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American Political Science Review
Vol. 102, No. 1
February 2008
DOI: 10.1017/S0003055408080040
Oil, Islam, and Women
University of California, Los Angeles
omen 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.
n the Middle East, fewer women work outside the
home, and fewer hold positions in government,
than in any other region of the world. According
to most observers, this troubling anomaly is due to the
region’s Islamic traditions (e.g., Sharabi 1988; World
Bank 2004). Some even argue that the “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic world and the West has
been caused, in part, by the poor treatment of Muslim
women (Inglehart and Norris 2003a; Landes and
Landes 2001).
This paper suggests that women in the Middle East
are underrepresented in the workforce and in government because of oil—–not Islam. Oil and mineral
production can also explain the unusually low status
of women in many countries outside the Middle East,
including Azerbaijan, Botswana, Chile, Nigeria, and
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.1
Michael L. Ross is Associate Professor, UCLA Department of Political Science, Box 951472, Los Angeles, CA 90095 ([email protected].
I would like to thank Brian Min, Anoop Sarbahi, and Ani
Sarkissian for their outstanding research assistance; and Lisa
Blaydes, Elizabeth Carlson, Thad Dunning, Al Harberger, David
Laitin, Ed Leamer, Phil Levy, Jeff Lewis, Ellen Lust-Okar, Irfan
Nooruddin, Dan Posner, Michael Twomey, Erik Wibbels, and three
anonymous reviewers for their ideas and criticisms. The many suggestions of Elisabeth Hermann Frederiksen were especially valuable.
I wrote this paper while funded by a generous grant from the Open
Society Institute. It was fruitfully dissected by students and faculty
who participated in seminars at Princeton University, UC Berkeley,
UCLA, and the University of Washington.
1 Here and elsewhere, “oil” refers to both oil and natural gas; and
“work force” and “labor force” refer to men and women who work
in non-agricultural jobs that are outside the home and inside the
formal sector, and who are nationals of the specified country.
This argument challenges a common belief about
economic development: that growth promotes gender equality (e.g., Inglehart and Norris 2003b; Lerner
1958). Development institutions like the World Bank
often echo this theme, and it is widely accepted among
development experts (World Bank 2001). This paper instead suggests that different types of economic
growth have different consequences for gender relations: when growth encourages women to join the formal labor market, it ultimately brings about greater
gender equality; when growth is based on oil and mineral extraction, it discourages women from entering the
labor force and tends to exaggerate gender inequalities.
It also casts new light on the “resource curse.” Oil
and mineral production has previously been tied to
slow economic growth (Sachs and Warner 1995), authoritarian rule (Ross 2001a), and civil war (Collier
and Hoeffler 2004). This paper suggests that oil extraction has even broader consequences than previously
recognized: it not only affects a country’s government
and economy but also its core social structures.
Finally, it has important policy implications. The
United States and Europe consume most of the world’s
oil exports, and hence have strong effects on the
economies of oil-exporting states. One of these effects is to reduce economic opportunities for women;
another is to reduce their political influence. A third
effect may be to foster Islamic fundamentalism: a recent study of 18 countries found that when Muslim
women had fewer economic opportunities, they were
more likely to support fundamentalist Islam (Blaydes
and Linzer 2006). Changes in Western energy policies
could strongly affect these outcomes.
Social theorists have long claimed that women can
achieve social and political emancipation by working
outside the home (e.g., Engels 1978 (1884)). Many
recent studies support this claim. Female labor force
participation helps raise female school enrollment and
literacy: when families know that girls will be able
to earn their own income—–and contribute to household income—–they tend to invest more in their health
and education (Michael 1985). Female labor force participation is also linked to lower fertility rates: when
Oil, Islam, and Women
February 2008
women earn their own incomes, they gain an incentive
to delay the onset of parenthood, and hence bear fewer
children over their lifetimes (Brewster and Rindfuss
Female labor force participation also affects gender
relations more broadly—–particularly when women
work in factory jobs that bring them into contact with
each other, allow them to share information, and lower
the barriers to collective action. Studies of female
garment workers in Bangladesh—–who typically come
from poor rural areas, and are hired when they are
young and single—–have found that factory work helps
them gain self-confidence, develop social networks,
learn to negotiate with men, and learn about health and
contraception (Amin et al. 1998; Kabeer and Mahmud
2004). Other studies show that when women have an
independent source of income, they tend to gain more
influence within the family (Beegle, Frankenberg, and
Thomas 2001; Iverson and Rosenbluth 2006). They
also develop more egalitarian beliefs about gender
relations (Thornton, Alwin, and Camburn 1983).
