According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), gender inequality is the loss in potential human development that occurs due to differences between the genders in achievements with respect to health, empowerment, and labor market participation. These differences in achievements typically favor men. Gender inequality is especially visible in the Arab world. We compare gender inequality in Arab countries with that in non-Arab countries, especially developed countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). We argue that cross-national differences in gender inequality reflect cross-national differences in patriarchy, in particular differences in how men use their power over women to limit their agency or ability to make decisions for themselves. We set out a causal model to account for cross-national variations in gender inequality. Direct causes include fertility rate, per capita income, polygamy, OECD country, and corruption. Gender inequality in Arab countries is highly variable due to large differences in per capita income and is elevated because of polygamy and corruption. Arab countries can enact policies that would reduce gender inequality, especially improvements to women’s secondary and higher education. We analyze gender inequality in the Arab world and address the following questions: Is gender inequality greater in Arab countries? Among countries in the world generally, what differences in patriarchal practices contribute to differences in gender inequality? Where are Arab countries found with respect to such practices? What policies in Arab countries would reduce gender inequality? Our focus is upon cross-national differences in gender inequality, not upon differences in gender inequality within societies.

The Concept of Gender Inequality

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines gender inequality as gender-based disadvantages in three dimensions: female reproductive health, empowerment, and labor market participation. It shows the loss in potential human development due to inequality between female and male achievements in these dimensions (UNDP 2018b). The gender inequality index (GII) is grounded in a theory that posits that it will diminish with economic development and improvements in healthcare, educational attainment, labor force participation, and political empowerment. The index thus credits countries that rank high and make improvements in these areas. An assumption underlying the index is that gaps of similar magnitude between females and males are of less importance in developed than in developing countries.1

Scholars have constructed a variety of indices of gender inequality and they each have their pluses and minuses (Permanyer 2013). A key plus of the GII is its inclusion of female reproductive health as a key dimension of gender inequality. We argue below that, in lesser developed countries, patriarchal practices are more likely to be found that accentuate partly avoidable asymmetries in the reproductive lives of women and men that contribute to gender inequality.

Gender Inequality as a Global Problem

The UNDP’s Human Development Reports Statistical Update (2018a) points out that gender inequality is still a large barrier to human development. The average human development index (HDI) for women is six per cent lower than that of men. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include gender equality as Goal 5, a promise to “achieve (not just promote) gender equality and empower all women and girls” (UN Women 2016–17, 5). The 2030 Agenda states that “justice for women and girls and their human rights matter because they are half of humanity, and their needs and potential cannot and must not be ignored” (UN Women Report 2016, 5).

The year 2015 witnessed the historic introduction of the “gender equality compact” as a prelude to the 2030 Agenda for sustainable peace. It comprises the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) of 1979 and the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995. UN Women has specified the enabling environment to ensure accelerated implementation of gender equality should include the ten “I’s”: “Inspiration, Implementation, Indivisibility, Integration, Inclusion, Institutions, Investment, Information, Innovation, and Impact” (UN Women Report 2016, 20).

Although societal values in the world vary widely, the forces of globalization have led to increases in women’s political participation and gains in gender equality (Inglehart and Norris 2003). Dorius and Firebaugh (2010) looked at trends in global gender inequality in nine domains including five domains of educational attainment (adult literacy, primary school enrollment, secondary school enrollment, tertiary school enrollment, years of schooling) and four other domains (membership in the national legislature, employment in the non-agricultural labor force, adult survival, life expectancy at birth). Trends showed declines in gender inequality in all nine domains, although the declines occurred unevenly throughout the world. The Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world using data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and based upon two dimensions: survival versus self-expression values and traditional versus secular-rational values, shows that the populations of Arab countries are extreme in their emphasis on survival and traditional values (WVS 2019).

Patriarchy and Gender Inequality

The United Nations’ definition of gender inequality is narrow and overlooks other areas where women experience disadvantages. The concept of patriarchy affords the broadest view of these disadvantages.

Patriarchy

We define patriarchy as a social system in which men hold exclusive or predominant power in all, or nearly all, societal institutions including the family, schools, religious institutions. businesses, unions, non-profit organizations, civic organizations and interest groups, political parties and especially government. A person with power can produce intended effects on others and get others to do things that they would not otherwise do.

Under patriarchy, men can get women to do things that they (men) want, and these are often things that women would not otherwise do. Women have less agency or ability to make their own decisions while pursuing their own goals.

