Workshop 10: Women, Social Change and Development in the New Middle East

MRM 2013


Beverly Dawn Metcalfe

University of Manchester, UK

Anja Zorob

Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany



This workshop aims to critically explore women’s changing status and role in the New Middle East. The launch of the United Nations Millennium Project in 2000 led to most Arab countries adopting ambitious targets for the empowerment of women in all fields of society. This, together with globalization processes, the Arab Spring and pressures for new forms of governance, social and democratic reform has heightened the need to assess women’s current role in shaping the development of the region. The views on what has been achieved in this respect are, however, differing to a large degree. According to some observers, Arab women not only managed to establish themselves more profoundly as economic and political actors in almost all countries of the region in recent years, but in addition, they seem to show an increasing desire to collectively organize their interests and nurture feminist consciousness in networking relationships at the grassroots and regional as well as international levels. Others point to the fact that, despite some improvements, women’s economic and political participation remains exceptionally low in the Arab region, in particular the Gulf countries. Moreover, there are still numerous legal, institutional and cultural constraints preventing Arab women fully participating in the public realm.

While it is acknowledged that current revolutionary pressures have heightened debates about inequalities, poverty and social exclusion, and that women featured prominently among the masses of people who took to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or elsewhere in the region during the Arab Spring, concerns are growing that previously institutionalized women’s rights could erode under new political leaderships. In Egypt, for example, following Mubarak’s downfall, quotas for women were abolished, and women’s identity and involvement are now being underplayed in state craft and institution building. In contrast, women in states that are relatively resource rich, including Bahrain (although feminist protestors have been largely curtailed by press coverage), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, have seen limited public resistance to these geo-political pressures globally. How, and in what ways, are women in GCC states, in comparison to their regional counterparts responding to the Arab Spring? 

Overall, how have women (and men) responded to new economic and political changes, and how have women collectively organized and re-visioned agendas for feminist activism and reform across the region?

By attracting novel and innovative research, the workshop aims to offer new knowledge of women’s development and advance in the social, economic and political spheres to advance contrasting assessments in the existing literature to aid policy planning.



The topic of Women and development or women’s empowerment formed part of the international developmental debate long before the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted at the New York Millennium Summit in the year 2000 (Moghadam, 2003, 2010; Chakborty, 2010). The approval of the MDGs, however, and among them the goal of “gender equality and women’s empowerment” (MDG 3), may have delivered a strong additional push for gender-specific issues to make major inroads into long-term development planning in Arab countries (Handoussa, 2006). Many Arab governments endorsed ambitious targets for the promotion of women’s rights and capabilities. In addition, the Arab Spring has reinforced new agendas calling for the stronger empowerment of women in all fields of civil society (Metcalfe, 2011; Metcalfe and Woodhams, 2012; Mohanty, 2003).

There are, however, quite different views and appraisals among local and international observers on what has been achieved to date as regards women’s empowerment in general and the opportunities available. According to some observers, Arab women have not only gained in power and importance as economic actors in almost all of the MENA economies. In addition, female entrepreneurs are increasingly identified in national development plans as indispensable sources for future and private sector-driven job-creation, innovation and diversification (World Bank 2007; CAWTAR / IFC 2007; Metcalfe, 2011; Metcalfe and Rees, 2010). Moreover, business women in the region started in recent years to voice and organize their interests and to step up networking in the national arena and beyond (UNDP, 2006).

In contrast to this rather rosy picture, other commentators point to the fact that, apart from education and health, results achieved so far with respect to MDGs in general and MDG 3 specifically are somewhat limited if not disillusioning (UNDP, 2006; LAS / UNDP, 2010; World Bank, 2007, 2009, 2011,). As regards political and economic participation of women, many Arab countries have still a long way to go to catch up with other regions of the developed as well as developing world (UNDP, 2006; Yuval-Davis, 2006, 2009). While, for example, Islamic law does guarantee women’s rights to own property and keep control of wealth brought into marriage, banks in many Arab countries still require female entrepreneurs looking for financing for their own ventures to have their husbands or brothers co-sign on loans. In addition, strict gender segregation complicates women’s lives both in business and at work and renders female employment highly expensive (Badran, 2005).

