Working Paper
Development and Patriarchy

the Middle East and North Africa in Economic and Demographic Transition

What are the links between development, social change, and women's status in the modernizing countries of the Middle East and North Africa? What is the relationship between socio-economic development, patriarchal structures, and the advancement of women?
I propose that the relationship between development and women's emancipation is neither direct, automatic, nor unilinear. Intervening factors such as economic crisis, cultural revivalism, and political instability could worsen women's status. But I will argue that development erodes classic patriarchy, even though new forms of gender inequality emerge and class differences are intensified, and I propose that the long-term trend is toward less rather than more gender inequality, because development has provided women (although not all women) with education, paid employment, access to the public sphere, and a wider range of life-options.
I then turn to the Middle East and North Africa, to examine the ways in which socio-economic development has benefited women, and the ways in which it has undermined their position and well-being. In so doing I raise questions about the "development" process itself, in particular the limits of oil-centered industrialization, and about the nature of states and state policies in specific Middle Eastern countries. Unintended outcomes of development and state policies are considered as well.
Since the early 1960s, state expansion, economic development, oil wealth, and increased integration within the world system have combined to create educational and employment opportunities favourable to women in the Middle East. For about ten years after the oil price increases of the early 1970s, a massive investment programme by the oil-producing countries affected the structure of the labour force not only within the relevant countries, but throughout the region, as a result of labour migration. Since then, the urban areas have seen an expansion of the female labour force, as women have occupied paid positions in factories and offices, as workers, administrators, and professionals. Feminist concerns and women's movements also emerged, and by 1980 most Middle Eastern countries had women's organizations dealing with issues of literacy, education, employment, the law, and so on. These social changes have had a positive effect in reducing traditional sex segregation and female seclusion, in introducing changes in the structure of the Middle Eastern family, and in producing a generation of middle class women not dependent on family or marriage for survival and status. Increased educational attainment and labour force attachment has created a stratum of highly visible and increasingly vocal women in the public sphere.
The secular trend toward altering and improving women's work and women's lives seems to have encountered an impasse in the 1980s. The crisis resulted in part from the drop in real prices of primary commodities, including oil, throughout the 1980s (until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 raised the price of oil again). According to the UN, debt as a percentage of GNP for the Middle East and North Africa in 1989 rose to 70 percent; during the 1980s, the region's debt increased from 4.4 billion dollars to 118.8 billion dollars. In Israel, the serious economic plight has been alleviated by massive American aid. But elsewhere, tough economic reforms, along with poverty, unemployment, and debt servicing have led to a spate of popular protests and "IMF riots" in Algeria, Jordan, Tunisia, and Turkey.
The austerities required by debt servicing and structural adjustment, social disparities, and political repression have tended to de-legitimize "Western-style" systems and revive questions of cultural identity, including renewed calls for greater control over female mobility. It is in this context of economic failures and political delegitimation that Islamist movements are presenting themselves as alternatives, with specific implications for the legal status and social positions of women.
Thus on balance it appears that the economic strategies pursued (excessive reliance on oil revenues, high military expenditures) and the political mechanisms deployed (authoritarian rule), have resulted in (a) a limited set of achievements for women, and (b) social tensions and a conservative backlash with particular implications for women. This paper will highlight the positive and negative entailments of development for Middle Eastern women, its contribution to the erosion of the patriarchal family, and the impasse faced by women in the context of economic failures and political crisis.