Patriarchy involves multiple sources of power. Authority is the right to give commands that people believe they have an obligation to obey. Under patriarchy, men hold traditional authority based upon the view that it is they who should control social institutions, not women. Such authority is reinforced by other sources of power. Men use coercion, which can be physical, such as domestic abuse, or psychological, such as sexual harassment. Men use inducements or rewards for compliant behavior. Men control economic resources that women need to support themselves and their children. Persuasion is a source of power under patriarchy. Girls growing up may learn from instruction in the home, in schools, and in religious institutions to be submissive to boys and men. Girls may learn through observations and interactions with their peers that girls are less important than boys. Patriarchal practices disadvantage women and are obstacles to women’s advancement and gender equality (Goetz 1998; Meagher 2011; Mies 2014).

The late renowned scholar Hisham Sharabi coined the term “neo-patriarchy” (Sharabi 1992). Neopatriarchy means “new form of governance.” He employed this term to explain the relationship between modernity and patriarchy in the context of the Arab world. Therefore, neopatriarchy could be considered as an offshoot of patriarchy, a cultural system which asserts itself at the level of the state and the family in the form of modernity, while retaining the main essence of patriarchy in clan, family, and religion. In Sharabi’s view, mature Arab female personalities would not be able to arise given this new form of patriarchy.

Perspectives regarding patriarchy vary. Some scholars argue that gender inequalities are arbitrary and socially determined (Gardiner 1999; Meagher 2011; Mies 2014). Other scholars attribute patriarchy, in part, to evolved biological differences between the sexes and how these have influenced cultural practices (Buss and Schmidt 2011; Geary 2010; Gowaty 1997; Hrdy 1999a, 1999b). These perspectives both share the view that patriarchy is largely about men using their power to control resources needed by women for survival, reproduction, and child-rearing, and also about the control of women’s sexuality (Hrdy 1999b).

Both perspectives offer important insights. The first perspective helps explain why men view women as a class in the public sphere, as competitors rather than collaborators, and thus limit their participation and authority there. Examples include gender inequalities in employment, such as exclusion from particular occupations, discrimination in hiring, unequal pay and glass ceilings and glass walls. Such inequalities are socially determined, arbitrary, and inequitable. The second perspective helps explain why men and women have divergent reproductive interests. For example, men in order to curb women’s sexuality limit women’s access to contraception and abortion.

In this paper we argue that patriarchal practices that restrict women’s access to education and paid labor have the largest impact on gender inequality as measured by the UNDP. These practices ensure that women and their children remain dependent upon men for resources. Such dependency can be reinforced by inheritance laws and other restrictions on women acquiring and holding on to property.

Although females in some Arab countries have achieved parity with males in education and literacy, their rates of participation in the paid labor force are the lowest in the world. Of secondary impact are patriarchal practices that restrict women’s personal autonomy, including their reproductive autonomy. Travel, occupational, and dress restrictions limit women’s interactions with unrelated men. The arranged marriage, or the required approval of a guardian, limits a woman’s choice of a spouse. A mother’s contact with her children is limited in the event of divorce. Arab countries vary widely in terms of patriarchal practices. At the traditional end are countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Somewhat less traditional are countries such as Lebanon and Tunisia. Overall, however, patriarchal practices are very common in Arab countries, especially in comparison with developed Western countries.

In this study we do not document and compare cross-nationally all patriarchal practices which is a considerable task. We do set out a causal model that includes several independent variables that are relevant to patriarchal practices and thus gender inequality (figure 1). For example, contraceptive use is an important indicator of women’s reproductive autonomy. The practice of wealth-based polygamy indicates that a society approves of a husband’s control of family resources.

Figure 1.

Causal Model for the Gender Inequality Index (GII)

Notes: aFor analytical purposes, we use the natural logarithm of per capital purchasing power parity (PPP) (2010 world $); and bcorruption perceptions index (CPI)

Figure 1.

Causal Model for the Gender Inequality Index (GII)

Notes: aFor analytical purposes, we use the natural logarithm of per capital purchasing power parity (PPP) (2010 world $); and bcorruption perceptions index (CPI)

Patriarchal practices are more common in developing countries with low per capita incomes where men have substantial control over family resources. “In nearly a third of developing countries, laws do not guarantee the same inheritance rights for women and men, and in an additional half of countries, discriminatory customary practices against women are found. Moreover, about one in three married women from developing regions has no control over household spending on major purchases, and about one in 10 married women is not consulted on how their own cash earnings are spent” (United Nations 2015, 10). Modernization reduces both patriarchy and gender inequalities (Forsythe, Korzeniewicz and Durrant 2000).