The literature on women’s development in the Middle East and North Africa, including that published by international institutions like the World Bank, the Center for Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) or different UN Organizations (UNDP, ESCWA and others), focuses heavily on the profile or characteristics of female entrepreneurs and companies led and/or owned by women, their economic power or contribution to growth and job-creation, as well as the legal and institutional environment or business climate of women entrepreneurs (see, among others, CAWTAR / IFC 2007; ESCWA, 2009; Handoussa, 2006; Moghadam, 2000 2005 2010; UNDP, 2006; World Bank 2007/2011). A few, mostly country-specific, case studies explore in greater detail the cultural and / or religious background and its influence on female entrepreneurship. However, little seems to be known about other interesting issues such as their apparently increasing desire to organize interests, their networking activities in-and outside the business community or female corporate leadership and management styles despite the fact that similar topics are currently high on the agenda when it comes to analyzing the Arab private sector and its past, present and future roles. In addition, while there is much talk about ‘women and development’ in Arab countries, in particular inside the international development community, the discussion or analysis of the actual and potential future role of women in triggering gender-specific (and/or overall) development and participation seems to be rather neglected (Moghadam, 2010; Zorob, 2012).


Potential Research Dimensions and Questions:

(1)     Role and Importance of Arab Women in the National / Regional Economies

In recent years, women gained in power and importance as economic actors in almost all countries of the region. Inspired by reports published in the last couple of years by the World Bank and other organisations belonging to the international development community, women’s empowerment is seen as pivotal to the economic and social advance of the region (World Bank 2007; Egypt Council for Women, Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies, 2004). On the other hand, however, one can hardly overlook the share of women in the workforce. In Arab countries women’s participation is the lowest in the world. The same is true for companies managed and/or owned by women (World Bank 2007, 2011).

In contrast, unemployment, as one of the leading socio-economic motives behind the ‘Arab Spring’, is particularly high among women. According to latest pre-revolutionary data, the rate of unemployment of young women aged 15-24 years accounted for 36 percent in Syria and 40 percent in Egypt compared to 16 and 21 percent for young men respectively. In the Gulf women’s employment it is argued has been artificially inflated as public administration bureaucracies grow. Further, women outnumber men in many university programmes across the Arab region (Metcalfe and Mutlaq, 2011).

Most observers agree that high unemployment alongside growing poverty and income inequality as well as rampant corruption, is the most important socio-economic motives why young people took to the streets. Those developments have contributed to dilute Arab citizens’ belief in the social contract policies of the regimes they have ousted, or are still fighting against. By doing so they played a decisive role in prompting the final collapse of the (in-)famous ‘authoritarian bargain’ which has long ruled relations between government and the population in Arab countries (Zorob 2011a).

To what extent have National Women Development Plans been successful and what institutional measures are in place to help facilitate women’s increased inclusion in the economic and public realm? How have states facilitated women’s entrepreneurship? How do female entrepreneurs see their own role or contribution in this context? What is the role of female entrepreneurs in countries which have faced conflict, destruction or occupation in recent years? How do conflict and occupation affect female economic participation and entrepreneurship?


(2)     Promotion of a Level-Playing Field in Business and Society – Recent Developments and Remaining Gender-specific Constraints

In the Arab media topics, such as women and development or women’s leadership have featured prominently during the 2000s. In particular, the public press in the Gulf or other countries such as pre-revolutionary Egypt tried to represent positive images or role-models of successful, modern, highly-educated and hard-working women in leading positions in politics, business and society. It is no secret, however, that the reality still looks quite different. The potential of women to work and/or to establish and manage companies is negatively affected by legal differentiation between men and women, social norms and traditionalist reservations against women fulfilling roles in the public space. This seems to be true even for countries such as Tunisia which was considered as a regional role model in its efforts to institutionalize gender equality, and which like Morocco or Egypt looks back on a long tradition of national women's movements. (Zorob, 2011b; Zorob / Amr Hussein / Schmidt 2012).

