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Islam — The Power of Women

Can societies continue to survive if they exclude women from professional life?

February 4, 2004

Can societies continue to survive if they exclude women from professional life?

In 2004, the Arab and Islamic countries of the Middle East — except for Turkey — are finding themselves as dependent as ever on the fickle fortunes of the oil market.

Worse, they have little to show for billions of petrodollars transferred to the region from the rest of the world.

What happened? In some respects, it is surprising to discover that countries like Syria and Iran are lagging so far behind economically.

After all, they are heirs to a great commercial tradition — going back thousands of years.

The Islamic world, situated between China and Europe, played a key role in global commerce for centuries.

And Mohammed, the prophet, was himself a merchant. In an age when trade trumps all, why are these countries so eclipsed by the likes of South Korea and Mexico?

Perhaps part of the explanation is that half of the population in these countries is discouraged from going to work — and even from getting educated in the first place.

Women are discouraged from being economically productive.

Of the 15 countries around the world with the lowest portion of women in the labor force, 13 are Arab/Islamic countries.

Worldwide, women make up 40.6% of the labor force. But in the Middle East and North Africa, the female portion of the labor force is just 27.3%.

Among Islamic countries, the variation is a surprisingly close indicator of the engagement of individual countries with the non-Islamic world.

For example, Egypt (with 30.1% of its labor force female), Tunisia (31.4%) and Morocco (34.7%) are known as the most worldly and westernized countries in the region.

Meanwhile, the Persian Gulf countries have the lowest female labor force shares in the world. The United Arab Emirates (14.5%), Saudi Arabia (15.5%) and Oman (16.1%) effectively have just one woman working for every six or seven men.

These countries are willing to spend many billions to try to wean their economies from oil.

But their planners do not seem to understand that the real resource of any economy is its people.

They also seem to be blind to the fact that denying half of a country’s people the chance to contribute productively to its economy is tantamount to refusing to pump oil from half of its wells.

Yet, over the past 20 years a number of countries have demonstrated that development is possible — and that a determined government can create the conditions for greater growth and prosperity.

Countries such as South Korea (where women make up 41.2% of the labor force), Singapore (39.1%) and Hong Kong (37%) demonstrate the possibilities — and show the importance of women for development.

That is an important lesson which does not seem to have sunk in to the Middle East. In the past, Islamic countries have been among the world’s wealthiest.

And it would be unfair to reduce Islam’s complex and compassionate system of beliefs to its strictest interpreters.

Yet, even countries with secular, anti-religious governments — such as Syria — do not have more women in their labor force.

In any event, while non-Arab Islamic countries close to the Middle East — such as Pakistan (28.1%) and Iran (26.5%) — also have relatively low female participation in the labor force, Bangladesh (42.3%), Indonesia (40.6%) and Malaysia (37.7%) demonstrate that countries with large Islamic populations do not always dismiss half of their talent and ability.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia have accomplished more economic development than the Middle Eastern states.

Unfortunately, the closer an Islamic country is to Islam’s center in the Arabian peninsula, the more likely it is to shut women out of the economic picture — and the more likely it is to have paid a price for this practice.

Ultimately, economics and religion should not disagree about the need to allow every human being to fulfill his or her potential. And that leads directly to the need for women to be able to participate fully in the economic life of the country.

The Middle East is a lesson in what can happen when countries refuse to tap such an important resource.