April 24, 2006
The Future is Female: Simple-minded Journalism, Economics & Progress in MENA
An article from The Observer caught my eye for having a bit too much of the rather too typical simple-mindedness with respect to the 'great inclusion' of women in the MENA work forces.
I should, I would think, preface my comments by emphasising that there are a lot of genuine positives about women entering the MENA workforce. However, this article rather cartoonishly confuses elite women entering the workforce with broader developments, or women's participation with other structural issues which are barriers to employment growth in the region.
That aside, let me focus on a few key annoying passages.
From Iraq to Oman, the Future is Female
Sunday April 23, 2006
'If you look at the history of Islam, even the Prophet Muhammad married a businesswoman,' said al-Qasimi, who holds what is regarded as the most important cabinet post in the United Arab Emirates. 'Khadija was her name, she was his boss and she recruited him to work with her,' she smiled, as the likes of Cherie Blair worked the distinctly veil-less crowd.
'The West always looks at the veil as a stigma and I think that's the number one problem,' she added, adjusting her own headscarf. 'They think that if women cover themselves, they cut themselves off from important roles, which isn't correct. In the Emirates, I can tell you, women are on rollerblades. They're moving fast in banking and business.'
I thought I might highlight this opening for two reasons, first the statement by al-Qasimi, which I obviously agree with, and the annoying "distinctly veil-less crowd" note that is so very Western journo commenting on gatherings of Middle Eastern women.
I dislike the hidjab personally, but the amount of meaning Westerners put on it is, as has oft been discussed here, vastly overdone.
Now, as to the specifics of al-Qasimi's observations re Emirati women moving in the Economy, I have not had enough contact with specificly Emirati business owners and professionals, but I should opine that it strikes me Dubai you see a fair number of female professionals (and not only of the Leb Slut variety, although that exists as well - our dear Secret Dubai covers the peculiar coverage of such).
What meaning that has for other economies, however, I am less sure.
Regarding 'progress' - the journo annoyingly confuses different issues.
In Saudi Arabia, where an estimated 40 per cent of the nation's wealth is now believed to be in female hands despite the strictures on women in public, a woman was elected last December to head the chamber of commerce - something unthinkable five years ago.
While in some ways the above are indicative of some change in Saudiyah, the issue of holding wealth versus being an active professional is not the same. Wealth in female hands is an issue of ownership - and technically speaking if one applies Islamic inheritance rules (even the discriminatory interpretations prevalent) one is going to end up with some serious percentage of wealth at leas nominally held in women's names. That is axiomatic. Who actually manages said wealth and whether said wealth is merely dead capital or in fact actively managed assets is another question. Women being elected to the Chamber of Commerce... Okay, fine. CoC however doesn't impress me that much.
'Arab women are so stereotyped, but if, like me, you're from Bahrain you see change everywhere, in all sectors of business,' says Elham Hassan, a country senior partner at the international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. 'It's happening, but it's coming to different countries at different speeds and is very linked to the pace of education.'
Well there is no arguing with Elham Hassan's observation - my fine JV partner, a financial professional and clearly not some girl from a village, got some queer questions in her visit to the US - I am not sure if the pace of education is the key driver per se. But that is a quibble, it is of course true from the start that one has to differentiate the Gulf region economies from the others.
Few regions face as many challenges as the Arab world. Economic development is seen as the single biggest impediment to peace and prosperity in the war-ravaged area.
Yes. Fine. (Well War Ravaged Region is a bit too much colour for me. Most of the region actually hasn't seen war in quite a long time. Rather like calling Europe "war ravaged" because of the Bosnian conflict. That being said, certainly the Israel-Palestinian and series of Iraq centered Gulf conflicts have not helped the image of the region for investors, etc. Of course there is also the Sudanese civil war, but who thinks about Sudan?)
By 2020, it is estimated 80 million jobs need to be created to offset spiralling unemployment as a result of rising populations - a feat that would require unprecedented growth of up to 7 per cent a year. That and the forces of globalisation have added to the realisation that marginalising half the workforce (in Iraq, after years of conflict, women account for 60 per cent of the population) is no longer an option.
Well, now we get into the territory of muddled thinking.
Let's leave aside the Iraqi note - Iraq has massive unemployment, you're going to see a decline in female participation in the foreseeable future, not increase.