Taking due account of the considerable differences between the countries of the region, the Arab region still lags behind most other regions in this world with regard to women’s power and role as economic actors despite the fact that even the early times of Islam witnessed powerful role models for women in business such as Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet. This has often been explained in the literature by the dominance of social attitudes attaching a negative stigma to women’s work in general (Chakborty, 2010; Mohanty, 2003). Unfavourable social attitudes and other gender-based barriers such as strict rules on gender segregation or women being regarded as legal minors in law still prevent Arab business women from enjoying social justice and a level-playing field with their male counterparts in the business environments of their home countries (Fraser and Nicholson, 1988). As most of the business and investment laws prevailing in Arab countries are reported to be rather ‘gender-neutral’, what are the laws, rules and regulations in other areas affecting the work of business women or preventing them from starting a career altogether? How do they impact on the live and work of business women?

What are the differences in social attitudes unfavourable to women in business and the community among countries of the region? What are the measures governments and/or civil society organisations engage in to encourage a change of these attitudes? What kind of treatment are women given when applying for government contracts? According to recent newspaper reports strict rules on gender segregation have lessened in some countries of the region. Who were the actors behind these developments? And, how may these changes contribute to improve the supporting environments for female entrepreneurs?

(3)     Arab Women’s Collective Action and Transnational Networking

Critical commentators have argued that globalization has increased opportunities for women’s transnational network organising (Moghadam, 2010; Castells, 2010), although it is recognised that often these coalitions are restricted via class, tribe and political affiliations (Metcalfe and Rees 2010; Metcalfe, 2011). There is no doubt however, that the growth of women’s NGOs especially in field s of education, employment rights and social welfare, has contributed to feminist consciousness raising efforts, although there is great deal of variety across the region in terms of the legitimacy and their ability to act independently from political authorities (Metcalfe and Mutlaq, 2011).

Nonetheless, there has been a significant growth in the number of businesswomen’s forums (which usually have an NGO status), especially in the GCC. These organizations have facilitated efforts to educate and develop women’s knowledge in areas of employment and family rights, leadership, communication and community development. Organisations such as the Emirates Businesswomen Council, the Qatar Business Women Forum (QBWF), the Tunisian Women’s Entrepreneurs Union and the Egyptian Businesswomen Association (EBWA) provide different forms of assistance for female entrepreneurs. Some of them are independent associations; others are closely connected to or form part of the local Chambers of Commerce and Industry or their national federations as special councils or committees. Given the current economic climate what kind of problems do they confront while trying to establish networks and organize themselves with regard to the legal framework, governance systems as well as social attitudes and traditions in their home countries? Do business women try to lobby for their interests in other levels of society and in particular in government circles, in a more organized way than their male counterparts? On the other hand, do leading business women and associations deliberately seek networking and cooperation with other parts of society and, in particular other female NGOs and organisations?

At the regional level, the Arab Businesswomen Council was established under the auspices of the Arab League in Cairo serving as an umbrella organisation for national and local committees and in the international arena, organisations like the Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF), founded in London in 2001, aspire to link Arab business women with their counterparts in Europe, the US and other regions of the world. Another example of this kind is the Association of Organisations of Mediterranean Businesswomen (afaemm) which provides an interregional umbrella organisation of Euro-Mediterranean business women’s associations. 

What have been the activities and performance of those interregional umbrella organizations? What kind of problems do business women’s associations and their members confront while trying to network and cooperate across national and regional borders? Does regional or international cooperation with other business women’s organizations generate a positive impact on the work of the associations and chamber councils at the local and national level? And how have Islamist and Islamic feminist movements facilitated women’s empowerment and inclusion in the public realm?

