Oil, Islam, and women

For Muslim women yearning for political power, Allah is not the problem.

Published August 26, 2008 8:24PM (EDT)

Don't blame Islam for the plight of women in the Middle East. Blame oil.

That's the message from UCLA political science professor Michael Ross, in "Oil, Islam, and Women," published in the February 2008 American Political Science Review, and flagged as worth reading by the highly dependable Chris Blattman.

Ross' argument is fascinating. Here's the nut:

Oil production affects gender relations by reducing the presence of women in the labor force. 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.

How exactly does oil production reduce the presence of women in the labor force? Time, once again, to revisit the developing nation plague of the "resource curse" (aka "the Dutch disease).

Economists have observed for decades that developing nations that rely overmuch on the export of primary resources -- oil, diamonds, coal, et cetera -- rather than value-added industrial goods, often end up experiencing stunted economic growth. There are a number of reasons for this, and it will be hard to improve upon Ross' concise explication (he's writing a book on the resource curse), but here's one example:

An influx of foreign exchange from the sale of oil floods the developing nation's economy with cash and forces up the real exchange rate. A high exchange rate makes it cheaper for locals to import goods rather than produce their own. Domestic production of what are called "tradable goods" thus withers away, and the productive capacity of the economy hollows out.

But it is in the export-oriented "tradable goods" sector that many women tend to get their first jobs in a low-income developing economy. Sweatshops with endless lines of young women sewing jeans together or assembling iPods get a bad rap from Western labor activists, but the irony is that, according to Ross, it is in precisely such locales that women first achieve political consciousness and start building the kind of networks that governments must pay attention to.

Ross crunches a bunch of numbers in support of his thesis, and throws in a few case studies. Of particular interest, for those who might think that Islam and second-class citizenship for women go naturally hand-in-hand, is his observation that Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and Djibouti -- all majority Muslim states with little or no oil -- were the first "to grant female suffrage and tend to have more women in the workplace and parliament and higher gender rights scores."

The takeaway: Economic growth is not enough to bring about positive changes in gender equality -- what's critical is the kind of economic growth.

When economic growth is the result of industrialization —– particularly the type of export-oriented manufacturing that draws women into the labor force -- it should also bring about the changes in gender relations that we associate with modernization. But income that comes from oil extraction often fails to produce industrialization -- and can even discourage industrialization by causing the Dutch Disease ... The extraction of oil and gas tends to reduce the role of women in the work force, and the likelihood they will accumulate political influence. Without large numbers of women participating in the economic and political life of a country, traditional patriarchal institutions will go unchallenged. In short, petroleum perpetuates patriarchy.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works Islam Religion