Women in Arab countries: challenging the patriarchal system?



Fargues P.

Euro-Mediterranean Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. philippe.fargues@iue.it

Reprod Health Matters. 2005 May;13(25):43-8.


Progress in the empowerment of Arab women was found to be low in a 2002 report. Yet Arab women’s status is not reflected in continuing high fertility, which in 2000 had dropped sharply in one generation to 3.4. This paper discusses why fertility decline could nevertheless have taken place in the Arab countries. Islam has not stood in the way of fertility decline, as Iran and Algeria show. From the mid- 1970s to 1980s, subsidised consumption through oil wealth redistribution reduced the cost of children, and social conservatism kept married women out of the labour force, both of which promoted higher fertility. The early stages of fertility decline were mainly due to longer length of education of girls, rising female age at first marriage, e.g. 28 in urban Morocco and 29 in Libya, and entry into the labour force of young, single women. There is also a growing population sub-group of never-married young women. Collapsing oil prices and structural adjustment reduced household resources and became an effective fertility regulation factor. Girls born since the 1950s have not only been educated longer than their mothers, but also their fathers, which increases their authority. These factors, and women’s activism and civil and political lobbying for the reform of personal status now underway in a number of Arab countries, could all challenge the patriarchal system.

Keywords: fertility; education; marital status; women’s status; Middle East and North Africa region

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