"Petroleum perpetuates patriarchy"

Blame oil, not fundamentalism, for keeping the Middle East's women down.

Published April 2, 2008 5:39PM (EDT)

A professor friend sent me this fascinating article (PDF), which, let's just say, is longer and more in depth than your average Capitol Brief from the Oklahoman. Writing in the American Political Science Review, Michael L. Ross, Ph.D., of UCLA argues that contrary to popular and perhaps oversimplified assumption, is it not primarily [conservative] Islam that perpetuates the low status of women in the Middle East -- where fewer women work outside the home or hold political office than anywhere else in the world. In fact, what's keeping them down is oil.

(If this rings a bell, you may be thinking of an earlier Broadsheet post on the Ms. article about how the U.S. oiligarchy essentially places drilling rights over women's rights.)

If you don't have time to read the whole thing -- though the link is definitely workplace-friendly! -- here's Ross' argument in a wee, wee nutshell:

Oil-rich economies depend much more heavily on the "nontraded" sector -- real estate, construction -- than on the "traded" (agriculture and manufacturing). To the degree that women are employed at all, it is in the traded sector. When it comes to women, the nontraded sector doesn't help. Ross herein "challenges a common belief about economic development: that growth promotes gender equality" no matter what. Rather, he suggests "that different types of economic growth have different consequences for gender relations: when growth encourages women to join the formal labor market, it ultimately brings about greater gender equality; when growth is based on oil and mineral extraction, it discourages women from entering the labor force and tends to exaggerate gender inequalities."

Women's joining the labor force is by no means an end in itself. "The failure of women to join the nonagricultural labor force has profound social consequences: it leads to higher fertility rates, less education for girls, and less female influence within the family. It also has far-reaching political consequences: when fewer women work outside the home, they are less likely to exchange information and overcome collective action problems; less likely to mobilize politically, and to lobby for expanded rights; and less likely to gain representation in government. This leaves oil-producing states with atypically strong patriarchal cultures and political institutions."

Case study: South Korea. At the turn of the last century, girls were not given their own names, according to Ross. Women were not allowed to enter the streets of Seoul during the daytime; 90 percent were illiterate. Enter industrialization: When women became underpaid factory workers, they were -- eventually -- inspired (and able, simply by being together) to organize and mobilize: first for better conditions and, ultimately, for greater political representation. "By drawing women into the work force, export-oriented manufacturing helped South Korean women gain a foothold in government and opened the door to the reform of patriarchal institutions," writes Ross. In other words, joining the workforce is what made them a political force.

Yes, there are oil-rich countries where women do OK (Norway!); Ross explores these exceptions. But his point is about oil vs. Islam. Other oil-producing countries (Venezuela,* Azerbaijan) have the same problem, he argues, while other Islamic non-oil-producing countries do not. "Without large numbers of women participating in the economic and political life of a country, traditional patriarchal institutions will go unchallenged," he writes. "In short, petroleum perpetuates patriarchy."

*This post has been updated here since originally published. "Venezuela" was originally "Botswana," but this example was confusing because Ross brings up Botswana in the context of countries rich in particular resources (here, diamonds), not just oil.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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