Patriarchy in the Arab World

Al-Arymi (2015, 80) describes the relationship between Arab women and men as a cold war because women lack the power to ignite or even join a grassroots women’s movement. Arab women’s demands are somewhat different from those of the second and later waves of feminist movements in the West where women achieved gains in reproductive rights, safety from domestic violence, improvements in custody and divorce laws, and legal protection from sexual harassment. Women in the West also achieved gains in education, employment, political participation, and legislative representation.

The demands of Arab women, however, while they do include similar demands, remain focused upon acquiring basic civil rights and eliminating the more abusive and discriminatory patriarchal practices. To achieve these goals, Arab women have become more involved in professional organizations and civil society.

In the Arab world, religious texts and beliefs continue to support patriarchal customs. For Muslims, who are a large majority in all Arab countries, Sharia law supports distinctive gender roles, “the public man, private woman” dichotomy. Men’s place is in the public sphere where they are responsible for securing the necessary resources for their families; women’s foremost place is in the household where they bear children, take care of them, and manage domestic chores. This is backed up by family laws that are religiously based and interpreted to “reinforce the distinction between the public sphere of markets and governance, which are cast as the province of men, and the private sphere of the family, with which women are identified” (quoted in Paxton and Hughes 2017, 337). This is true even though Sharia law establishes basic rights for women in terms of property ownership, inheritance, education, and divorce.

Data and Methods

In 2017, there were 167 countries with populations of 500,000 or more, excluding autonomous territories, unincorporated territories, overseas regions, and states with disputed sovereignty. Of these countries, measures for the GII exist for 146 countries, seventeen of them Arab.

We estimate the coefficients of a causal model that includes thirteen variables: seven exogenous variables and six endogenous variables, including the GII. The model is cross-sectional with a focal period of 2016–18.

The seven exogenous variables include African country, Arab country, education index, contraceptive use, OECD country, percentage Muslim, and polity index. The six endogenous variables include the corruption perceptions index (CPI), fertility rate, GII, infant mortality, per capita purchasing power parity (PPP) and polygamy. Data are from a variety of sources. The  appendix describes these variables, their measures, and data sources. All variables other than the dummy variables are assumed to be interval-level variables.

Gender inequality in Arab countries

For comparison we divide countries into three groups: Arab countries, OECD countries, and other countries. Table 1 analyses the variance of the GII for these three groups of countries. The mean GII is higher in Arab countries than in OECD countries, but about the same as in the remaining countries of the world. The range of the GII is larger for Arab countries, indicative of these countries’ diversity.

TABLE 1.

Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) of the Gender Inequality Index (GII) (Mean for 2016–18)

Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) of the Gender Inequality Index (GII) (Mean for 2016–18)
Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) of the Gender Inequality Index (GII) (Mean for 2016–18)

Model of gender inequality

A variety of factors associated with patriarchy are causes of gender inequality. Figure 1 displays some of these in the form of a causal model. The estimated coefficients of a causal model depend upon the model’s specification (the variables included and excluded and the causal relationships among them). Models are necessarily a simplified representation of complex causal processes. We assume that the model is recursive and that the errors of the dependent variables are uncorrelated.

We will discuss each of the six endogenous variables in turn, looking lastly at the GII, and show scattergrams for noteworthy bivariate relationships.

Fertility rate

The fertility rate is the number of children who would be born to a woman if she were to survive between 15 and 44 years of age. Patriarchal practices restrict women’s reproductive autonomy and therefore are associated with a higher fertility rate. Five independent variables have effects upon the fertility rate: infant mortality rate, the natural log of per capita PPP, polygamy, contraceptive use and African country. Table 2 shows the results of a regression analysis.

TABLE 2.

Regression Analysis of the Fertility Rate, Mean, 2016–18a

Regression Analysis of the Fertility Rate, Mean, 2016–18a
Regression Analysis of the Fertility Rate, Mean, 2016–18a

The infant mortality rate (Arab country average = 24.1; OECD country average = 5.9) has a large, positive effect upon the fertility rate. This supports the compensation hypothesis of Gowaty et al. (2007). Where there are greater risks to women from pregnancy, giving birth and nursing an infant through the first year of life, the infant mortality rate will be higher. To compensate, women get pregnant and give birth more often. The average ln Per capita PPP (taking exponents Arab country average = US$16,401; OECD country average = US$41,698) is an indicator of the wealth of a country’s population, and has a large, negative effect upon the fertility rate. Greater wealth means more and better healthcare, including access to contraceptives.

