Social Scientist Says Oil Makes Women Second-Class Citizens

The problem with being a liberal some days is that there are just so many things to oppose: the patriarchy, obviously; global warming; big business; the War in Iraq; the War on Drugs; oil companies; pharmaceutical companies; health insurance companies; zoos (but not when they do conservation work); circuses all the time; industrial farming... the list just goes on and on. It's probably even harder when you're an academic trying to write an important piece on why women in the Middle East often have it so bad because there's oil and patriarchy and big business and Islam, which we all know is a religion of peace and, really, not that much more patriarchal than some religions (cough, Catholicism, cough) that many Americans are brought up in anyway and so Islam can't really be the problem because it's not all bad in all places and stuff. And, so, Michael Ross of UCLA has a better idea: the problems facing women in the Middle East are all due to oil. It's like, so many birds and one stone — not that liberals kill birds with stones because that's just mean. But, is he right?

Ross's argument, as encapsulated by Lynn Harris at Broadsheet, is that an oil-based economy ends up reducing the opportunities for women to participate in an export-oriented economy (neatly ignoring, by the way, that oil is an export product) which has historically been the best way by which women can achieve a level of "equality." In effect, Ross argues that women working with other women in textile factories and other labor-intensive industrial jobs that can be moved by a company on a whim, often begin to recognize that they ought to have both rights and a voice in the political system. Not so in an oil-based economy, commonly found in Middle East.

Since Ross' piece is 50 pages, I'll summarize my objections here:

  • If you can name a lot of other countries in the Middle East where women are in the same economic and cultural situation as the women in oil-rich countries, and Ross can and does, then it's probably not the oil at the root of it.
  • It's not just women in oil-producing countries that lack employment opportunities, it's men too. The fact that unemployment overall is so rampant is a problem for women breaking in, certainly, but it's also a long-term stability problem that everyone recognizes because there are relatively high education levels, a plethora of low-skilled jobs (for which many oil-rich Middle Eastern countries import foreign workers), a dearth of high-skilled jobs and a ton of money spent to improve people's quality of life which makes them realize how crappy everything else is and gives them little else to do but agitate.
  • There are serious religious and cultural mores that would lead these countries to strongly encourage women to stay in traditional roles. To ignore those is to put some serious academic blinders on to make a larger point.
  • While textiles is a traditional way for women to initially gain entry into the work force, it is so because textile work is traditionally very low-cost, price-inelastic, labor-intensive work. On the other hand, in many tertiary economies (like the United States), non-tradeable work — or work that can't be outsourced — is quite often done by women. See: education, health care, legal services, many call centers, retail work, etc. This is the very work that Ross argues women in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries won't or can't get. In wealthy economies like the oil-rich ones in the Middle East, it boggles the mind that the "solution" to the patriarchy would be to have the women take the most menial work known the world over instead of participate in those parts of the economy in which the rest of us find ourselves participating every day.

To summarize: I don't buy that the economies of these countries are the root of all evil experienced by the women in them. Ross has some good points about the history of women's participation in the economy and the ways in which working outside the home encourages further civic participation, but, in the end, he falls victim to missing the forest for the trees. Maybe women in the Middle East have it bad because most people don't have it that great, and because given scarce resources — jobs, money, prestige, opportunity — they're taught, like the rest of us even on this side of the ocean, not to be too grabby.

Oil, Islam, and Women [UCLA Department of Political Science]
"Petroleum perpetuates patriarchy" [Broadsheet at Salon.com]