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Rebuilding the Mideast: Women Are Key

Can the status of women in the Far East provide a roadmap for the Middle East?

April 3, 2003

Can the status of women in the Far East provide a roadmap for the Middle East?

Beyond U.S. President George W. Bush's attempt to rearrange the Middle East, a large question looms: Why can't the region "do" a Far East?

Why can't the Middle East transform itself from a bloody, poor — and depressed battlefield — to a prosperous, bustling and dynamic marketplace?

That is the goal all parties — from local governments to the United Nations and the United States — need to set about accomplishing.

To realize that goal, there is a lot the international community can — and must do. Developed countries must open markets to exports from the region.

They need to provide funds and means for education and capacity development. They also need to cease supporting tyrants — and perpetrating corruption.

At the end of the day, an East Asian-style momentum for growth can only come about through internal developments in the Middle East. In this process, there is no doubt the Middle East can learn a lot from the Far East.

I do not propose to even itemize all the ingredients of its economic success, let alone address them.

There is however one lesson that stands out when it comes to the Middle East: There is a close correlation between the social status of women and the level of economic development.

First, look at the level of women’s education. In leading East Asian economies — those of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and the overseas Chinese communities of Southeast Asia — women’s education ranks among the highest in the world.

Of course, some of these countries do not use (or respect) the well-educated women of their societies as they should. Japan, however, used to be the exception to this rule.

Although Japanese women were allowed to work (mainly as secretaries and assistants to men), the Japanese economy thrived this way for a very long time.

Yet, there can be no doubt at all that the main reason for this success was what the Japanese refer to as the "kyoiku-mama" — or education mummy.

That is also one of the many causes for Japan's currently critical economic state.

As in other countries in the region, mothers do not only make sure their children learn how to read.

They also make sure their children can write and count — while also urging them to succeed in the meritocracies that their societies have become.

This role of women may not strike the feminist as ideal, because it is not. Yet, it is also true that in more recent years, the emphasis on educational success — and high test scores — has produced some ludicrous results.

Still, the importance of educated women in propelling East Asia from basket case of turmoil and poverty to a dynamo of the global economy cannot be overemphasized.

It proves an old proverb that states: “When you educate a man, you educate a man.

“When you educate a woman, you educate two generations.”

The precarious economic state of the Middle East is related to its precarious intellectual state. I would emphasize that the two are closely interrelated.

For example, the Middle East sports some of the world's worst education systems. And things are getting worse.

In the 1960s, Egypt — the home of the Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Naguib Mahfouz — published about 3,000 books a year.

Today, that figure has dwindled to 300 per year. According to the Arab Human Development Report, only 0.6% of the population has access to the Internet — and only 1.2% of all Egyptians has a computer at home.

To be blunt, the Middle East is backwards and failing. It has not exhibited a convincing ability to adjust to the 21st century knowledge economy.

As long as that continues, the region will continue to fester in a political and social swamp.

This is all the more alarming when we consider that 60% of the present population of Arab League countries is under 20 years old.

Worse, roughly half of that population — young women — is being kept in a state of absolute ignorance. Meanwhile, the other half — young men — generally lacks a family environment conducive to learning, as exists in East Asia.

Nor — as is often stated — is it a question of some special animus in Islam toward women. After all, the Confucian Analects — the key philosophical documents that shaped East Asian civilization — reflect a far more alarming attitude toward women than the Qur’an does.

The male chauvinism of traditional Chinese society resulted, among other things, in the heinous practice of foot-binding. In Japan, women were traditionally forbidden to learn the complex Chinese script (kanji).

It was simply considered too difficult for the less-talented woman.

They had to make do instead with the more feminine and only partly useful syllable-based writing system (hiragana). Obviously, Christian countries have their own history of hostility toward women.

Just a cursory reading of Paul's Epistles suffices to demonstrate that Europe is not entirely innocent. Fortunately, in countries with a tradition of Confucianism and Christianity, the status of women has become considerably more liberal.

In contrast, in much of the Islamic world, the pattern reflects an opposite trend. In East Asia and the Christian West, women have become more liberated, while in much of the Islamic world they have become less so.

The economics of these social strategies are simple: Societies that strongly discriminate against women — especially in the field of learning — perform the worst economically.

They also rank near the bottom in the United Nations Human Development Index.

In contrast, societies where women enjoy a high social status — where they are respected and given responsibilities commensurate with their skills — not only have strong economies, they also rank near the top of the UN Human Development Index.

It is not a perfect correlation, of course. But not a single society with mistreated and uneducated women has been able to maintain a sustained level of economic development.

True, manna from heaven — or oil from the soil — may bring short-term gain. But unless all of the forces of society are able to benefit and participate, that special benefit soon dissipates.

That is why Saudi Arabia — with all its oil wealth — has seen per capita income drop substantially over the past 20 years. In contrast, Singapore — with no natural resources to speak of — has become wealthy.

Whatever the results of this U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, the emancipation of Middle Eastern women would amount to a great Arab victory. If this does not occur, no intervention from the rest of the world — from regime change to aid — will make as much of a difference to the Middle East as fairly educating all Muslim women.

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