Saturday, December 19, 2015

Gender Roles Part 2- Arab Women and their Struggle into the Workforce

This is part two of the following blog post:

In the Arab world, there are many women who believe that they do not need to work, and maybe that is true and they currently literally don't as they are financially stable in a household where there is a breadwinner who is providing for them. This post is not against women who do not work, for I am not here to judge or say that all women in the Arab world must work;  I am  looking at how our society tends to stereotype women beginning from the family to the male-dominated workforce.

In your typical Arab family (where there is no housemaid), chores are usually distributed according to gender roles after the kids are old enough to have chores other than picking up their toys and cleaning up their rooms. Girls are usually summoned into the kitchen beginning with chores such as setting the table then washing dishes and putting the washed dishes away when they are tall enough to reach the sink and cupboards. Then it is time for them to learn how to cook with the thought in mind that they will need to cook for their families. Boys are usually asked to take out the garbage, wash the car, clean the garage etc. In some households, the boys are not even expected to clean their rooms; either their mom or sisters clean it for them. It is not foreign to hear a mother telling her daughter : "Clean your brother's room", but it is odd to hear her asking her son : "Clean your sister's room". Many boys and men are not taught to iron, for it a woman always holding the iron on TV commercials, so they ask a wife, sister, mother, or daughter to do their ironing. They are also taught to depend on women for food, and thus many of them cannot do much more than preparing eggs, steaks, and salads. They are brought up to believe that the woman they will marry will carry out most of these chores, so they do not even bother to learn. This is why you will find some Arab bachelors living on their own as expatriates struggling to cope with basic household chores such as laundry. When an Arab women marries such a man who probably will not help around the house, this makes it more difficult for her to have a career when she does not have a partner in the household. I remember in one of my English classes, we were doing a reading on stay-home dads. I asked my Saudi female students if they would agree to work while their husbands where stay-home dads: few agreed, and the majority agreed that Saudi men are lazy and that he would not even do the housework when she went to work and she would have to come home and do that as well. Which is very interesting because some of them would be very happy to let their wives be the breadwinners as long as she did the housework as well, so in this case he would be practically useless living off a successful woman.

Moving into the education sector, the gender gap in schools is almost non-existent in some Arab countries, but there are some remnants of it such as: there are no P.E (physical education) classes for girls in Saudi public schools, and there are still household preparation classes in some Palestinian schools where girls are taught how to sew, cook, iron..etc. whilst boys do not attend such classes. As for higher education, in the previous Arab generation, families with limited income would prefer to send their sons to college rather than their daughters as their sons were expected to be the breadwinners in their new families in addition to paying a dowry and wedding expenses, whilst their daughters would marry a breadwinner and would not "need" a college degree. Also, it was common for Arab women to live with their families until they moved to their matrimonial household, so if there was not a college nearby, they were often not going to live elsewhere to study.  In colleges and vocational training institutes, there are more Arab men training for jobs such as nursing which is usually advertised as a female role globally, but we still find large gender gaps in areas such as early childhood education. Even when going through job advertisements for preschools and kindergartens, the word 'female' is used explicitly at times. As most higher education institutions in Saudi Arabia are gender segregated (medical schools are not) the difference in vocational education programmes is more obvious. In the male colleges there are usually a wider variety of programme choices than in the female colleges. In female colleges there are usually four choices: Information Technology support, Business (either accounting, business administration, or marketing and each college usually provides only one of these options), fashion design, and make-up and beauty. Having only four choices for females entering vocational training where there were 8537 female graduates from the Technical Vocational Training Colleges in Saudi Arabia in 2013 makes it a very competitive job market for these students. And that was before about another 13 female vocational colleges were opened having more or less the same programme choices for females. In universities in Palestine, there are always more females than males in the faculty of education. Most schools in Palestine have females teaching elementary students (even in male public schools) and hence there are little to no males in studying elementary education at universities. In Saudi Arabia, public school systems do not allow female teachers to teach in male schools, so it would be interesting to know whether most of these teachers have graduated from the faculty of their subject matter or from the faculty of education. When I was studying to be a teacher, a male friend told me : "Teaching is the best job for females." What that translated into is "You can get home early and prepare food for your family, you won't have to travel, and you can enjoy a summer vacation with your kids." Teaching is not quite that way as I have been teaching for about 4 years, leaving home at 6:00 or 7:00 AM and not returning until 3:00 or 4:00 PM with work to do for the rest of the evening. Most of the teachers I worked with were single or already had adult children they did not need to worry about. In the engineering faculties, you will usually find women studying architecture, but rarely civil or mechanical engineering. Women in the Arab world are expected to choose a study programme that allows them to have careers where they can indoors and not have to exert a high amount of physical energy, so that they can still do all the household work and child rearing without the help of their so-called "partner".

In many Arab households, if a woman is struggling to cope with her work and family demands, her "partner" will most likely expect her or even ask her to leave her job in order to take care of her house and family. Some Arab husbands will be supportive and begin doing his fair share of work in the house and caring for his children. If they are well-off with his job alone and he is the main bread-winner for the family, then her job is seen as unnecessary and if she cannot balance between work and home, she is expected to stay at home without her husband even thinking of offering a helping hand around the house which he should do if he is a "partner" of the household. It is ironic that in Arabic there is a phrase "Zalamat Al-dar" which translates into : "Man of the house", whilst most of the time he does not do anything in the house other than expecting his needs to be taken care of at all times. Arab men do not have to balance between their house and job, and their job may be taking most of their time, but his excuse is that he needs to put food on the table, so he must always put work first (for his family), thus his inability to balance is seen as a commitment to his family rather than the problem that it is. Because of difficult economic situations more Arab men are looking for wives with stable careers or a degree, but many of them are still not stepping up to their responsibilities at home. When the husband finds a job in another city or country, the whole family is expected to move, and if the woman is working, she is expected to leave her job, but the same is not done when a woman finds a job abroad. When a working couple living in different cities or countries are going to married, the woman is expected to leave her job to live with her husband and rarely the opposite happens. Single Arab woman are expected to live with their families, and are not usually encouraged to go abroad for work. When an single Arab man makes a job decision that requires him to go abroad, his family usually view it as a chance or opportunity even though he does not have the basic survival skills such as making his own bed and doing the laundry.

There have been massive changes in family views, education opportunities and opinion of working women in the Arab world. There seems to be now a void in the expectations a working Arab woman from society and their expectations of her. There are a few who may say that a woman's education and her financial independence have ruined her and gave her unreal expectations of herself and how her family and society are supposed to support her. As working Arab women, we have done our part, please do yours.

Wait for part 3