bank managers must be nationals. In Oman, 45% of jobs in finance, insurance and real estate are reserved for citizens. Kuwait's nationalisation quotas apply to banking, real estate, education, and manufacturing. For more details, see this fascinating paper Buttorff, Lawati and Welborne.


Employers preferred men, but as oil wealth fuelled demand in these tiny countries, they ran out of skilled labour!


And MENA women are exceptionally well-qualified! Female education has risen rapidly, with growing wealth and state investment. So Muslim women have seized new economic opportunities - in manufacturing, construction, retail, education, and finance. They overcame the resource curse!


Theorising more broadly, female employment rises when labour demand exceeds qualified men.


This can be via:

  1. Labour-intensive agriculture (eg Sub-Saharan Africa)

  2. Structural transformation (Europe, North America, Latin America, East Asia)

  3. Communism (under authoritarian production targets and low labour costs, eg USSR)

  4. Labour indigenisation policies! (the GCC).

Culture mediates the rate at which female employment rises in response to demand. In societies with a strong preference for female seclusion, women’s earnings must be sufficiently high to compensate for the loss of honour. But clearly no culture is insurmountable, not even patriarchal Arabia. If earnings are sufficiently high, and the risk to honour relatively low, women seize new economic opportunities.


Female employment is not enough. Feminist activism is necessary for gender equality.


Employment is no protection against sexual assault, harassment, and honour killings. Men who kill adulterous wives, sisters or daughters are exonerated (with a minor fine). Men who rape are exempt from prosecution if they marry their victims. Spousal rape remains legal. This culture of impunity is reinforced by repressive Gulf monarchies. Survivors often remained silent, since their assault is considered shameful (‘ayb’).

But Gulf women are now speaking out, supporting each other, and demanding reform. In January this year, Ascia al-Faraj made a viral video about male violence. “It seems rudimentary, but we’ve never had these discussions before,” commented Najeeba Hayat. “Every single girl has kept this in her chest for so long.”


Inspired, Shayma Shamo launched “Lan Asket” (“I will not be silent”). “We must speak up, unite and defend each other because what is happening is unacceptable". Thousands of Kuwaiti women are now sharing their ordeals, decrying abuse and emboldening each other. Many are connecting via Clubhouse (a social media app).

While xenophobia may have fuelled female employment, only activism can overturn the patriarchy.

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