Female leadership in the Middle East: Striving for progress

Written by Beth Gault Tuesday 23 November 2021
The gender gap in leadership is widest in the Middle East. One woman is helping shift the dial – with film
A photo of Minister of Foreign Affairs of Libya Najla Mangoush

The Middle East has one of the widest gender gaps in the world. Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all ranked in the bottom ten countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2021. Afghanistan, which is in Asia and borders Iran and Pakistan, is ranked bottom. Traditional, patriarchal culture, alongside lack of religious freedom, legal frameworks and ongoing conflict zones have contributed to this gap.

But, there is some movement.

In Tunisia, Najla Bouden Romdhane was appointed the first female prime minister in the Arab world in September 2021. Jordan has also appointed women to positions of authority, including ministers, criminal prosecutors, ambassadors and judges.

Merissa Khurma, program director of the Middle East Programme and the Middle East Women’s Initiative at independent research body the Wilson Centre, agrees that while the gap is still large, there is progress.

“The situation in general is one of tremendous challenge and tremendous opportunity that is yet to be realised,” says Merissa. “Women have come a long way in reaching leadership positions in the public sector. And in the private sector, we are seeing more and more female entrepreneurs, but that’s still lagging behind.”

Looking at levels of education of women in the area, Merissa says one would expect to see more women in the workforce and therefore more women in positions of authority.

What is holding women back?

The biggest challenge to female leadership is that many women are unable to enter and stay in the workplace. The barriers include the availability of safe transportation from rural areas to city centres.

“The legal environment with regards to a safe and family-friendly work environment is also key,” says Merissa. There are improvements required in relation to maternity and paternity leave, as well as protecting women from sexual harassment. Many Middle Eastern countries do not have these structures in place.

Another thing holding women back is a widely held belief that they need to be in the home rather than working. “It’s a perception issue that shapes social norms, and of course that pushes women behind in the workforce and it makes it more difficult for women to stay at a job long enough to be able to reach a leadership position,” adds Merissa.

Countries in the Middle East where it is hardest to advance as a woman include Yemen, Iran and Syria, according to the Wilson Centre’s ‘Ready to Lead’ report. Even in places where women are leading, a patriarchal culture and tradition means that it is often in typically ‘feminised’ roles that focus on various forms of caretaking.

Women also lack financial freedom due to the legal framework in the region that often favours men. “When women don't have access to finance, when they don't own property, they basically don't have financial decision-making power at home, and that affects their position in society, in the community and in the economy, to reach for positions of power,” says Merissa.

Recent global events have also hindered women’s advancement.

The Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affected women globally, according to the UN. “The vast majority of jobs lost in the region were women’s jobs,” says Merissa. “Women were more likely to be sent on unpaid leave, more likely to be laid off, to have salary cuts.”

This has big consequences for women’s position in society, she adds. “When women are pushed out of the workforce by crises, their opportunities to grow in a job are significantly diminished or completely destroyed because now if these women are to reenter the workforce, they’re not going to be at the same level as men who had kept their jobs. It pushes them back years in terms of promotions, reaching managerial and leadership positions.”

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The situation in Afghanistan has also had an impact on the Middle East. In August 2021, the Taliban took back control of the country after foreign forces withdrew. This transition has affected women’s rights, with girls effectively banned from education in Afghanistan. Though an interior spokesman has reportedly said girls will return to school in “a short time”, the perception of the Taliban’s victory will worry women in neighbouring countries, according to Iranian-American Shirin Taber, who is director at Empower Women Media and founder and director of the Middle East Women’s Leadership Network.

Role models for change

Shirin says that Empower Women Media, which “identifies, equips and mobilises” women to use media to tell their stories alongside mentoring and networking, has continued to see interest from women in Afghanistan.

“We offer a free e-course called Live What You Believe, which is a one-hour online course where you can watch four short films and earn a certificate in human rights and religious freedom,’ says Shirin. “We’ve had almost 1,000 participants this year, and the highest number of students came from Pakistan and Afghanistan, which we did not anticipate.”

Despite the challenges facing many women in the Middle East, some – such as the Tunisian prime minister – are advancing to higher positions. These role models will help other women to step up.

Merissa, who was born and raised in Jordan, said it was her family who enabled her to choose her career path. “My mum was one of the very first women to enter the foreign service in Jordan,” says Merissa. “So I always had strong role models that were focused on careers and family support to pursue higher education.”

Digital media can help provide accessible role models. “It’s the fastest way to mobilise women,” says Shirin. “The first thing that happens when a woman makes a film is she is empowered. All of a sudden she has a voice, she has confidence, she sees herself as an advocate or spokesperson. Then when she shares that film with her family and community, they’re impacted too.”

Wider support

But structural support is also needed to create wider change and a large shift is needed to see big progress on the gender gap. “Governments have to have the political will to do it because it takes the local wealth to make these trend changes happen,’ says Merissa.

“The challenge is that until we can educate and inspire the next generation to promote equal citizenship and human rights, we will continue to have these problems,” says Shirin. “A lot of it is just education, understanding that all people are created equally in the image of God and in the world.

“Once we can raise the station of women and minorities, we can have a more civil society. But it requires a lot of work.”

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Image: Shutterstock/Hussein Eddeb

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