It’s hard to ignore all the truly amazing women who shatter gender stereotypes and break the proverbial glass ceiling through their social, economic, cultural and political achievements. Yet in the Arab world, women still face stark challenges on all of these fronts.
In particular, the relationship between the education and employment of Arab women reflects an alarming paradox: Women outnumber men in the pursuit of university degrees but lag far behind them in work-force participation and equal pay.
The 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, region routinely have the world’s lowest rates of female participation in the labor force. According to the World Bank’s most recent “Women, Business, and the Law” report, work-force participation among women is less than 20 percent in Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Jordan; slightly more than 20 percent in Saudi Arabia; less than 30 percent in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia; slightly more than 30 percent in Israel and Oman; about 40 percent in Bahrain and Djibouti; and less than 50 percent in Kuwait and the UAE. Qatar is the only MENA country with female employment of at least 50 percent.
How can we shift this narrative? My own journey from education to employment can provide some key insights.
I am an Arab woman who has benefited tremendously from my undergraduate studies at the University of Haifa in northern Israel from 2014 to 2016. My learning expanded far beyond the classroom and into my multifaceted career in political science research, international relations and public speaking. But how was I set up for professional success, while all too many of my fellow Arab women are left behind?
It started with my appreciation of diversity from a young age. I grew up in a small neighborhood with Jewish and Arab populations of equal size in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. While Arabs and Jews usually make international headlines for their prolonged conflict, in my neighborhood we live together in harmony. I proudly describe myself as a “four-pronged minority”: I am Arab, female, from a Muslim family and have different abilities. (I have been dealing with peripheral neuropathy for almost 12 years now, and I believe in the power of words, which is why I describe myself as having different abilities and not a disability.)
While most youths begin thinking about college during the second half of high school, I was drawn to study at the University of Haifa at just 10 years old when the university operated a community project in my neighborhood. Realizing my own desire to impact my community at an early age, I began volunteering at the local community center. And at age 15, I founded my first start-up, SockSack, a laundry gadget that keeps your socks together during the washing process. (As CEO, I negotiated the sale of this product to one of the largest Israeli retail companies.)
My appreciation of diversity grew significantly at the University of Haifa, where I became a first-generation student. The university’s thriving group of Arab students -- 25 percent of the total student body, exceeding the already significant 20 percent Arab population share of Israel -- demonstrates the progress Arabs have made in Israeli society.
I was on a Jewish-Arab Community Leadership program, sponsored by the German Friends Association of the University of Haifa, whereby Jewish and Arab students on campus met once a week to engage in discussions about life in Israel. As part of that scholarship, I also delivered a yearlong Arabic and Hebrew language program to children aged four to seven, consisting of weekly educational activities at a local community center, with the goal of bridging the language barrier between Arabs and Jews. After my time at the University of Haifa, I took part in a Lantos-Humanity in Action Congressional Fellowship in Washington, D.C., working in the office of U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat.
Dealing with a chronic illness and aspiring to advance my education has made me the woman I am today and given me the vision for my contributions to the world. And my personal mission is not something I take lightly. Amid my studies in political science and international relations, including as a research assistant for three different University of Haifa professors, my colleagues encouraged me to consider a purpose larger than myself by asking me: “What is political science in Arab society?” That prompted me to think practically about what I could actually accomplish with a university degree, and I proceeded to put my plan into action.
Currently, as a public speaker on college campuses in the United States and worldwide, I raise awareness about minority groups in Israel in order to give voice to my community and paint a different -- and more accurate -- portrait of life as an Arab Israeli. While consciously not viewing Israel through rose-tinted glasses -- discrimination is present, as with any society -- I try to tackle the distorted image of Israel abroad and hope to address the challenges facing Arab women worldwide. As a non-Jew in Israel, I believe that Arabs are an integral part of Israel and that we can achieve true shared existence when placing merit above discrimination. After recently securing the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, I believe my title sends a message to the international community that Israel is more than its Jewish identity and that its multicultural character should be celebrated. Indeed, Israel is a home to thriving minority populations such as Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, Circassians and Druze.
What have I learned from my academic journey and the early stages of my career, and how can those lessons translate into progress for Arab women?
The college campus arena is a microcosm of society at large that ultimately shapes major outcomes in any particular country through the training of future leaders. Our future leaders are those who are able to thrive in diverse environments, not insular communities. Any society that strives to prioritize diversity and gender equality -- including in the work force -- needs to reinforce that value on its college campuses, and this must occur in Arab states in order for women to make important gains in employment.
Education alone, however, is not enough for Arab women to enter the work force and thrive within it. Higher education must take place in societies and environments whose values and actions alike set women up for success. The diverse and tolerant environment at the University of Haifa contributed to my global citizen identity and my focused efforts on inclusivity within Israel by empowering more Arab women to achieve economic independence -- raising awareness to issues pertinent to minorities, and acting as an advocate for those with invisible illnesses and different abilities.
My message to my fellow Arab women is that we should demand a seat at the top of the table. We should fight through discrimination and persevere in the face of intolerance. We should accept nothing less than equal treatment. We will have the greatest chances for success both if higher education environments prepare us to play instrumental roles in a diverse world and if workplaces recognize the power of our gender.
And my message to faculty members and administrators, who hold the keys of access, is to let Arab women take a leading role in research and teaching. To support and foster new modes of engagement to allow this underrepresented cohort to thrive.
Indeed, my own journey is testament to that -- after working closely with faculty members, I developed skills that went far beyond my learning experience. Exposure to networks within academe will provide confidence to pursue further studies -- which is often not the case for Arab women. Great minds are leaving higher education because the belief is not installed in them that they can go further. So I call on all faculty members and administrators to believe in the potential of Arab women. They will surprise you.