Polygamy is a traditional patriarchal practice. It is wealth based, with only a small percentage of men able to support more than a single wife. All but one Arab country (Tunisia) have customs or civil law that approve of polygamy. It is against the law in all OECD countries. With polygamy, a higher percentage of women get married and at a younger age. A woman’s age at first marriage has a large and positive effect upon her overall lifetime reproduction.

African countries on average have a higher fertility rate than other countries. African populations were subject to a large number and variety of parasites and diseases, favoring genetic diversity. African populations are genetically very diverse (Jorde et al. 2000).

Contraceptive use enables women’s reproductive autonomy and has a small negative effect upon the fertility rate. The effect would be larger except the regression equation also includes and controls the effect of ln Per capita PPP. Overall, these five independent variables account for 79.1 per cent of the cross-national variation in the fertility rate.

Infant mortality rate

The infant mortality rate in a country is the number of deaths under one year of age per 1000 live births in a given year. Patriarchal practices contribute to a higher infant mortality rate. There are four independent variables with effects upon the infant mortality rate: ln Per capita PPP, African country, contraceptive use, and polygamy. Table 3 shows the results of a regression.

TABLE 3.

Regression Analysis of Infant Mortality Rate, Mean, 2016–18a

Regression Analysis of Infant Mortality Rate, Mean, 2016–18a
Regression Analysis of Infant Mortality Rate, Mean, 2016–18a

Patriarchal practices that limit women’s access to higher education and employment are associated with lower ln Per capita PPP and a higher infant mortality rate. Wealthier countries have more healthcare resources. With better prenatal care, there will be fewer childbirth deaths and with better post-natal nutrition and care, there will be fewer infant deaths. The infant mortality rate is substantially higher in African countries due mostly to diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, and AIDS (Black et al. 2010). Poor sanitation, unsafe drinking water, malnutrition, and epidemics are brought on and aggravated by weather and civil disturbances (Kudamatsu, Persson, and Strömberg 2012).

Contraceptive use has a moderate, negative impact upon the infant mortality rate, since it reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies. Prospective mothers who use contraceptives will be better able to space their pregnancies to times when they are better fed, healthier, have family support, have access to healthcare resources, and are better able to care for their babies. These are the goals of family planning agencies such as Planned Parenthood (2018).

Polygamy has a small, positive effect upon the infant mortality rate. With polygamous marriages, women tend to get married and get pregnant at a very young age when they are less likely to give birth to a healthy infant.

Polygamy

Polygamy is plural marriage, a traditional patriarchal practice. Among 167 countries, it is legal by customary or civil law in fifty-three, or 31.7 per cent. Muslim men can have plural wives if they can support them; according the Quran, the legal limit is four wives at one time. In countries with a Muslim majority, it is legal in twenty-eight of forty-four, or 63.6 per cent.

In a few historically known states, autocratic rulers established very large harems (Betzig 1986). Rulers expanded and consolidated their power through numerous marriages. For example, the Saudi historian Madawi al-Rasheed wrote that “Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud’s consolidation of the Arabian Peninsula under his rule in 1926 was the product of his marriages to more than 134 women, thus producing offspring and blood ties that united its many tribes” (Hatem 2013, 95).

Four independent variables have effects on polygamy: educational index, Arab country, African country, and percentage Muslim. Table 4 shows the results of a regression analysis.

TABLE 4.

Regression Analysis of Polygamya

Regression Analysis of Polygamya
Regression Analysis of Polygamya

The educational index has a large, negative effect on polygamy. In general, it is those countries with highly educated populations that prohibit polygamy. For example, all thirty-four OECD either outlaw polygamy or severely restrict it. African country, Arab country and percentage Muslim have positive effects on polygamy.

ln Per capita purchasing power parity (PPP)

Per capita PPP is a measure of the purchasing power of a country’s per capita income. It is useful surrogate measure for a country’s level of economic development. Owing to per capita PPP’s positively skewed distribution, we take its logarithm. Patriarchal practices that keep women from participating in their country’s paid labor force reduce purchasing power. In a few Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, these practices are extreme. Women’s economic participation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the lowest in the world, and in countries where it is higher, such as Egypt, it is because of poverty and necessity. Three independent variables affect ln Per capita PPP: educational index, Arab country, and corruption. Table 5 shows the results of a regression.

