something I wrote in April 2006 to enter the Sander Thoenes prize of the Financial Times. I'm omitting last names because my sources didn't give me permission to be quoted here.
Women in the Middle East
STEPPING OUT OF THE LOOP
“After getting married, Galip discovered that there was a secret, mysterious and slippery territory in the life of the anonymous person that the statistics called a ‘housewife.’ This forbidden territory was the common topic and target of all the soap and detergent commercials, photo romances, the latest news translated from foreign magazines, radio shows and colorful newspaper sections, but it was also way beyond them and much more secretive.
During their three-year marriage, Rüya was the one who seemed discontent with having missed the joy and fun of an undefined life in an undefined place, not Galip,” wrote Turkish author Orhan Pamuk in his Black Book.
Middle Eastern women are equally well educated with their counterparts in other developing regions of the world, according to a recent World Bank report. Given their education and productivity levels, one would expect that more of them would work. Then why do they defy expectations, what holds them back?
Understanding incentives might be key to understanding the phenomenon. When making the decision to enter the labor market, a Middle Eastern woman has to take more into consideration than her counterparts in other parts of the world.
“Decision to go to work will be driven by opportunity costs,” the professor tells to his Topics in the Economic Development of the Middle East class at Georgetown University. “Maybe a woman has a higher reservation wage, one that is driven not only by her education, but also by [the] values of [the society.]”
The story is actually quite simple: Speaking in strictly economic terms, a woman will decide to look for a job, if her expected gains exceed her expected costs. Her gains are determined by her wage and the likelihood of her finding a job. She cannot expect tax and employment benefits, because these are limited to the “heads of the household,” who are usually men.
Of course, we can add the fulfillment of a fruitful career and social interactions into the equation, but Middle Eastern women might value these intangibles differently.
“In the US, there’s an expectation that everybody should live up to his potential,” says Kristen. “What the society expects of you makes a big difference.”
What the Middle Eastern societies expect of women is to fulfill their role in the patriarchal society as “home-makers” and “caregivers,” while men are the sole breadwinners. The media promotes these traditional roles.
“The husband’s responsibility to provide for the family confers rights and authority on him -reinforced through a host of laws, policies, and institutions- that he retains even if he does not or cannot provide fully for his family,” the World Bank report reads, “As a result, women become financially, legally, and socially dependent on men.”
Again, Middle Eastern women may view the patriarchal contract differently than westerners do. Melissa gives the example of a young woman she met when she was in Tunis. This woman saw the patriarchal contract as “team work, not dependency. It’s not dominance [of men over women], it’s support.”
Melissa’s friend thought the society allowed women to retain control over their families. “She’s 22 years old,” she says, describing her friend, “she’s working to get a PhD, she wants to get married and have children and be taken care of.”
In many countries in the region, a woman needs her husband’s permission to work and travel. When a woman decides to enter the labor force despite her husband’s disapproval, she runs the risk of divorce, losing her husband’s financial support and the custody of her children. Interaction of sexes in the workplace has also been a consideration for both women and their husbands.
The professor points out that the patriarchal family has been the most important social safety net for individuals who do not earn their own incomes. He says states can alter the incentive structure only by offering pensions, family assistance, and welfare nets to eliminate women’s vulnerability and dependence on men.
Not only does the patriarchal structure influence the labor supply, but it also shrinks the labor demand, by making women less desirable for the private sector. The oil boom of the 1970s and the subsequent bust in the 80s only served to strengthen this effect: During the boom, the real wages were high enough that women did not need to work. During the bust, women wanted to work, but there were not enough jobs for them, as the shrinking work opportunities were offered to men.
Due to affirmative action policies and generous maternity benefits, women are widely employed in the public sector. As the share of public sector employment shrinks in the economy, private sector will have to absorb more of the female labor supply.
“Education rates are on the rise but there are not enough job opportunities available to women,” says Shirin. The professor agrees, and asks: “Why should women jump into a labor market where unemployment rates are so high?”
Indeed, so many women in the region choose not to work, and instead, they enter into the patriarchal contract. In her recent study, Jennifer C. Olmsted examines what the contract means for women at later stages in life: “[A]ging parents generally live in extended family households, with one or more of their sons. Most women are economically supported first by their fathers, then by their husbands, and eventually by their sons.” In the lack of other safety nets, women who remain unmarried or childless become extremely vulnerable.
Once they are in the patriarchic system, women have incentives to maintain it, because they gain power over younger members of the family as they age. “They may have more powerful voices than younger men and women,” Olmsted writes. According to her study, Palestinian women advise their sons to marry less-educated girls, so they can exert more influence on their daughter-in-laws.
Because parents expect that their sons will be taking care of them once they get old, and their daughters will marry out, they have every incentive to invest in their sons’ education, and not in their daughters’. This further reduces women’s future chances of entering the labor market, and the patriarchic contract becomes self-reinforcing.
The incentive structure is built upon and strongly supported by a system of values. In these circumstances, women voluntarily choose not to work. There needs to be an exogenous factor that will open a crack in this loop by creating safety nets, and changing the laws and regulations that hold women back.
“Change will need to be led from the top and supported by the grassroots,” the World Bank report reads. “The two main agents for these changes will be women’s advocacy and the state.”
According to the World Bank report, low female participation in the work force holds back Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries’ economic performance. If female participation rates had been at predicted levels, the report goes, per capita GDP growth rates might have been 0.7 percent higher during the 1990s.
It seems improbable that large numbers of women will become more active in the public sphere on their own any time soon, largely due to the same factors explained above. But the state has an interest in providing options to women. If not for anything else, then for the sake of the whole region’s economic well being.
 Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa: Women and the Public Sphere, 34963, 2006.
 All quotes taken from the class meeting on April 4, 2006, unless otherwise indicated.
 Gender, Aging, and the Evolving Arab Patriarchal Contract, Jennifer C. Olmsted, 2005.