The Gender Gap Is Worst in the Arab Middle East

Why can't an Arab woman in the Middle East be treated like a man?  It isn't a line from the song in My Fair Lady, but it could have been.  The answer is not provided in the "Report on the Global Gender Gap in 2013,"  released on October 24, 2013, but the voluminous relevant data in this report might help intuit one.

The 2013 report is published by the Geneva based World Economic Forum.  It is concerned with the gender-based disparities in 136 countries (more than 93 percent of the world's population) relating to economic, educational, health, and political policies.  It measures the relative gaps between the sexes in these four areas, not the levels of absolute achievements.  

The region in the world that is worst and has least improved in these regards is the Middle East and North Africa.  That region has closed only 59 percent of the overall gender gap.  In the economic area, it has closed only 39 percent, and in political empowerment less than 7 percent.  The Arab Middle East countries have the lowest performance of the 136 countries in both the economic and political fields.

In the educational area, the Middle East countries vary.  The Gulf countries, especially the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, have invested heavily in female education.  In a number of Arab countries, the tertiary educational enrollment rates for women is higher than for men.  Yet these particular countries have been less successful in integrating educated women into the economy and into decision-making positions.  The high-income Arab countries rank among the lowest in the overall index.

It comes as no surprise that Israel has the top spot of any country in the Middle East area.  It is ranked 53rd, considerably higher than all others, which rank at 100 or below, and the worst of which is at the very bottom of the ranking.  The ranking of Israel would have been higher if there were more wage equality and if there were more than the present 10 percent of women in ministerial positions.  In view of the fact that women, including Tzipi Livni (justice minister), Limor Livnat (culture and sports minister) and Shelly Yacimovich (leader of the Labor Party), are now prominent in Israeli politics, and that three of the five major Israel banks are led by women, and that Karnit Flug is governor of the Bank of Israel, the rank can be expected to be higher in the next report.

The highest-ranked Arab country is the United Arab Emirates (109), which is the only country in the region that has fully closed the educational attainment gap.  The UAE is followed by  Bahrain (112), Qatar (115), Kuwait (116), Jordan (119), Lebanon (123), Egypt (125), Saudi Arabia (127), Syria (133), and Yemen at 136, the worst country in the world.  Syria is the lowest-ranking country, 136, on economic participation and opportunity; Yemen is close to it (132) on this issue and is the very lowest-ranked on enrollment in secondary education.  The gender gap in the Arab countries is widest in the field of politics, and twice the gap in Israel.  In two Middle East Arab countries there are no female members of parliament, and in three there are no women in ministerial positions.

The report's authors hope that the information it contains will serve as a basis for further research resulting in a clearer understanding of the policies that are successful and those that are not.  Those policies should ensure that women have equal access to  decision-making positions.  They should also ensure that women, like men, in spite of obvious differences, can combine work and family as much as possible.  The Arab countries should certainly take heed of this information, but the directive should not be confined to them.

Perhaps the persistent critics of Israel and apologists for the Arab states, and for the Palestinians, may begin to see the light shone by the report.  They might then consider that Israel, a state adhering as much as possible to democratic policies of equality, rights of women, and non-discrimination, deserves praise rather than condemnation.  Perhaps praising Israel for its success, if still incomplete, in advancing the place and role of women will help spur the Arab states of the Middle East towards similar progress.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.