TABLE 5.

Regression Analysis of Logarithm of Per Capita Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), Mean, 2016–18a

Regression Analysis of Logarithm of Per Capita Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), Mean, 2016–18a
Regression Analysis of Logarithm of Per Capita Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), Mean, 2016–18a

The education index has a large, positive effect upon ln Per capita PPP. Arab countries and OECD countries tend to have higher ln Per capita PPP. Among the Arab countries, six have per capita incomes among the highest in the world due to revenues from oil exports (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). Still, these six countries would have even higher purchasing power if more of their women were employed. More corrupt countries tend to have lower per capita incomes.

Corruption perceptions index (CPI)

Corruption in government occurs when an official abuses his or her authority for personal benefit. Small-scale corruption occurs at lower levels of government and includes activities such as blackmail, bribery, embezzlement, graft, collusion in contracting, and the receipt of unauthorized gifts, payments, and services. Large-scale corruption occurs at higher levels of government and involves the subversion of administrative agencies, legislatures, courts, and government corporations and state-owned enterprises.

Corruption is a patriarchal practice. It is men, not women, who largely engage in corrupt acts. It reflects extra-legal competition among men for resources used for personal reasons, such as the support of wives, children, and mistresses. Women as a class do not benefit from corruption as much as men and have a greater interest than men do in curbing it.

On the CPI, a lower score means greater corruption, a higher score, less corruption. The average CPI for Arab countries is 33.4, half that of the OECD country average of 68.0. Seven very corrupt Arab countries have average index values < 20, including Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, South Sudan, North Sudan, and Somalia. It is notable that women hold little or no real governmental power in these Arab countries. Only two Arab countries had index values > 60, comparable with the average for OECD countries: UAE and Qatar. Rulers there have succeeded in curbing corruption, presumably to better attract global corporations. In most Arab countries, however, rulers either profit themselves from corruption and/or do little to stop it.

Small-scale corruption is endemic in the MENA region. One-third of citizens reported paying a bribe in order to get basic services such as healthcare, education, and water. An estimated 50 million citizens used bribes in 2015 alone (Al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi 2016, 150). In the black market, the police collude with organized crime and even armed militia forces (Sayigh 2016, 17–18). Sixty-eight per cent of citizens in the MENA region say that their government performance in fighting corruption was bad (Al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi 2016, 131).

Two independent variables affect the CPI: the education index and Polity2 index. Table 6 shows the results of a regression.

Table 6.

Regression Analysis of Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) (Mean, 2016–18)a

Regression Analysis of Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) (Mean, 2016–18)a
Regression Analysis of Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) (Mean, 2016–18)a

The educational index has a large, positive effect upon the CPI. Countries with highly educated populations are more involved in civic affairs and less tolerant of corruption. The Polity2 index, locating a country’s polity on a continuum from very autocratic (= 20) to fully democratic (= 1), also has effects upon the CPI. The relationship, however, is curvilinear. Corruption tends to be low in fully democratic countries. It can also be low in autocratic countries as indicated above for Qatar and the UAE.

Gender inequality index (GII)

We turn next to the GII. Looking at figure 1, five variables have direct effects upon it: fertility rate, per capita PPP, polygamy, OECD country, and corruption. Table 7 presents the results of a regression analysis with the GII as the dependent variable.

Table 7.

Regression Analysis of Gender Inequality Index (GII), Mean, 2016–18a

Regression Analysis of Gender Inequality Index (GII), Mean, 2016–18a
Regression Analysis of Gender Inequality Index (GII), Mean, 2016–18a
Fertility rate

Table 7 shows that the fertility rate has a positive effect upon the GII. For women, higher fertility is associated with worse health outcomes, a higher burden of parental care, and fewer opportunities to work outside the household. As argued above, patriarchal practices reduce women’s reproductive autonomy and contribute to a higher fertility rate. The average fertility rate for Arab countries is 3.04, nearly double the average of 1.65 for OECD countries.

Figure 2 shows the relationship between the fertility rate and GII. A few Arab countries are distinctive. Yemen, Morocco, and Syria, given their levels of fertility, all have unexpectedly high gender inequality. Libya has a low level.

Figure 2.

Relationship between Fertility Rate and the Gender Inequality Index (GII) by Type of Country

Figure 2.