(4) Women, Governance and Political Representation

In Egypt and Tunisia, women stood side by side with men in the protests calling for freedom, social justice and political participation which finally brought down the regimes of Mubarak and Ben Ali. In Syria or Yemen they seem to play an important role too and, among other things, form part of those who act ‘behind the scene’ as members of the opposition. Soon after the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, however, fears arose that pending political change could lead to an erosion of women’s rights as institutionalized in previous decades in the framework of the former autocrats "state feminism" campaigns (Coleman 2011, Harders / Amr, 2011).

During the last one and half decades there have been leading figures appointed in politics in at least some Arab governments including, inter alia, Bahrain, Jordan and Oman. For the first time female advisors have been appointed to the Shurah Council in Saudi Arabia, along with the nations first female Education Minister in 2009. The increase in particular of female political representation in the UAE in 2006 (22.7 higher than the USA and UK) following quota systems for seats in the FNC illustrates a massive sea change in terms of how the region is re-evaluating the role of women in democratization and development processes.

How has women’s increasing role in politics affected social and economic reform and regime change? What role have women, either individually as leaders, or as part of a collective women’s organization, played in revolutionary and political reform in Tunisia and Egypt? What are the implications for the increasing role of political Islam, women’s rights, equality and social justice? How are women actively engaging in political decision making processes in state building in ME states and defining feminist activism relevant to their own histories and cultures?

In summary:

  1. How has globalization shaped employment structures and how have women contributed to economic development through entrepreneurship and leadership in private sector development? How are opportunities shaped by other intersecting difference dimensions such as class, race and ethnicity?
  2. What is the relationship of the women’s movements to the state and what is the role of the states position vis-a-vis women/feminist ideology in the public sphere? This could embrace the rise of Islamic feminisms and allied NGOs and how they are stimulating social rejuvenation and political reform.
  3. What has been the impact of the increasing role of women in politics and governance? Is political Islam providing opportunities for the empowerment of women?
  4. How have women contributed to revolutionary processes and regime change especially in Tunisia and Egypt and other transitional states such as Syria?
  5. How have states designed national machineries of governance to progress women’s national development plans, and what do current gender critiques of MDG planning and evaluation advise, and what policy processes are needed to ensure women’s empowerment and MDG 3 attainment?
  6. What is the role of women’s organizations and networks in facilitating development and nurturing allegiance to global transnational movements?
  7. How have changes in women’s social status and gender relations been represented in the media, especially in the light of the Arab Spring?


We encourage multi-disciplinary papers from economics, political sciences, sociology, women’s studies, geography, development and organization studies. Papers submitted may deal with one or more of the research questions outlined above or cover any other aspect or issue related to the different research dimensions within which the workshop tries to approach the overall topic. Contributions could include theoretical concepts offering new and innovative frameworks to approach women’s development. Alternatively, papers can be empirical and focus on one country or be comparative, as well as incorporate assessment of multiple stakeholders such as government agencies, international organizations, NGOs, and the private sector.

Indicative References

Badran, M.: (2005): ‘Between Secular and Islamic Feminism/s: Reflections on the Middle East and Beyond’, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 1(1), 6–29.

Castells, M. (2009): Communication Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) / IFC (2007): Women Entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa: Characteristics, Contributions and Challenges, Tunis / Washington, D.C.: CATWAR / IFC.

Chakborty, M.N. (2010): ‘Everybody’s afraid of G C Spivak: Reading interviews with the public intellectual and postcolonial critique’. Signs, 35(3), pp. 622–645.

Coleman, Isobel (2011): The Future of Women, The World Today, Aug – Sep 2011, pp. 37-39.

Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies: 2004, ‘The National Strategy for Women’s Development’, Bahrain Brief 5(11), 1–4 (Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies, London).

Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) (2009): Women’s Control over Economic Resources and Access to Financial Resources, Arab Women and Development Series, Number 36, New York: United Nations.

Egypt Council for Women: 2006, National Council for Women Strategy,

Fraser, N. and Nicholson, L. (1988): ‘Social criticism without philosophy: An encounter between feminism and postmodernism’. Theory, Culture and Society,5, pp. 373–394.

Fraser, Nancy (1996): Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Handousa, H. (ed.) (2006): Arab Women and Economic development, New York, AUC Press, Cairo.