While certainly population growth in region mean a massive number of jobs have to be created, and in order to offset unemployment, economic growth needs to be boosted, it is a bit of magical thinking to connect economic growth per se with women's participation. Above all as it strikes me that the most serious barriers to economic growth increasing have fuck all to do with gender, and everything to do with a poor climate for entrepreneurs and entreprenurial startup type firms. That means ease of opening firms, financing facilities available, and a host of other detials that are all about business climate,
While perhaps expanding women's participation addresses issues such as human resource base as well as flexibility - although perhaps not - adding women to the workforce does nothing to address the rather more profound issues of climate for entrepreneurial activity. These are far, far more fundamental to MENA growth issues in my opinion that equity for women in the labour force (which has seperate arguments for it).
Confusing the two issues is, for policy making, dangerous, and generally muddled, magical thinking (all good things lead to other good things). ( I would take a review of this IMF note on economic growth for the region.)
Perfect example, this writing:
Across the Arab world, the penny has finally dropped that women remain an untapped resource that could stoke the engines of stuttering economies and bring about social change.
Complete and utter bollocks.
Adding (more)women to the labour market is going to do fuck all for "engines of stuttering economies".
Indeed, in the short term, higher women's participation, without greater growth or flexibility may simply result in higher unemployment rates and/or frustration with the market.
In Jordan, where the number of girls in higher education has rocketed, a campaign is encouraging female entrepreneurship by micro-finance and mentoring programmes.
Microfinance and mentoring programs..... again magical thinking, female entrepreneurship is not going anywhere with microfinance and idiotic little mentoring programs. Only addressing the fundamental business issues changes that. Female entreneurship is a nice thing to have, but do not mistake it for reform.
'There may be few women in top positions but their impact is huge,' says Sulaiman al-Hattlan, the Saudi Arabian editor-in-chief of Forbes Arabia. 'People are frustrated with male politicians. They've seen there's been a lack of serious effort and no serious development in the region, which has made women more credible.'
I personally think Sulaiman is playing the nice liberal Arab for the press.
I very much doubt there is going to be a move from male to female politicians, I see zero sign of that myself, although there is a strong female presence in certain Islamist movements so one could see that packaged with the Islamists (perhaps to the surprise of superficial observers).
Now for particularly stupid journalism I give you this:
The oil sector is helping the turn-around. In the Shell building in London last Wednesday, company executives told an audience of mostly female Arab entrepreneurs that the oil giant was reinvigorating its global campaign to recruit women, with emphasis on the Middle East. Dwindling reserves and the fact that oil supplies will become ever more difficult to extract partly accounts for the drive, but so too do the declining numbers worldwide of male graduate engineers.
Fine, although I doubt the number of female engineers graduating in region is that significant as a percentage of the overall women's demographic, so the effect on women as such is likely to be trivial.
Further, however laudable Shell's action (and of course I would suggest one has to see what actually happens, it's fun to announce PR efforts), it is fairly meaningless in region. The oil sector is dominated by big state companies that I hardly think will be on the cutting edge in following Shell.
Maybe some otherwise unemployable or under-employed, female engineers in region will get their ticket out
'There aren't enough people in the talent pool in the petroleum industry, so all companies are getting more aggressive and creative about finding them,' said Roxanne Decyk, director of corporate affairs at Shell. 'That partly explains why we've switched our search [for employees] to the Middle East and Asia and relaunched this campaign [for women].'
Good for Shell, means fuck all for women in the region in the aggregate or in the regional oil sector, for the reasons cited above.
On hearing the news, a group of Iraqi women in the front row - including Raja Khuzai, a former member of Iraq's interim governing council who helped draw up the country's constitution - whooped with delight.
'The younger generation of women in Iraq want to go into business but they need to be supported and trained,' she said. 'I've been writing to Shell for the past three years urging them to do what I've just heard here.'
Well, either Raja is stupid, or she has a Shell angle, as I don't see much
This follow-on meanwhile is more than slightly illogical.
Several Arab states are as eager to become less reliant on petrodollars. Saudi Arabia, the world's pre-eminent oil producer, is projected to spend $624bn in the next 10 years investing in the photo-chemical, mining, derivative and tourism industries, as well as on improving its infrastructure.
