When discussing the status of women in the workplace, more often than not our attention is drawn to hardships faced within the work environment itself – sexual harassment, inequality in pay, and limited opportunities for advancement. These same challenges are also equally –if not more present– for women in the Middle East.
The Middle Eastern culture presents an additional barrier for many career-driven women often overlooked by outsiders. This barrier not only severely restricts the opportunities available to her within the workplace, but also her ability to even enter the workplace in the first place.
The demographics of the Middle East are slowly changing, most notably in the Sham. The age of marriage is rising. While number of marriages remain high— as it is an expected and well emphasized aspect of the culture— the number of women who are delaying marriage until a later age is also on a slow rise.
The percent of secondary and university-educated women in the region also continues to rise. Although “encouraged” may be a strong word, the presence of women at the university level is becoming more and more acceptable in society.
The entire youth population across the board continues to become increasingly westernized with the rise of globalization and social media. This led to shifts in general attitudes towards the role of women in society among Middle Eastern millennials—a shift that remains absent in the generations before them.
These shifts encourage an increased population of young, single, and well-educated women throughout the region to pursue careers in a wide variety of fields.
In any other context these demographic shifts would be viewed as a positive change, as a signal of improvement in the status and empowerment of women in these societies. The inherent nature of Middle Eastern culture, however, presents certain barriers that demonstrate the futility of these improvements as they meet rigid societal standards for the behavior of women.
The Middle East is a compilation of status-based, honor-shame societies. The position and reputation of each family rests entirely on the status of the women. Honor and shame are transferrable; the honor or shame of the women determines the honor or shame of the family..
This unique and “dangerous” power women hold these societies is controlled by the implementation of social expectations and restrictions to control women. Society must ensure that their honor, and by extension the honor of their families, remains intact.
This familial honor is primarily determined by things like virginity, purity, and chastity. Methods used to control these women include practices like limited mingling with men, early marriage, and social expectations regarding public behavior, appropriate dress, cleanliness, demeanor and speech, and overall interaction with men.
One additional practice designed to protect the honor of women in these societies is the practice of a woman living with her family until marriage, and then living with the husband or the husband’s family directly after. This practice is extremely limiting for the rising subset of single, career-driven women, and can ultimately prohibit them from pursuing their desired career path.
In today’s world, it is extremely difficult to pursue a career from the confines of a home. Higher-level careers require education, internships, relocation, and travel—all are culturally and morally inappropriate for single women in these societies.
These factors mean that if women want to pursue a career, they must risk giving up their personal status and security, as well as the status and security of their entire family.
The familial concern of reputation is not the only barrier for Middle Eastern women to overcome. Attempting to pursue a career as a single woman in this region presents a plethora of additional problems as she navigates the judgements of other members of society. Any woman who challenges cultural norms is viewed as morally suspicious.
If these women attempt to migrate for work as unmarried women, they face trouble and discrimination—even in tasks as simple as renting apartments.
I witnessed this first hand during my brief time living in Jordan. I had a young, single Jordanian friend attempting to rent an apartment. The landlords refused her numerous times out of fear that she was morally suspect and would behave inappropriately.
Societies where honor is the most valuable currency endanger young women, and jeopardize their security. Women are often faced with the hard decision of choosing between the possibility of a career and the well-being of themselves and their family.
So what are the options? Many of these women leave the Middle East together. This is a plausible solution for those who hail from the upper echelons of the socioeconomic ladder with desires to obtain a university education abroad. It allows them to pursue careers in climates that are better adjusted to the idea of independent women living alone.
I personally know many women fortunate enough to afford this track. Their ultimate plan is to pursue their desired careers, and return home married—free to continue on their career path without facing stigmas associated with being a single woman.
For those not lucky enough to have the financial means to pursue this avenue, or do not want to face the additional difficulties of a Middle Easterner alone in the West, the outlook is immensely grimmer. While not impossible, societal attitudes towards the value of honor and the status of women often requires a woman to give up everything for the sake of pursuing a career.
The full potential of this rising generation of single, well-educated women to better their lives and impact their professional fields remains crippled by societal expectations for women, all this being done in the name of honor.