At the 25th Forum 2000 in October, women’s rights and democracy – in the context of the coronavirus pandemic – was the focus of a panel with five women activists from across the world. Part of the discussion was focused on the recent culture of promoting women in the workforce of the Middle East and North Africa. Statistical data on women across the region paints a shared reality. Be it Saudi women in the workforce or Tunisian women in leadership positions, this data conveys only statistics on women’s participation in the workforce while avoiding a discussion on the politics behind these promising numbers.
Saudi Women in the Workforce
Despite the fair criticism regarding concerns over women’s rights, Saudi Arabia has introduced numerous legal amendments positively affecting women’s personal lives and freedoms in recent years. The initial lifting of the ban on women driving set off a domino effect in the kingdom. The ban was a symbol for the Saudi feminist movement as it encompassed women’s rights “to drive” their own lives, as Manal Alshareef eloquently explained.
The resulting liberations included the relaxation of the guardianship law’s legal grip on women. As a result, women were finally able to be issued – and to renew their – passports and travel without the prior permission of their male guardians (which had previously been a requirement imposed on all women regardless of age) in equal terms with their male counterparts.
Pandemic-related travel restrictions and the reduction in businesses’ revenue, added to the previously introduced taxes on foreign workers, have contributed to the abrupt decline of foreign, lower-skilled workers in the kingdom. This has certainly worsened conditions for many foreign workers, who face their own inequalities and challenges that have been heightened by the pandemic, a critical issue that requires further study and consideration. However, since coronavirus-related restrictions have been loosened, women have filled many of these roles and have been key to the economic recovery process. To revive industries, women became an alternative to the foreign lower-skilled workers and a solution to some facets of labor demand. Saudi women began replacing foreign workers in retail prior to the onset of the pandemic. However, it seems to have accelerated this trend. More broadly, women’s workforce participation increased from 17% in the second quarter of 2016 to 33.2% in the fourth quarter of 2020. In terms of macro statistics, these percentages seem to reflect a success story. However, while not to demean the work of lower-skilled workers, there is potentially a risk – even despite the progress – that this trend could confine the majority of Saudi women to lower wage, less secure jobs, especially in the retail sector.
Tunisian Women’s Political Participation
The line between democratic countries and those with other kinds of governance, as it relates to impact on women’s rights, is blurry in the Middle East and North Africa. Women in both cases are sometimes seemingly utilized to embellish their respective country’s image rather than to genuinely elevate their political participation and representation. For example, Tunisian President Kais Saied recently appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane prime minister, the first Tunisian woman to serve in the role (and tasked her with forming a new government), a milestone achievement. However, the timing of her appointment evoked concerns that it was in part an attempt to deflect attention from Saied’s decision in previous weeks to dismiss the incumbent prime minister and shut down the Parliament, moves many Tunisians and analysts have called undemocratic. This historic selection of a woman may have been meant to absorb some of the national and international disapproval of the president’s latest moves.
Romdhane’s appointment was followed by a record number of women selected to serve in the government: nine women ministers out of 25. These women ministers – because of Saied’s controversial moves – will likely be put under greater scrutiny than their male predecessors for holding these roles for the first time in the country’s history, placing them at a disadvantage. In addition to that perceptions challenge, there may be constraints placed on their ability – as on their male counterparts – to do their jobs, as a result of Saied’s change in course on governance: How will these women ministers be able to perform and maneuver through all the challenges facing their respective ministries at a moment when the president has declared a national emergency and is ruling by decree? It remains to be seen if the appointment of women, in a time of challenge to democracy, will be an actual gain for women.
Some analysts see at least a light gray lining in this otherwise dark time for Tunisian democracy, or at least insist on letting the situation develop a bit before making final judgments. Hèla Yousfi, for example, a sociology lecturer at Paris Dauphine University, said, “You can’t predict what’s going to happen. We must wait for the [political] programme, the vision, and also what is proposed in terms of an institutional roadmap. We are in limbo at the moment. We must wait and see.” In the meantime, constant close observations and analysis of the developing events are necessary to keep those in power in check. And women in Tunisia, as in the rest of the region, even as they engage in the politics of the moment, will have to play the long game for equality and empowerment.
Women’s True Empowerment
To achieve true equality, it is crucial to push for more favorable realities for women while being careful not to fall into traps that will take years to correct. These positive statistics that show more Saudi women entering the workforce, Tunisian women gaining leadership positions, and women’s positions in society generally improving – as important as these achievements are as indicators of progress – should not be the end goal. Women’s empowerment is not only about improvement in statistics such as these but must give women the power to influence their surroundings. For women in the region, a related short- and longer-term imperative is for women not to be utilized to embellish a country’s image at the expense of their true empowerment. Women and supporters of women’s empowerment must always ensure that political and economic progress remains open-ended, with the potential for women to build on it, not be limited by it.