Harders, Cilja und Heba Amr Hussein (2011): Arabische Frauen zwischen Partizipation und Exklusion. Der Frauentag auf dem Tahrir-Platz, Anschläge, April 2011.

League of Arab States / United Nations (2010): The Third Arab Report on the Millennium Development Goals 2010 and the Impact of the Global Economic Crises, New York: United Nations.

Metcalfe, B.D., Woodhams, C. (2012): ‘New directions in gender, diversity and organization theorising: Re-Imagining the development of transnationalism, postcolonialism and geographies of power, International Journal of Management Reviews, forthcoming June.

Metcalfe, B.D. (2011): ‘Gender, empowerment and development: A critical appraisal of governance, culture and national HRD frameworks in Arab Gulf States, Human Resource Development International.

Metcalfe, B. D., (2008): ‘Women, management and globalization in the Middle East’, Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 83, I, November: 85-10.

Metcalfe, B.D. and Rees, C. (2010): ‘Gender, globalization andorganization: exploring power, relations and intersections’, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 24(1): 5-22.

Metcalfe, B.D. Mutlaq, L. (2011): ‘Re-imagining the feminization of leadership in the Middle East’, in: Metcalfe, B.D. Mnoumi, F. (eds.): Leadership Development in the Middle East, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp. 328-370.

Moghadam, V. (2000): Transnational feminist networks: Collective action in an era of globalization. International Sociology, 15(1), pp. 57–85.

Moghadam, Valentine M. (2003): “Engendering Citizenship, Feminizing Civil Society: The Case of the Middle East and North Africa.” Women & Politics, vol. 25, nos. 1-2: 63-88.

Moghadam, V. (2010): Gender, politics and women’s empowerment, in: Leicht, K.T. & Jenkins, J.C. (eds.): Handbook of Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective, New York: Springer

Mohanty, C.T. (2003). ‘Under Western eyes revisited: Feminist solidarity through anti-capitalist struggles’. Signs, 28(2), pp. 499-455.

United Nations Development Programme (2006): The Arab Human Development Report 2005: Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World, New York: UNDP.

World Bank (2007): The Environment for Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa Region, Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

World Bank (2009): The Status & Progress of Women in the Middle East & North Africa, Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

World Bank (2011): Women, Business and the Law: Removing Barriers to Economic Inclusion, Washington, D.C.: IFC/The World Bank.

Yuval-Davis, N. (2006).’ Intersectionality and feminist politics’. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 13, pp. 93–209.

Yuval-Davis, N. (2009). ‘Politics of being’. Gender, Technology and Development, 13(1), pp. 1–9.

Zorob, Anja (2011a): Aufstand in der arabischen Welt: Wirtschaftliche Hintergründe und Perspektiven,in: Arbeitsstelle Politik des Vorderen Orients (Hrsg.): Proteste, Revolutionen und Transformationen – die Arabische Welt im Umbruch, Working Paper No. 1, July 2011, S. 62-81, [ Working_Paper_Series/wp_1.pdf], also forthcoming in: Jünemenn, Annette und Anja Zorob (Hrsg.): Arabellion*s: Zur Vielfalt von Protest und Revolte im Nahen Osten und Nordafrika, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Zorob, Anja (2011b):Female Entrepreneurs in the Arab Press, Paperpresented atWorkshop 14: The Role of Business Women in the Economies and Societies of the Arab Region, organized by Anja Zorob and Beverly Dawn Metcalfe, Gulf Research Meeting 2011, Gulf Research Center Foundation in association with University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, July, 6-9, 2011.

Zorob, Anja (2012): Research Perspectives after the Arab Spring: Economics / Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa, in: Gertel, Jörg and Anne-Linda Amira Augustin (eds.): Realigning Power Geometries in the Arab World, Conference Reader, Leipzig, February 24th – 26th, 2012, pp. 403-408.

Zorob, Anja, Heba Amr Hussein und Eva Schmidt (2012): Unternehmerinnen im Spiegel der arabischen Presse, Mediterranes, 1/2012.


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