Relationship between Fertility Rate and the Gender Inequality Index (GII) by Type of Country

ln Per capita PPP

ln Per capita PPP has a large, negative effect upon the GII. In developed countries, gains in per capita income have occurred because a large percentage of women are employed. Women with their own earnings are less dependent on the economic resources of men and in a position to reject patriarchal values. Employment also enhances the knowledge, skills, and relationships needed to participate effectively in public arenas.

Women are severely disadvantaged by poverty. In rural areas, few women are landowners and this impedes economic development there. The numbers are striking: “Less than 13 percent of landholders worldwide are women and while the global pay gap between men and women stands at 23 percent, in rural areas it can be as high as 40 per cent” (UN Women 2018).

Figure 3 shows a strong, negative relationship between ln Per capita PPP and the GII. All but two Arab countries (Libya and Tunisia) have a greater GII score than would be expected based upon their ln Per capita PPP. Arab countries are distinctive in this regard due to patriarchal practices that exclude women from paid work.

Figure 3.

Relationship between ln Per Capita Purchasing Power and the Gender Inequality Index (GII) by Type of Country

Figure 3.

Relationship between ln Per Capita Purchasing Power and the Gender Inequality Index (GII) by Type of Country

Figure 1 does not show a direct effect of the educational index upon gender inequality. There is multicollinearity and the separate, direct effects of both the educational index and ln Per capita PPP on gender inequality cannot be reliably estimated. Since a country’s educational index has a large, positive and direct effect upon its ln Per capita PPP (table 5), and ln Per capita PPP has a large, positive and direct effect upon gender inequality, we choose to estimate ln Per capita PPP’s direct effects on gender inequality rather than the educational index’s.

OECD country

The effect of being an OECD country upon the GII is negative. These countries possess social policies that help women when employed to care for their children. Also, in several OECD countries, large numbers of women have entered parliament.

Corruption perceptions index (CPI)

The CPI has a negative effect upon the GII. Male-dominated political institutions possess structures and rules that favor ambitious power-seekers able to use alliances to climb formal and informal institutional hierarchies. While there are ambitious, power-seeking women, they must overcome patriarchal practices, such as gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Women feel out of place in male-gendered political institutions where corruption is rampant.

Figure 4 shows the relationship between the CPI and GII. Countries with low scores on the CPI (high levels of corruption) tend to have high scores on the GII (high levels of gender inequality).

Figure 4.

Relationship between the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and Gender Inequality Index (GII) by Type of Country

Figure 4.

Relationship between the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and Gender Inequality Index (GII) by Type of Country

Several Arab countries are distinctive. In Yemen, where corruption is high, gender inequality is extraordinarily high. In Libya, gender inequality is less than expected given its high level of corruption.

Polygamy

As table 7 shows, polygamy has a small, positive effect upon the GII. Polygamy disadvantages poor men who lack the wealth to attract a wife, such as money for a bride price. Men without good prospects of marriage and family often engage in risky behavior. They may join criminal gangs or form militias to acquire status, money, weapons, and women. Examples of the latter include the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and rebel groups in South Sudan (Hudson and Matfess 2017). Men who are reproductively disenfranchised may turn their anger and frustration onto women, engaging in sexual harassment, physical abuse, and sexual assault. A stereotype is that Arab men harbor misogyny. The effect of wealth-based polygamy, therefore, is to reinforce patriarchy.

What About Islam and Gender Inequality?

Among religions, Islam is very patriarchal. It had its origins in Arabia. Traditional Arab societies were organized into tribes, with patrilineal descent and inheritance. Some had a pastoral economy, where there was chronic risk of theft and even of tribal warfare. Wives were wholly dependent upon their husbands and their husband’s relatives for resources and protection, strongly favoring patriarchy and the ideologies justifying it.

The effect of percentage Muslim upon the GII (figure 1) is indirect, through polygamy, and polygamy is associated with other patriarchal practices and higher levels of gender inequality.

Western eyes look at the more conservative Arab countries and their archaic patriarchal practices and assume, incorrectly, that they are found in all countries with large Muslim populations. Islam diffused to societies with cultures far different from those in traditional Arab societies and with different patriarchal practices. Furthermore, Arab countries themselves have and are undergoing significant modernization, including the less visible changes that have reduced gender inequality, such as women’s gains in education, growing per capita incomes, and entry into the public arena.

Implications for Gender Inequality in the Arab World

What policies will reduce gender inequality in the Arab world?

