September 18, 2013

Algerian women in Blida, 30 miles from the capital, Algiers (Louafi Larbi/Reuters)

Most American media coverage of the Middle East paints a bleak picture of the status of women. There certainly is reason for pessimism given the perpetuation of honor killings and child marriages and, more generally, the exclusion of women from economic and political life. However, it’s not all gloomy.

I spoke by phone today with Nezha Hayat, who is one of Morocco’s leading businesswomen and one of the leading women in all of Africa. She has had success in her career working on capital markets in Spain, and in 1996 became the first woman board member of Société Générale Morocco. During the mid-1990s, she reformed the Casablanca Stock Exchange, for which she has been an administrator for 13 years. She is on the  Executive Board of Société Générale Morocco and recently founded Morocco’s Club of Women Corporate Directors to increase the number of women on boards of directors. She appears on numerous lists of the most powerful women in Africa and the most powerful Arab women.

She is in the United States promoting the cause of women in finance and on corporate boards. She acknowledges she was the first women in many posts. “I happen to be the first woman because I never thought I had less capacities than men,” she says. She also says her career benefited from working in “activities emerging in Morocco. . . . [such as] new capital markets.” She explains that if she had worked in established sectors where men dominate, “It would have taken more time.”

If she has one message it is that economic development and women’s rights are linked. “Morocco has chosen [a path of] economic development. It can’t be done without women.” Conversely, economic growth is essential for women to advance. “I have a conviction,” she says of Moroccan women. “She is free when she is financially independent. It means access to education, access to jobs and access to finance.”

Classical economists would agree with her analysis that behind all of this is economic growth. Morocco has kept 5 percent growth in gross domestic product for about 10 years despite economic convulsions in Europe and political upheaval in the Middle East. “I hope Morocco gets the growth to create 1 (million to) 2 million jobs by 2020,” she says. That’s what the country will need to absorb the young men and women heading out into the workforce.

This requires education to prepare young people for a 21st-century economy. She notes that Morocco has made a commitment to “re-adapt” education. She says that the goal is to make education efficient, to [prepare graduates] be able to find a job and to be more open with more languages taught.”

Morocco obviously took a very different path than other Muslim countries now convulsed with violence. In 2004, years before the Arab Spring, the king championed a revised family code that provides legal rights to women. Hayat says, “It helped a lot. But before that there have been women activists in civil society.”

Indeed, Hayat’s career arc also highlights that politics and government aren’t the whole ball of wax for women in Arab countries, but they can’t be discounted. Despite political  revolution, unrest, and violence throughout the region she tells me, “Business people communicate with one another and don’t wait for [resolution of political] issues. Of course, it would be easier with political stability.”

Outside Morocco, political stability is not in large supply in Northern Africa and the Middle East more generally. Hayat’s example suggests that progress can be made outside the governmental sphere — in civil society and in business. Those arenas at least offer the promise of progress while governments flounder.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.