Others - not least the Emirates and Bahrain - have shown the desire to both liberalise and diversify. 'Arab oil-producing economies realise that oil is a dispensable commodity and that in 100 years' time it may disappear,' says Dr Mohammad Smadi, secretary general at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce. 'So they're diversifying, which means there will be jobs and opportunities for UK-based companies and the 200,000 Britons already living in the Gulf.'
And this has what to do with female workforce?
Okay by extension I suppose we can understand a more diversified economy may be more women friendly (although annoyingly it mistakes Gulf for Middle East).
At least it acknowledges (backhandedly) the unliklihood the Shell initiative has any meaning in region.
No other international financial sector is better placed to help open up capital markets, encourage entrepreneurship and generate the foreign direct investment the region so badly needs than the City, says Haifa al-Kaylani, head of the Arab International Women's Forum. 'The future growth of the region must be built on making better use of all its resources, human and natural.'
The hope is that economic reform will lead to political reform (noticeably stalled since the US-led Iraq invasion) and, in a virtuous circle, have wider geopolitical implications.
And little fairies will dance on pins.
Or rather, whether one likes it or not, women's labour force participation is not key to these questions. Nice to have, but not key.
Women are seen as key to the process. 'When you put women in the limelight it has a tremendous trickledown effect,' says Professor Assia Alaoui, ambassador-at-large to the King of Morocco. 'We all know that we need to reform but unless you change mindsets and society at large, you can't market reforms, you can't sell them to the people - which is why, from a symbolic point of view, women are so important.'
Bollocks. Women from a symbolic view, make it harder to sell liberalising reforms, not easier.
That is not to say this is "correct" or "right" but claiming reform is moved along by this, I don't see it. In the case of Morocco actually women in the "elite economy" are fairly high profile and numerous. But that economy is very much a different world from the socio-economic realities of 70 odd percent of the population, and indeed not recognising the extent to which the elite economy (aka the formal economy) differs from the opportunities the majority of the population faces. Magical dangling of elite opportunities certainly not going to be a way to build either real workforce participation nor support for liberal reforms.
But on the other hand, the few Arab liberals out there never seem to quite grasp these nuances. I suppose it's the fear of simultaneously taking on the oligarchic oligopolistic rentier economic structures while also dealing with quasi Marxian class issues. That's an error.
And finally, for the closing which confirmed that the journo in question is your typical lefty knee-jerking cunt on the region
Al-Qasimi might be the first to agree. By the time dinner was over she was not wearing her pink headscarf. She had cheerily draped it around her shoulders as she walked past the toastmaster, under the Mansion House chandeliers.
Glad the bloody Wog bitch could please the City bitch.
Posted by The Lounsbury at April 24, 2006 02:27 PM
Filed Under: Economic Development
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The tone isn't surprising. People lap up human interest stories about Muslim women struggling out from under their oppressive scarves to piss on the evil Islamic patriarchy. Leaves everyone with a nice fuzzy glow afterwards.
Structural barriers and bad government policy are not ideal topics of discussion at gala dinners with pretty chandeliers anyway.
Posted by: eerie at April 25, 2006 11:26 AM
Yes, yes, but what purpose do I serve if I don't bang away at naive magical thinking?
Posted by: The Lounsbury at April 25, 2006 02:40 PM
Nothing means liberation more than a piece of cloth 6 inches lower on your body while walking on a floor.
Of course, extending this logic from absurdity to obscenity, lowering all your clothes while standing on a table top must be the apex of female emancipation.
Posted by: matthew hogan at April 25, 2006 02:51 PM
L: Yes, yes, but what purpose do I serve if I don't bang away at naive magical thinking?
True, it is your specialty. Almost wish you'd been there in person.
Matthew: Nothing means liberation more than a piece of cloth 6 inches lower on your body while walking on a floor.
Can't you appreciate the subtle poetic description of an oppressed Muslim woman casting off her heinous scarf and briefly tasting the sweet freedom that her non-wog sisters take for granted? Brings a tear to my eye.
Posted by: eerie at April 25, 2006 03:15 PM
I note a bit of hostility to working women that seems to be coming up at least here in Egypt where unemployment is such an issue. I hear lots of men saying that women take their jobs and that people prefer women because women take orders better and that kind of thing. I wondered if people in other MENA countries notice this kind of attitude. I think it is increasing; I hear it a lot oftener than I used to.
Posted by: Anna_in_Cairo at April 26, 2006 02:39 AM