Life still trumps work for female researchers in the Middle East

The unrelenting social pressure to take on all domestic duties leaves women little time for professional advancement, says Sabrin Ramadhan

March 2, 2022
Demonstrators wearing cross-out masks attend a rally for International Women's Day in Iraq to illustrate Life still trumps work for female researchers in the Middle East
Source: Getty

According to Unesco figures, an average of 39 per cent of researchers in the Middle East are female. This figure is higher than in many Western countries – and rises higher still in certain nations, such as Kuwait and Egypt. However, no one should leap to the conclusion that this region is a paradise for women academics.

Middle Eastern governments and rights advocacy organisations have made tremendous progress in recent years regarding women’s social, cultural and economic empowerment. But conservative norms towards women remain deep-rooted. Legally, women may have as many rights as men, but abiding social and cultural constraints hold them back and deny them their basic rights.

For a start, the proportion of women within academia is generally lower than the overall figure (which also includes industry) suggests, particularly at senior levels. According to official Jordanian statistics, for instance, only about 7 per cent of professors there are women. And as a Middle Eastern female academic, I can vouch for the fact that the social, cultural and economic barriers that we face make academic success extremely difficult to attain.

Traditional gender roles remain very much in place in this region. For instance, while working mothers in all cultures struggle to balance work and life, it is particularly hard for Middle Eastern women because they are still expected to take on almost sole responsibility for household chores and childcare. And with large families in the region still common, they often take maternity leave every two years.

But it isn’t only mothers who are held back by traditional gender roles and discrimination. Female academics who are not yet married may not have to wait on their children and husbands night and day, but they are often overloaded with teaching and administrative work. If they ask why they should bear an unfair burden, they are told that since they are single, they have plenty of time to do these things.

“The head of the department every year assigns me as a main member of the examination committee in my department because I am unmarried...It is making me hate this job,” one female lecturer at an Iraqi scientific college recently told me.

Female academicians’ capabilities are often doubted by their male peers, too. Women are viewed as too emotional to make sound judgements about life in general, let alone designing their own class syllabus or running an entire department or even a college. Moreover, their extra domestic duties mean that they are considered to be less reliable and engaged than their male peers.

Indeed, they are lucky if they are offered an academic position at all. Applicants with a master’s or doctoral degree are generally preferred, but even when they win scholarships to pursue such qualifications abroad, Middle Eastern women are typically expected to obtain permission from their families to go. That permission is often denied – and not all women can afford the consequences of defying their families and traditional gender expectations.

Religion is considered in many Middle Eastern countries to dictate that women must not travel at all without a male guardian. And living alone is still considered taboo by a lot of people, especially for unmarried women. As for married women, most scholarships do not cover expenses for family members, so they are typically unable to study abroad either.

Families are even less likely to fund daughters’ overseas education out of their own pockets. Male education is routinely prioritised because it is believed that sooner or later women will marry and have children – at which point they are typically expected to give up any career they may have begun.

The widespread social belief in the Middle East that women cannot and should not live as independent and fully developed human beings often causes them to lose confidence in themselves and in their potential to be productive in their academic careers. But there is also a more practical issue holding back their academic success: money. Since research grants are very scarce in the Middle East, many academics are forced to fund their research out of their own salaries. But while women are often the main breadwinners in their families, their domestic duties constitute a large drain on their salaries. With academic pay levels generally low, this leaves little for expensive research.

So what can be done to improve the prospects of female academics in the Middle East? Quotas for appointments would help, and a few countries have already introduced them. But much more needs to be done to ensure that women have the time, energy and resources to make meaningful contributions once they are appointed – even after they start families. And most of these changes cannot be implemented by universities alone.

It is clear that we have a very long journey ahead of us to make our societies in general and our higher education environments in particular better and safer places for female academicians to play their part. But even if the end of the road seems a very long way away, that does not mean that we should not start walking.

Sabrin Ramadhan is a university lecturer in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

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