Bias and Barriers

Author:Nazila Fathi

Bias and Barriers Finance & Development, December 2017, Vol. 54, No. 4

Nazila Fathi

Raising women’s labor force participation in the Arab world could boost economic growth, but there are deeply rooted obstacles

Since the 2011 uprisings in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, the role of women in the economy has expanded somewhat—at least on paper. But as the following vignettes suggest, it is still difficult for women to work and even more so to found and run a business in the region. And all too often to succeed in business they need the help of a supportive male relative.

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Before launching Middle East Business Magazine and News, a publication in Arabic and English, Amal Daraghmeh Masri spent 13 years laying the foundation for it. She started the Ougarit Group, a public relations and media company, in 1999 to develop the necessary network and experience. When she got the magazine up and running in 2012, she felt she could overcome any bias against women entrepreneurs by devising a plan to ensure the financial success of the publication.  

“There are two kinds of women,” said Masri, who lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “Women and stubborn women. In this part of the world, you need to be a stubborn one to succeed.”

But Masri learned quickly that even for stubborn women there was little incentive to start a business with the prospect of growth. Arab society considers men to be the main providers for their family and takes female aspirations so little into account that Masri’s magazine did not qualify as a woman-owned business, according to the country’s laws. She was unable to secure a loan for the business because the magazine was considered a service, she was told, not a good like the embroidery and handicraft products generated by other women-owned businesses. Masri had to have her husband cosign her loan application because he owned property that could serve as collateral. But then her husband’s involvement disqualified her from the five-year tax exemption granted to women-owned businesses.

 Today, Masri, 49, employs five people—including her 21-year-old daughter, a videographer—and has amassed a pool of paid subscribers and advertisers. 

 She said the key to building her business was her husband. “Without my husband, I might not have succeeded,” she said. A mother of three children, she said that every working Arab woman needs a supportive male partner willing to share the burden.

The female labor force participation rate in the Middle East and North Africa is the lowest in the world at 21.2 percent, according to a 2017 report by the International Labour Organization, compared with approximately 40 percent in other parts of the world. Yet, with higher education levels among young women, women have become a force for change, demanding equal opportunity even in traditional countries such as Saudi Arabia. 

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