Study: Oil, not Islam, responsible for oppressed women
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday March 10, 2008

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A new study upends the prevailing belief that women in the Middle East are oppressed because of their societies' adherence to hard-line Islamic teachings. Far more significant in predicting how women will fare in a given country is that nation's oil wealth.

Political science professor Michael Ross argues in a new paper (.pdf) that oil booms put more men than women into the workforce and decrease women's political representation.

"As a result, oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions," writes Ross, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles.

Ross argues that strong oil economies put women at a disadvantage because the sectors most in need of employees, especially construction, favor men, while textile and other manufacturing industries that traditionally preferred female employees become less vital in the import-rich nations. Ross's paper, "Oil, Islam, and Women," was published in February by the American Political Science Review. The Washington Post reported on the paper Monday:

Ross's insight is that this realignment punishes women, because low-wage manufacturing jobs -- especially in the textile industry -- have long been the entry point into the workforce for millions of poor women across the world. Oil booms cause these jobs to vanish. By contrast, the boom in construction helps men, because the industry is heavily male-dominated. Oil booms do create retail jobs, but in many countries these are also closed off to poor women, either because they are uneducated or because traditional mores frown on women interacting with strangers.

The loss of jobs has profound consequences on women's political engagement and power. Several studies show that across the world, leaving home and entering the workplace produces greater political awareness and participation among women. These, in turn, help produce egalitarian family and inheritance laws, and increased voting, economic and legal rights.

"Patriarchal norms are often very deeply embedded in society, and it takes a very powerful force to begin to break them up," Ross said. "Women's employment in these industries has historically been that powerful force, that foot in the door, that first rung on the ladder."

Environmental Web site Grist reported on a recent talk Ross gave at Brown University and built on his case to argue against increased oil production.

"The upshot: more diversified, clean-energy economies may promote gender equality in ways that direct attempts to reduce the role of religious traditions in society might not," wrote Grist's Nathan Wyeth. "And the bottom line: coal may be the enemy of the human race, but in developing countries, oil may specifically be the enemy of women's empowerment."