Gender equality: expanding the world of working women

5 Feb 13
A region of many challenges and strengths, the Middle East and North Africa is slowly adjusting to the need for greater gender equality across its borders. Here, Muna AbuSulayman, a leading media and social commentator in the Arab world, tells us what needs to be done to achieve lasting progress

By Muna AbuSulayman | 5 February 2013

A region of many challenges and strengths, the Middle East and North Africa is slowly adjusting to the need for greater gender equality across its borders. Here, Muna AbuSulayman, a leading media and social commentator in the Arab world, tells us what needs to be done to achieve lasting progress

Rich natural resources, solid infrastructure and an expanding middle class — just some of the factors that sheltered the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) from the very worst of the global financial crisis. But that’s not to say the region is without its challenges. The political and social instability that ricocheted across borders in 2011 will not only be long remembered, but also

exposed the long-term and systemic problems that have existed, often below the surface, for a considerable period of time.

Chief among these is addressing the region’s unemployment problem. Of course, no country has proved immune to surging joblessness in recent years, but in MENA the problem is particularly acute. Over the next 10 years, the labor force in the region is expected to grow at around 2% per year, whereas in the Eurozone and Japan, for instance, it is set to decline. Given the already-high unemployment there, creating jobs for the next generation will be one of the most important economic challenges for the region’s leaders.

With many countries in MENA looking at economic development, economic diversification and job creation, tapping into all the talent that is available in society is crucial. And this means helping

more women into the workforce. Muna AbuSulayman, an influential Arab leader across many fields, has no doubt that empowering women to become a first-class, rather than second-class, citizen of society will represent a major step forward.

“We live in a hyper-connected and hyper-complex world with different information coming at us from everywhere,” she says. “Trying to figure out what is the right direction to take and what is the right information to use is extremely complicated. There are differences in society between what the base wants and what the top wants, and a lot of complications and difficulties occur because of this split. This means there is a challenge to raise awareness — changing society to share a common vision of what women empowerment means.”

The rich diversity of AbuSulayman’s life and career means she is well placed to comment on the fluid and evolving situation across MENA. Many people in the region know her from her role as founding co-host of Kalam Nawaem (Softly Speaking), a popular television show in Saudi Arabia that is rated number one among social programs on all Arab channels and focuses on cultural, social and gender issues.

She first stepped into the spotlight after being named as a Young Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2004, and in the same year becoming the first Saudi woman to be appointed by the United Nations Development Program as a Goodwill Ambassador. She has also served as Secretary General and Executive Director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Company. And in addition to overseeing her recently launched fashion range, she also lectures in gender equality at Yale University in the United States.

It’s quite a CV, and she puts it down to her love of challenges and doing new things. “Every time an opportunity comes up, I take it,” she says. “In the media there was an idea to create an international show, and I would be the first Saudi woman to present it. I jumped at it even though I had no media training because I thought it would be a great way to put across my point of view, which I didn’t see enough of on television. Every time I see issues I think I could contribute to I find myself taking it. Learning how to say ‘no’ is something I’ve had to work on.”

When it comes to helping more women gain prominence in the MENA region, AbuSulayman believes that identifying what a “good life” means for different people in societies is the foundation for sustainable change. “Oil-producing and non-oil-producing countries have different problems and huge variants,” she points out. “For example, 63% of women are in education in Qatar but only 10% in Yemen. Once we know what each society means when it wants a ‘good life’ then this vision can inform policies and government decisions, and it can have support from the base. We also need to look at areas other than education. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, only 2% of women who applied received a mortgage, despite a law to the contrary. We need to reconcile two conflicting visions — one that has independent, strong women participating fully in society which for some reason clashes with the idea of womanhood, which involves mothering and acting as support for the family.”

In MENA, another common problem is that the array of challenges facing governments and policy-makers — political and social instability, water and food scarcity, and unemployment, particularly among the young — prevents the issue of women empowerment from achieving greater prominence. “The issue comes up when a woman is appointed to a key ministerial position as a symbolic move, which is important, but the fundamental problem doesn’t change,” says AbuSulayman.

“The opportunities for most women who are not from the upper middle classes remain the same. For me, what is important is helping these less-advantaged women in society. Even in countries that have great opportunities, access is very difficult. The positive side is that for those women who do make it to the top, these are women who really are exceptional because they have overcome so much. But we don’t want that. We just want lots of normal women in the top positions who haven’t had to be exceptional to get there. So what we need are two types

of changes — top-down and bottom-up. It has to be both so that changes can be systemic, systematic and sustainable.”

Unfortunately, such changes are not easy to implement, not only because in MENA, education does not necessarily translate into employment. This is despite the fact that research shows that if you have more women in positions of power, it leads to higher ethical standards and lowered corruption. Greater flexibility and a more progressive attitude from employers are the solutions, suggests AbuSulayman. “We need to change the system to help the women who want to work at the time they want to work,” she says. “Why don’t we look to hire women after the age of 32, who by then are more likely to have had their kids? More corporations need to look at hiring women from this particular group. We need to help them work at the ages that they want to work at.”

But she is keen to stress that she remains positive. “I think people will move forward with change, but there is no doubt that the political and social instability in the region is the number one issue. Not being sure whether you will have a job or a country run by the same government in a few months creates a lot of tension and nervousness. But it’s important to be optimistic. Even small change has to be celebrated so that it encourages other people to do the same.”

This article first appeared in the January issue of Citizen Today


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