Finally, the entry of women into the labor force tends
to boost female political influence. There seem to be
many reasons for this effect. According to studies in
the United States, when women enter the workforce
they become more likely to engage in conversations
that promote an interest in politics, to join informal
networks that facilitate collective action and help them
develop their civic skills, and perversely, to experience
gender discrimination in a manner that motivates them
politically (Sapiro 1983; Schlozman, Burns, and Verba
Studies of female political participation in developing states are broadly consistent with these findings.
Indian women are more likely to participate in politics
and elect female representatives when they have established an identity outside the household, often through
work (Chhibber 2003). In many countries where
women work in low-wage manufacturing—–including
Guatemala, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia,
Tunisia and Morocco—–they have formed organizations to protect their interests; often these organizations lobby for broader reforms in women’s rights
(Moghadam 1999).
These and other studies imply that joining the labor
force can boost female political influence through at
least three channels: at an individual level, by affecting women’s political views and identities; at a social
level, by increasing the density of women in the labor
force and hence the likelihood they will form politically
salient networks; and at an economic level, by boosting their economic importance and hence forcing the
government to take their interests into account.
In theory, women could gain greater access to labor
markets by persuading governments to adopt and enforce laws that cause employers to end discrimination,
to facilitate maternity leave, to allow women to own
property, and to let them travel without the consent
of a male relative. But in practice, when women are
excluded from labor markets, they typically have little political influence—–which leaves governments with
little incentive to act on their behalf.
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. In 1890, women held over half of the
jobs in the U.S. textiles industry (Smuts 1959). Today
more than 80% of all textile and garment workers in
the world are women (World Bank 2001).2
There are several reasons why these industries are
conduits for new female workers:
Women commonly face special barriers to entering the
labor market. Labor markets are typically segregated
by gender: men work in some occupations and women,
in others, even when their qualifications are similar
(Anker 1997). Occupational segregation tends to reduce both the number of jobs available to women, and
their wages (Horton 1999).
To illustrate the ways that export-oriented manufacturing can draw women into the labor force, and
boost their political influence, consider the case of
r they do not need workers with great physical
strength: men have no natural advantage in these
r the jobs require little training and few specialized
skills, which makes it easier for women to intermittently leave their jobs to care for their families;
r and making cloth and clothing is often perceived as
traditional women’s work.
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). This seems to occur
r Export-oriented industries can grow quickly since
they are selling into a global market. Hence they
can produce large numbers of new jobs, which also
means women can be hired without displacing men.
r Factories that produce goods for export are more
likely to be owned or managed by foreign companies
that—–for legal or cultural reasons—–are less prone to
discriminate against women in hiring;
r Export-oriented firms produce goods for highlycompetitive global markets, and wages constitute a
large fraction of their production costs; this places
them under exceptional pressure to seek out labor at
the lowest cost. Since female wages are lower than
male wages, export-oriented firms often target them
for recruitment.
2 I use the term “textile” to refer to all types of yarns, fabrics, and
American Political Science Review
South Korea. At the turn of the twentieth century,
Korea had a highly patriarchal culture: females were
not given their own names, girls were separated from
boys beginning at age 6, and women were not allowed
to enter the streets of Seoul during the daytime. In 1930,
90% of Korean women were illiterate (Park 1990).
When South Korea industrialized in the 1960s,
women began to take jobs in factories that produced
goods for export—–including textiles, garments, plastics, electronic goods, shoes, and dishware. Their low
wages—–less than half of male wages—–made them attractive to employers, and helped fuel Korea’s economic boom: by 1975, female-dominated industries
produced 70% of South Korea’s export earnings (Park
1993). The growth of the export sector, in turn, boosted
the female share of the labor force—–which rose by 50%
between 1960 and 1980 (World Bank 2005a).
Although there were women’s organizations in
Korea in the 1950s and 1960s, they were often government sponsored and focused on charity work, consumer protection, and offering classes for housewives
and brides-to-be (Yoon 2003). Beginning in the 1970s,
however, women working in export industries began
to mobilize for both labor rights and gender equality.
Labor unrest in the textiles sector was especially acute
(Amsden 1989).
In 1987, female activists took advantage of South
Korea’s democratic opening to found the Korean
Women’s Associations United (KWAU); unlike earlier women’s organizations, it worked for improved
labor conditions and women’s rights, and took a more
confrontational stance towards the government (Moon
2002). More traditional women’s groups also began to
focus on women’s rights (Palley 1990).
In the mid-1990s, women’s organizations started to
push for—–and gain—–greater female representation at
all levels of government: the number of female representatives in the national assembly rose from 8 in 1992
to 1996 to 16 in 2000 to 2004; female membership on
policy-setting government committees increased from
8.5% in 1996 to 17.6% in 2001; and the percentage of
female judges rose from 3.9% in 1985 to 8.5% in 2001
(Yoon 2003).
