The effect of economic restructuring on women was the focus of a two-day workshop at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies in 1998, entitled “Women and Economic Restructuring in the Middle East: Gender, Jobs and Activist Organizations.” Participants [1] agreed that restructuring both helps and hurts women, depending on specific economic, social and political conditions in individual countries, as well as prevalent ideologies regarding gender and class. Women of the Middle East-North Africa region constitute only a small part of the salaried labor force, attend school for fewer years than males and have a far higher rate of illiteracy. With restructuring came downsizing of the civil service, a significant employment sector for women, who consequently experienced soaring unemployment.

At the same time, however, privatization and indigenization gave women new options, such as low-wage manufacturing jobs in which women now predominate, as well as in new, more lucrative domains, e.g., tourism, banking, social services and private sector female-owned businesses. In Turkey, women in the informal sector actually earn more on average than women in the formal sector.

Restructuring has also catalyzed women’s activism, democracy and civic culture, as NGOs have stepped in to fill the vacuum in social services left by the state’s retreat. However, women’s organizations in Jordan, anxious about offending Islamist sentiment or eliciting official censure, articulate only modest goals. NGOs’ efforts do not necessarily lead to meaningful political participation. Worse, international NGOs such as “women in development” and “gender and development” organizations primarily serve the expectations of an elite cadre of educated, liberal, cosmopolitan, development specialists whose sentiments rarely reflect those of the majority in their own societies. Thus, international NGOs favor women educated in the language of the donor countries over rural women, who are then subjected to programs that may be detrimental to their interests.

Indigenous organizations have also filled the gap left by the state’s diminution, most notably in the form of Islamist organizations and self-help groups. Palestine illustrates both positive and negative aspects of this process. In the West Bank, women developed organizations to carve out their own space within the national movement and to promote women’s status under the Palestinian Authority. In Gaza, family survival during the intifada depended on highly respected women’s home-based production. However, women’s work and status have been devalued since the Oslo accords were signed, while political affiliation, rather than education, experience and gender equality, determines women’s placement in influential government positions.

Linked to economic restructuring is a dramatic shift in gender ideologies in the Middle East. While conservative, Islamist ideologies have been adopted by some urban educated middle-class women as a tool of empowerment, the appropriation of these ideologies by states and political factions has directly affected women’s ability to organize or to attain access to education, employment and political representation. Sudan’s Islamist regime has responded to political challenges and economic pressures by reconstructing women ideologically as militia members and national service volunteers, even reinventing an “Islamic motherhood” role that harnesses women’s labor to rebuild family-based economies less reliant on imports.

Class dynamics can intersect with gender in negative ways. In Kuwait, economic restructuring shifted costs formerly assumed by the state onto private enterprise, thus flooding the low-wage job market with non-citizen biduns and foreign workers. This encouraged insidious efforts to reduce women’s competitiveness in school and in the work place. In their struggle to maintain class privilege, elite Kuwaiti women are strategically assigned to key positions in academe and government as “place holders” for elite males.


[1] Workshop participants whose work has been drawn on for this essay are Laurie Brand, Sheila Carapico, Mine Çınar, Sondra Hale, Islah Jad, Fatemeh Moghadam, Valentine Moghadam, Aetimad Muhanna, Jennifer Olmsted and Mary Ann Tetréault.

How to cite this article:

Eleanor Abdella Doumato "Economic Restructuring in the Middle East," Middle East Report 210 (Spring 1999).

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