The Changing Face of Women’s Political and Economic Participation in the Middle East – A Study

Women are becoming more prominent actors in the political sphere and they are taking meaningful roles within the state. At the same time, economic hardship have forced more and more women to work outside the house, leading to changing views about their own position in the family and also greater acceptance social acceptance amongst men.

Gender inequality is among the global evils, not peculiar to Middle East region alone.

Questions of gender and politics in the Middle East have been marginalized but not totally ignored by the leading scholars of the region. There exists a dominant paradigm which divides society into two realms, the public and the private. The public realm is often presumed to be the domain of men, and it subsumes the practice of politics. The private realm is the domain by blood and marriage where, presumably, women interact comfortably but with little political consequence for the state’s relationship with society.

Development not Engendered is Endangered

Gender inequality is the most pervasive manifestation of inequity of all kinds in any society because it typically affects half the population. There have been important quantitative improvements with respect to building women’s capabilities in recent years but women still suffer from unequal citizen- ship and legal entitlements, often evident in voting rights and legal codes. [1]

Women Championing their own Change

The substantial increase in women’s representation in the legislatures of Arab countries in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, the past decade witnessed increased scholarly attention to the dynamics of women’s political representation.

The early 2000s – 2010

In Egypt, former first lady Suzanne Mubarak formed the National Council for Women in 2000 that helped pass several laws increasing women’s and girls’ rights. Tunisia, under former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was often held up as a beacon for Western-style women empowerment in the region, as the regime focused on international attention on women’s rights legislation while doing away with systematic repression, including large-scale sexual abuse of female activists.

Tahrir Square in Egypt in the wake of the 2011 protests, not only symbolized the struggle against autocracy in the region but also gave a glimmer of hope for a more equitable society as men and women protested together for weeks. Hundreds of women slept in the square during the Egyptian revolution to preempt a takeover by regime forces.[2]

In Yemen, women were active participants in the protests against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Female Yemeni journalist and activist, Tawakkol Karman, became one of the faces of the Arab Spring and later, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

Female Local Councilors improving women’s representation

In Tunisia’s 2018 municipal election, a legislated quota was implemented and women won 47 percent of the seats, raising questions about whether electing female councilors improves women’s representation in clientelist settings. [3]

Effective Political Participation in Jordan and Lebanon

Although they are very different countries—one a constitutional monarch and the other one a parliamentary democracy—Jordan and Lebanon share some historical and political commonalities that may account for women’s lack of political progress in both countries. Jordan and Lebanon are both new nation states; their borders were carved out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire by colonial powers from without, not shaped by local, organic political processes from within.[4]

Lebanese and Jordanian women are allowed to vote and run for any office in the land. The constitutions of both the countries uphold the equality of women and men. Lebanese women achieved suffrage in 1952, and the first woman to be elected to the Parliament was forty years later. Jordanian women only achieved suffrage in 1974, but less than two decades later, Toujan Faysal was the first woman elected to the Jordanian parliament in 1993.

Both Jordan and Lebanon have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) however, there still persists strong reservations concerning issues related to Personal Status laws.

Present situation in the region

Women in the Middle East continue to face numerous obstacles towards achieving parity in elected legislative bodies. The region has one of the lowest rates of women’s political representation at 18% compared to the global average at 22%. While the region continues to lag behind with some of the

lowest percentages of women in national legislatures globally with Qatar and Yemen at staggering 0%, changes are brewing. Algeria (31.6%), Morocco (17%), Saudi Arabia (19.9%), and Tunisia (31.3%) are leading the new wave.[5]

Perception of Women’s Political Rights

1. High Acceptance of Female Head of State

According to a study conducted by the Arab Barometer.org,[1] the level of acceptance of a female head of state is approximately 18 points higher among women compared to men, on average. Women appear to be substantively more accepting of this right than men.

2. View men as better political leaders

Overall, Arab Barometer observation shows a 9-point drop in the belief that men are better political leaders from 2010-11 to 2012-14, but since perceptions seem to be relatively stable

The region believes that men are better leaders in 2018-19. Once again, there are important differences by gender. Unsurprisingly, the proportion of men who hold this view is higher than for women by approximately approximately 12 points.

Improving Women’s Economic Participation in the Middle East

Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. If women, who account for half the world’s working-age population, do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer. [7]

The female labor force participation rate in the Middle East is the lowest in the world and has seen  zero to little improvement in the past four decades, despite studies that portray that equal access to jobs boosts GDP, contributes to long-term growth, and targets income inequality.[8]

In the first major foreign policy speech as president, delivered in Cairo in 2009, the former US President Mr. Barack Obama called on Middle Eastern governments to make progress in democracy, religious freedom, gender equality, and “economic development and opportunity.”

The region ranked last in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index. When compared to 2006, the highest improvements are noted on the Educational Attainment sub index, but least improvement on the Economic Participation and Opportunity and Political Empowerment sub-indexes.[9]


(Source : FLP rate modelled for 2018 by the World Bank using ILO STAT database numbers as retrieved  in September 2018)

1. Introducing Women Entrepreneurs

In Lebanon, for example, BLC Bank introduced an entire line of business that provides financial services aimed at supporting women entrepreneurs to increase their access to capital. It also allowed BLC to reach new markets by tapping into an underserved segment: women borrowers.

BLC found that the loans generated to women resulted in higher returns than loans made to men. This led to the bank benefitting not just from improved profitability but also from greater innovation in products and services and greater market growth.

2. Promoting Child Care Solutions

In Jordan, MAS Kreeda Al Saf, the manufacturing arm of MAS Kreeda, found ways to retain its mainly female workforce by supporting child-care solutions. It created an on-site child-care center that provided free, high-quality child care, in addition to a space for breastfeeding mothers, health services, and free transport to and from the factory. Factory efficiency increased after the center was established.

Thus, one can witness that even though inequality still persists, there has been an upsurge in women’s participation in the Middle Eastern politics as well as economic welfare.


[1] UNDP Arab Development Report 2002, Pages 2 &3, available at : http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/rbas_ahdr2002_en.pdf

[2] Project on Middle East Political Science : Women and Gender in the Middle East

[3] Arab Barometer : The Journal of the Middle East and Africa

[4] Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars : Middle Eastern Women on the Move, available at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/MEP_women.pdf

[5] Chr. Michelsen Institute : An increasing number of Muslim women in politics: A step towards complementarity, not equality

[6]Arab Barometer : Women’s rights in the middle east and northern Africa, available at https://www.arabbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/AB_Women_August2019_Public-Opinion_Arab-Barometer.pdf

[7] McKinsey Global Institute Report :  How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth

[8] Council on Foreign Relations Report : Improving Women’s Participation in MENA

[9] UN Women Arab States : Women’s Economic Empowerment, available at https://arabstates.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/economic-empowerment

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Divya Gupta from Amity Law School, Delhi

You can find her here

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