Citizen Today

Expanding the world of working women in MENA

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

“There is a challenge to raise awareness – changing society to share a common vision of what female empowerment means.” - Muna AbuSulayman, Arab media and social commentator

Rich natural resources, solid infrastructure and an expanding middle class sheltered the MENA from the global financial crisis. But the region is not without challenges.

Chief among these is addressing the region’s acute unemployment problem. Over the next 10 years, the labor force in the region is expected to grow at around 2% per year. Given the already-high unemployment, creating jobs for the next generation is one of the most important economic challenges for the region’s leaders.

Tapping into all the talent available in society is crucial. This means helping more women into the workforce. Muna AbuSulayman, an influential Arab leader across many fields, feels empowering women to become a first-class citizen of society will represent a major step forward.

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.

“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.”

In MENA, the array of challenges facing governments and policy-makers — political and social instability, water and food scarcity, and unemployment — prevents the issue of women empowerment from achieving greater prominence.

“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,” says AbuSulayman.

Unfortunately, such changes are not easy to implement, partly because in MENA, education does not necessarily translate into employment. This is despite research showing 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. More corporations need to look at hiring women after the age of 32. We need to help them work at the ages that they want to work at.”

No doubt the political and social instability in the region is the number one issue. “But it’s important to be optimistic. Even small change has to be celebrated so that it encourages other people to do the same.”