Women’s Education

Arab countries can reduce gender inequality by promoting education, especially for women. Education has the largest impact on gender inequality due to all its indirect effects, especially through per capita income. It is education that enables women to hold higher paying jobs, obtain their own resources, and become active participants in public life—all these are developments that reduce patriarchy. It is important to note that the largest male–female gaps in educational attainment are found in the poorer Arab countries where female illiteracy is shockingly high.

Policies that Promote Economic Development

These are policies that raise per capita incomes and thereby reduce gender inequality. There are too many of these to discuss here. The poorer Arab countries with a large agricultural sector can promote women’s ownership of land, credit at reasonable interest rates, the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, and, additionally, the development of markets for locally grown produce will reduce gender inequality. The wealthier Arab countries can adopt policies that promote women’s employment in higher paid jobs. Importantly, policies that promote economic development enjoy widespread popular support (Berkovitch and Bradley 1999).

Anti-Corruption Initiatives

Arab countries can enact policies that reduce corruption. In the MENA region, election integrity is the weakest area of anticorruption activities. High-level public officials in the region often lack the political will to deal with corruption since there is no strong and neutral judiciary (Transparency International 2009). Some countries are exceptions: Algeria, the UAE, Egypt, and recently Saudi Arabia have targeted corruption. Some governments have promoted greater transparency by posting more information on the internet (e-government) and this can increase the trust of citizens in their government and strengthen civil society.

The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) has provided a useful tool to help the governments in the region fight corruption. The organization Arab Parliamentarians against Corruption (ARPAC) was established in Beirut in 2004 to persuade Arab governments to ratify and implement UNCAC. The effort has had uneven impact in the region. National counterparts to UNCAC have been established in Palestine, Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon. If anti-corruption efforts succeed, more women will risk running for and serving in elective public office where they will take action on behalf of women’s concerns that men have tended to ignore.

Gender Quotas for Legislatures

Gender quotas empower women directly. In Algeria in 2012, a law was enacted that created a female quota of between twenty and forty per cent of the candidates’ lists, with the goal that over thirty per cent of the seats in the National Assembly be assigned to women (Ben Ali 2015, 61). In 2012, 146 women deputies were elected, the highest number for any Arab country.

Communications

The Arab Spring demonstrated the potential for “grass roots” mobilization facilitated by access to the internet and diverse information sources. Through e-government, Arab governments can do a better job of letting citizens know what they are doing with respect to gender equality.

Arab countries have long recognized that their culture raises issues regarding human rights. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam adopted in 1990 furnished an Islamic view of human rights based upon Sharia law. Arab countries can continue to negotiate human rights. An example is The Muscat Declaration on Tourism and Culture (announced on 21 January 2016) that discussed the concept of “gender justice” in the Arab world. Arab authors can challenge the narrow lens through which Westerners often see Arab women (Eissa 2015).

Curb or End Archaic and Abusive Patriarchal Practices

It may be in the interest of Arab rulers to challenge the influence of conservative Islamists and overcome opposition to curbing or ending some of the more archaic and abusive patriarchal practices that plague some Arab countries. Doing so may increase their legitimacy, especially among younger generations, who are the future of Arab countries. The Arab Spring unleashed the potential of young women activists dubbed often as “cyberactivists,” who are very literate in technology (blogs, social media, Twitter). They no longer endure being “silent losers” and their voices are being heard among their cohorts in other neighboring countries—depicting improved intergenerational cooperation.

Summary

On average, gender inequality in Arab countries is much higher than in OECD countries. Gender inequality varies among Arab countries mainly due to differences in per capita incomes linked with economic development. The sources of gender inequality in Arab countries are multiple. The distinctive sources include, especially, traditional patriarchal practices, such as civil law and customs that allow polygamy, and in all but a few Arab countries, very high levels of corruption.

Arab countries can adopt policies to reduce gender inequality. Most important is the promotion of women’s education that leads to women’s greater employment and higher per capita income. Also, top-down strategies such as legal reform is very instrumental.

Nothing diminishes patriarchy and subsequently gender inequality more than women’s ability to acquire and control their own resources.

During the Arab Spring, many Arab citizens, including many women, went out onto the streets to show their contempt for regimes they viewed to be autocratic, corrupt, and illegitimate. They wanted democracy and a voice. A few Arab rulers were driven from power. Others used force to curb demonstrations, arrest opponents, and stay in power. There has been uneven progress with respect to women’s rights (Alvi 2015). With increasing modernization, however, Arab rulers will need to listen to Arab women holding institutional authority and demanding their human rights and an end to abusive patriarchal practices.

