Inching Towards Gender Equality in the Middle East

28 August 2019
Emirati women's day, Gender equality
Illustration: Aistė Stancikaitė
While a UN Women study confirms that many men in the Arab world still believe women shouldn’t work, the tide is turning

Right now across the Arab world, families have their hands and schedules full as the new academic year begins. Despite the challenges that come with having children of school age, there’s an undeniable energy that families experience at this time of year.

This time last year, as part of a new nationwide initiative by the Emirati government, parents in the UAE could spend three hours with their children on the first day back at school, in an effort to strengthen familial bonds.

As I made my way to my office after having dropped my own son off at school on the first day, I noticed that our reception wall was covered with pictures of my colleagues, each beaming with pride over their sons and daughters in school uniforms. The parents in the pictures were both male and female, a photo-sized signal of Arab societies’ changing gender roles. The fathers, smiling as widely as the mothers, looked eager to be involved as parents, perhaps even more so than their own fathers once were.

It’s a small symbol of momentum that’s worth noting. In the UAE, working mothers contribute significantly to the development of the country, with women now making up 65 percent of the public-sector workforce.

While such initiatives highlight the progress we have made regarding gender equality, we must acknowledge that this is, unfortunately, yet to become the norm in the Arab world. Right now it remains very much a contextual exception in the Middle East. 

In 2017, UN Women conducted the first-ever study on men and masculinity in the Middle East and North Africa. Ten thousand men across Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and Palestine were surveyed, in an effort to learn more about male views towards women.

Though the results were far from shocking to women, who have become accustomed to both conscious and unconscious forms of bias against them, it was disheartening to confirm that the sexist comments found on virtual (and non-virtual) platforms were, in fact, a representation of the far wider mood across the Arab world.

The study, which claimed to be the largest multi-country study of its kind in the region, found that only half of the men surveyed held favourable views of married women working outside of their homes. Even within the family home, men dominated major household decisions.

Perhaps the most important finding was that while younger women had more progressive views than older women, attitudes towards women did not seem to differ across male age ranges in Egypt, Morocco and the Palestinian territories. There was no clear-cut generational change – no clear progressive wave on the horizon.

At the outset, these findings do seem bleak. However, plenty of the study’s findings leave room for hope. Many of us don’t need to read the entire report to realise that some Arab men do hold increasingly positive attitudes towards women.

The study showed that a sizeable minority of men supported at least some dimensions of women’s equality and empowerment. In Egypt, 74 percent of men supported equal salaries for all, and 86 percent were willing to work with female colleagues. Across the Red Sea, in the UAE, a push for progress in achieving gender equality saw equal pay legislation become a reality.

These exceptions – these whispers of change across the Arab world – represent a path forward. From this, we can derive background and behavioural patterns that can be systematically replicated to make shifting the paradigm an attainable possibility. 

The factors associated with progressive male attitudes towards gender equality are clear. Education and familial influence are the best catalysts for change. Government interventions in different forms – pushing for better education for both genders, as well as for investment in understanding conscious and unconscious biases and their roots, – will also steer us in the right direction.

The research also shows that men whose wives work outside the house are more likely to participate in household chores and parenting responsibilities. This signals the huge potential for better gender-equality outcomes through promoting women’s work outside their homes – especially in a region where only one in four women does so.

The gender debate no longer concerns women alone. Women’s inherent skillsets and natural gifts are necessary for the prosperity of Arab economies and societies alike. If we learned anything from the study, and our own personal experiences, it is that bigotry and misogyny are audacious, sometimes even deafening.

If we are to have any hope of closing the gender gap and achieving more equality for women, we truly need both men and women to be vocal and relentless in their support for the cause. Without the male champions of gender equality in the region, we can only get so far in trying to bridge the gap. Without male champions, we cannot level the playing field.

Maria Al Qassim is an Emirati writer based in Dubai.