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What's really holding Arab women back?

July 10, 2012: 11:47 AM ET

Mohamed Morsi's election as Egypt's president has prompted widespread fears that women will lose whatever ground they had gained. What's in store for the future?

By Nina Easton, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- The name-brand polling company Gallup wants to upend Western perceptions of women's status in the Arab world with research concluding that conservative Islam is not what's preventing their economic gains. The problem, concludes Gallup's new poll, is a cultural byproduct of men's high unemployment rates, low education levels, and general dissatisfaction with their lives.

That is a provocative argument, and could lend further credence to a broader case that the U.S. should bolster Egypt's fledgling democracy and struggling economy by treating the country less as a military- or foreign-aid ward and more as a trading partner. An open and thriving economy would mean more tolerance for women at work. But Gallup's conclusions face a wall of skepticism -- with good reason.

Why should American citizens and U.S. businesses care either way? Because a growing body of global research shows that opening economic opportunities for women not only contributes to more peaceful and stable societies, it also adds significantly to a country's economic growth. It's is hard to imagine a thriving Arab Middle East in the future without women -- who comprised a third of Egypt's Jan. 25, 2011 protesters -- more fully in the picture. One study predicted that average household incomes could climb as much as 25% if women shared in the region's economic production.

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Yet in an era when countries from China to Spain to the U.S. are producing self-made female billionaires -- and right behind them a burgeoning class of successful entrepreneurs and professionals -- the Arab Middle East remains a stand-out. With only 28% of women participating in the workforce, the region ranks at the bottom of the world. The number of women entrepreneurs is growing, as are those hired by multinational corporations, but the numbers are still tiny. Different rules for men and women exist in all 14 economies in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the World Bank.

The rise of Islamist parties a year after the Arab Spring uprisings -- most recently last month's election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy as Egypt's president -- has prompted widespread fears that women will lose whatever ground they had gained in recent years. In the Egypt's first parliamentary elections, women were elected to only 1% of the seats. Meanwhile images of sexual assaults in Tahrir Square and reports of "virginity tests" conducted on arrested activists still resonate.

Is all of this the product of a culture that devalues women, or economic forces, or some mix of both? In interviews with some 35,000 men and women in six countries, Gallup concluded that a person's religious intensity did not correlate with lower support for women working outside the home. "Men who have a high support for Sharia law are not more or less likely to support women working at whatever job they are qualified for," Dalia Mogahed, executive director of Gallup's Center for Muslim Studies, tells me. In fact, Arab women are just as likely as men to favor Sharia as a source of law; and Egyptian women's level of support for Islamist parties is similar to that of men.

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(The ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia was not included in this latest study, but Mogahed describes that country's segregated society, in which women can't drive or work alongside men, as the product of a "tribal society." She adds: "We need to separate local culture from religion. Even the most conservative interpretation of Islam doesn't justify these things.")

What does predict a society's level of tolerance, Mogahed contends, is the employment rate, education, and sense of well-being of men -- "men's level of thriving," as she puts it. She notes that women make up about a third of professionals -- coming from more educated families—whereas they are missing in more menial jobs. "Societies become more progressive as they develop economically," she says. "The greatest threat to women's empowerment in the Middle East is the staggering unemployment level."

That's not how some other Arab women see things. In her provocative piece "Why Do They Hate Us?," which exploded onto the pages of Foreign Policy in May and has been reverberating since, Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy condemns a "toxic mixture of culture and religion" that "treats half of humanity like animals…The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region—now more than ever." Eltahawy was herself a victim of sexual assault by Egyptian police who also broke her left arm and right hand.

Brookings' Shadi Hamid sees the answer somewhere in the middle of these widely divergent views. Yes, he says, the economy plays a role, but the power of religious culture cannot be discounted. "If you polled an Islamist on women's role in society, they could say all the right things, such as supporting her right to work," Hamid said, speaking by phone from his office in Qatar, where he runs the Brookings Doha Center. "They support women's empowerment but not Western notions of gender equality."

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"The Islamist parties are a product of their particular society," he adds, "which happens to be conservative on women's issues. Islamist parties don't want to be to behind or too ahead of their constituencies." That's something to keep in mind as newly elected Egyptian President Morsy contends with the sudden political rise of the Salafis on his right--a fundamentalist Islamic movement that doesn't disguise its desire to ban women from executive positions and segregate them at work.

Morsy himself has said he favors a constitutional democracy where women's rights are equal to men, and has pledged to pick a woman as one of his vice presidents. But in the past Morsy said Islamic law bars women from running for president, a view shared by most Egyptians according to one recent poll.

On top of all this complex political news are existing biases about women that are more cultural than religious: Freedom House has cited widespread perceptions in the Arab Middle East that "women are less capable, more irrational, and better suited for domestic responsibilities."

Whichever view one subscribes to, there is plenty to worry about for anyone concerned about the status of women. Egypt's economy is in tatters: Economic growth has plunged from 5.1% in 2009-10 to 1.8% last year, foreign direct investment and tourism have plunged, and unemployment is high. On the religion and culture side, says Hamid, "I don't expect it to get any better in the short run. The whole political spectrum will shift to the right."

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About This Author
Nina Easton
Nina Easton
Fortune

An award-winning author, columnist, and TV commentator, Nina Easton offers insights at the intersection of economics and politics. For six years she has been a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday and Special Report, and has appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, and PBS's Washington Week in Review and Charlie Rose. Easton is the author of the critically acclaimed Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy. Prior to joining Fortune, she won a number of national awards as a Los Angeles Times writer, and later served as the Boston Globe's deputy bureau chief in Washington. She is a native Californian and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.

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