Appendix

African country: 1 = African country; 0 = not an African country.

Arab country: 1 = Arab country; 0 = not an Arab country.

Corruption perceptions index (CPI): An annual index of political corruption that varies from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean). We calculated an average of scores for 2016–18 (Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 Short Methodology. https://www.transparency.org). Note: Scores are averages of standardized scores from ratings by multiple raters (a minimum of three) who are country experts or business people. The index is constructed in a way that makes adjustments for various confounding sources of variability in ratings. A smaller value is associated with greater corruption.

Education Index: based upon two indicators: expected years of schooling and mean years of schooling. A formula is used to calculate the index for each indicator: dimension index = (actual value – minimum)/(maximum – minimum). The minimum for expected years of schooling and mean years of schooling is set to 0; the maximum for expected years of schooling is set at 18 (equivalent to a master’s degree), and the maximum for mean years of schooling is set at 15. To obtain an overall index, the arithmetic mean is taken of the two index values. The possible range for the index is 0–1.0. A higher value is associated with a higher level of educational attainment. We calculated an average of scores for 2016–18. Source: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Human Development Reports.http://hdr.undp.org/en/indicators/103706.

Fertility rate: average number of children who would be born to a woman over her lifetime based upon age-specific fertility rates if she were to survive from age 15 to 44 years. We calculated an average for 2016–18. Source: The World Bank, Data Bank. World Development Indicators. https://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=2&series=SP.DYN.TFRT.IN&country=#.

Gender inequality index (GII): its calculation involves five steps. The basic rationale for these steps is to give an equal weight to each dimension as well as treating each gender equally. Thus, the index is a construct that measures important differences between the genders with respect to three important dimensions of human development: female reproductive health, empowerment, and labor market participation. The index magnifies the weight of a country’s relatively low and high indicator values by the calculation of geometric means. A larger index means greater gender inequality. We calculated an average for 2016–18. Source: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Reports. http://hdr.undp.org/en/composite/GII.

Infant mortality: an annual measure of the number of deaths of infants less than one year old per 1000 live births. We calculated an average for 2016–18. Source: The World Bank, Data Bank. World Development Indicators.http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=2&series=SP.DYN.IMRT.IN&country=#.

Contraceptive use: survey-based measure of the use in a country (usually figured as a percentage of persons ages 15–49) of modern birth control methods, including both male and female contraception. Data were collected for 11 different methods, including an “other” category. For each country, we used the most recent year for which there was a measure. Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), Population Division. Fertility and Family Planning Section, World Contraceptive Use 2016. http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/family_planning/contraceptive_prevalence/en/.

OECD country: 1 = Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country; 0 = not an OECD country.

Per capita purchasing power parity: this is GDP per capita and a measure of the purchasing power of a country’s per capita income in current international dollars. We calculated an average for 2016–18. Owing to the large positive skew of this variable, we use its logarithm. Source: The World Bank, The World Bank Open Data. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.KD; data file GDP per capital PPP (current international $).

Percentage Muslim: data were obtained from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religions_by_country Wikipedia; the source of the Wikipedia data is Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/index.html.

Polity2 index: a measure of the characteristics of a country’s regime. It is equal to the value of a democracy index less an autocracy index, and varies from –10 (full autocracy) to 10 (full democracy). We added 10 to this index and calculated an average for 2016–18. For details on this variable’s conceptualization and measurement, see Marshall, Gurr and Jaggers (2016).

Polygamy: we coded a variable based on information and citations furnished by Wikipedia. Codes were as follows: 1 = illegal, no exceptions (rare or non-existent); 2 = illegal, but exceptions (preexisting marriages valid; illegal but practiced); 3 = not recognized under civil law or customary law, but practiced; 4 = legal but restricted (e.g., recognized by civil law for Muslims only; recognized in some regions; recognized for foreign marriages or for welfare purposes only; and 5 = legal by civil or customary law. Source: Wikipedia, Legality of Polygamy.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legality_of_polygamy.

1.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has constructed a Global Gender Gap index based upon male-female gaps in health, education, the economy, and politics. Unlike the UNDP’s measure, it does not favor developed countries. Accordingly, it is less useful for setting out and testing a theory to account for cross-national variations in gender inequality since it gives less emphasis upon cross-national differences in education and economic development and their direct and indirect effects on gender inequality.

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