Oil, Islam, and Women


Ross, Michael L. 2008. “Oil, Islam, and Women.” American Political Science Review 102 (01). doi:10.1017/S0003055408080040.

Author: Michael L. Ross


Women have made less progress toward gender equality in the Middle East than in any other region. Many observers claim this is due to the region’s Islamic traditions. I suggest that oil, not Islam, is at fault; and that oil production also explains why women lag behind in many other countries. Oil production reduces the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence. As a result, oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions. I support this argument with global data on oil production, female work patterns, and female political representation, and by comparing oil-rich Algeria to oil-poor Morocco and Tunisia. This argument has implications for the study of the Middle East, Islamic culture, and the resource curse.



“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.” (107)

“When labor markets are segregated by gender, and women have little political power, how can they enter the work force in large numbers? Since the early days of the industrial revolution, the answer has often come from the development of low-wage export-oriented industries, especially in textiles, garments, and processed agricultural goods… Factories are even more likely to employ women when they export their products. Several studies show that even within a single industry, export-oriented firms employ women at a higher rate than do similar firms that produce goods for domestic markets (Başlevent and Onaran 2004; Ozler 2000).” (108)

“Women have better political representation in countries that have little or no oil, in five the seven categories of states: high and low income, Middle East, Islamic, and all states. This is striking since oil-rich countries have higher incomes than the oil-poor states within each category of stages, which would suggest higher, not lower, female representation.” (114)

“Islam has no statistically significant effect on any of the dependent variables in the fully specified models. This implies that some measures of female status in the Middle East can be partly explained by the region’s oil wealth, but not by its Islamic culture or traditions. This is not true of all dimensions of female status: measures of female education—–including adult literacy, primary school enrollment and the ratio between enrolled girls and boys—–are negatively correlated with Islam, and seem to be unaffected by Oil Rents.” (115)

“The gains in the oil-rich states have been slower than the gains in oil-poor states: between 1995 and 2002, oil-poor states (< $100 per capita in oil rents) had a 5% increase in the number of female representatives, whereas oil-rich states (> $100 per capita in oil rents) had only a 2.9% increase.” (116)

“Although they [Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia] are otherwise similar [French colonies, independence at same time, quick suffrage, Muslim], they have different levels of oil wealth… they also have different levels of female political representation… Morocco and Tunisia now have the two highest rates of female labor force participation in the world.” (118-9)

“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.” (120)

“… Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, and Mexico. The first three countries are probably exceptions to the general pattern because of reasons implied by the model: since women already had a large presence in the nontraded sector (thanks to the size and diversification of these economies), rising oil exports did not crowd them out of the labor market. The two Central Asian states were strongly affected by many years of Soviet rule, which promoted the role of women through administrative fiat; this may have inoculated them against oil-induced patriarchy.” (121)

Topics: Economies, Extractive Industries, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Gender Equality/Inequality, Livelihoods, Political Economies, Political Participation, Religion, Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, MENA, Asia, Middle East

Year: 2008

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