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Improvement in women's education in Middle East has not translated to economic, political success

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

LAWRENCE — Though women in the Middle East and North Africa have made major educational attainment gains in recent years, they have not translated into means of influence such as labor market participation and political representation.

Gail Buttorff, University of Kansas assistant professor of political science, examined gendered access to wasta, or political and social capital, for the Women's Rights in the Middle East Program conducted with Bozena Welborne, assistant professor of government at Smith College.

The researchers found that women in Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Yemen and the West Bank and Gaza Strip don't have access to one important type of social capital known as wasta, which allows individuals in positions of power the opportunity to grant assistance when requested. It also allows individuals to streamline bureaucratic processes to gain access more easily to employment, legal documentation and university admission.

"Wasta continues to be important in employment opportunities, in both the private and public spheres, as well as fundamental to the election and work of members of parliament," Buttorff said.

The researchers found that Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon all demonstrated relatively similar levels of wasta usage across genders, although the overall usage rates vary across the three countries.

In Jordan, Palestine and Yemen, though, men reported using wasta at much higher rates than women. In Yemen, for example, 46 percent of men reported having used wasta, while only 29 percent of women reported such.

The researchers said that as part of this preliminary analysis, they suspected that wasta usage could be related labor force participation, as Morocco and Lebanon have a higher percentage of women in the labor force. But Algeria has lower female labor force participation rates than Jordan, Palestine and Yemen.  

"If women have differential access and voters perceive this to be true, how does this affect the ability of female candidates to be elected? And what does gendered nature of wasta mean for improving women's political representation?" Buttorff said. "Given the pervasiveness of wasta in Arab life, does differential access to wasta represent another hurdle to improving the status of women, especially translating educational gains into economic opportunities and political representation?"

She said the next line of research should examine whether the outcomes of political and social capital are different for men and women in Arab countries.

"Much more work needs to be done to understand differences in usage across genders, as well as in the type of wasta used, to really grasp potential policy implications," Buttorff said.

Buttorff and Welborne conducted the research through Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.