The lobbying strength of the women’s movement,
and the growing number of women in government,
has led to a series of landmark reforms. These included the Gender Equality Employment Act (1987),
revisions to the family laws (1989), the Mother-Child
Welfare Act (1989), the Framework Act on Women’s
Development (1995), and a bill stipulating that political
parties must set aside for women at least 30% of their
national constituency seats (2000) (Park 1993; Yoon
By drawing women into the work force, exportoriented manufacturing helped South Korean women
gain a foothold in government and opened the door to
the reform of patriarchal institutions.
Vol. 102, No. 1
Disease”, which is characterized by a rise in the real exchange rate, and a transformation of the economy away
from the “traded sector” (agriculture and manufacturing) and towards the “nontraded sector” (construction
and services) (Corden and Neary 1982). Classic models of the Dutch Disease, however, do not consider
whether these changes might affect men and women
differently (Frederiksen 2007). Once we extend the
model to better capture the conditions that women
face in most low-income countries, we can see how a
boom in oil production will squeeze women out of the
labor force.
In the classic Dutch Disease model, a boom in oil
production will crowd out the production of other
traded goods, via two mechanisms.3 First, the influx
of foreign currency—–that is, the new wealth generated
by oil sales—–will raise the real exchange rate, making it
cheaper for locals to import tradable goods from other
countries than to buy them from domestic producers.
Second, the new wealth will increase the demand for
non-tradable goods—–things that cannot be imported,
like construction and retail services—–drawing labor
away from the tradable goods sector and hence raising
its production costs. The net result is that an oil boom
causes a decline in the traded goods sector (agriculture
and manufacturing) but an expansion in the non-traded
sector (construction and retail).
How does this affect women? According to standard models of female labor supply, two key factors
influence the number of women in the labor market
(Mammen and Paxson 2000). One is the prevailing
female wage: as it rises, women are more inclined to
enter the market for wage labor and “substitute” work
for leisure. The other is “female unearned income,”
which means the income that accrues to a woman’s
household, but that she does not earn directly: as her
family’s income rises, she becomes less inclined to
join the labor market and provide a second income.
A women’s “reservation wage” is the wage at which
she finds it worthwhile to join the labor force. If her
unearned income is high—–for example, if her husband
has a sizable income—–then her reservation wage will
also be high, and only a well-paying job will lure her
into the work force. If her unearned income is low, her
reservation wage will also be low, meaning she will be
willing to join the labor force even if the prevailing
female wage is low.
In a classic Dutch Disease model, the impact of an oil
boom on female labor force participation is ambiguous:
it will increase the prevailing wage (which is assumed to
be the same for men and women), and this in turn will
increase a women’s incentive to join the work force. But
there is also a countervailing force: higher wages will
boost household income, which will raise a women’s
reservation wage and reduce her incentive to join the
labor force. The classic model does not tell us which
effect will prevail.
Now consider what happens if we modify the Dutch
Disease model to reflect gender-based segregation in
When countries discover oil, their new wealth tends
to produce an economic condition called the “Dutch
3 Frederiksen (2007) develops a more complete and explicit Dutch
Disease model with gender segregation and an elastic female labor
supply. This simpler model draws on parts of the Frederiksen model.
Oil, Islam, and Women
the labor force—–that is, the fact that many kinds of
jobs are closed to women. Dutch Disease models show
that oil booms lead to a shift away from the traded
sector to the nontraded sector. In many developing
countries, women are largely employed in the traded
sector, in low-wage jobs in export-oriented factories
and agriculture; and they are excluded from many
parts of the nontraded sector, such as construction
and retail, since these jobs typically entail heavy labor, or contact with men outside the family (Anker
1997). If we assume that women can only work in
the traded sector, and men in the nontraded sector, how will an oil boom affect female labor force
When there is gender segregation in the labor market, men and women have different wages. Since men in
this model work in the non-traded sector, its expansion
will boost the demand for male labor and cause male
wages to rise; since women cannot enter the nontraded
sector, male wages will rise even more than they would
otherwise. Since women work in the traded sector,
the sector’s decline will reduce the demand for female
labor, and hence, the prevailing female wage.
An oil boom should also reduce the supply of female labor by raising womens’ unearned income, and
hence, their reservation wage. This occurs through two
mechanisms: through higher male wages (caused by
the expansion of the non-traded sector, which employs
only men), and through higher government transfers
to households (caused by the effect of booming oil
exports on government revenues).5 The decline in the
demand for female labor, plus the decline in the supply
of female labor, will reduce the number of women in
the workforce.
Now consider what occurs if we loosen some key
assumptions. The model assumes an open economy.
But sometimes oil-rich governments use tariffs and
subsidie …
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