What the Arab Spring has done for women’s equality, in one chart

October 25, 2012

(MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

We've been looking throughout the day at new data from the World Economic Forum on gender equality throughout the world. We found that the U.S. is finally catching up and in some places exceeding Europe on gender equality and explored the surprising story of French women's struggle for equality.

What do the data tell us about the Arab-majority states of the Middle East, where nearly two years of protests and revolutions have brought sweeping social change? Here's the WEF's data for the last three years. Each country is charted by a number that measures gender equality over several variables, with 0 signifying the least possible equality for women and 1.0 signifying absolute equality. 

I don't say this much, but that's a pretty boring chart. Look at all those straight lines! With a couple of exceptions, gender equality in the Arab world appears little changed since the revolutionary movements began around the start of 2011. Overall, the region's cumulative score increased by 1.2 percent over the past two years, implying that women's equality has improved by 1.2 percent. Better than nothing, but not revolutionary.

Most of the change occurred in only three of the 10 countries listed above. Yemen, marked by low-level conflict, saw the greatest change, with a remarkable 8.9 percent improvement since 2010 -- though it is still the lowest-ranked country in the world for women's equality. Qatar, the tiny oil-rich kingdom that backed rebel movements but seen little internal dissent of its own, rose by 3.3 percent. In both cases, the rise seems to be due to advances in women's access to economic participation -- in other words, their ability to work, on equal terms -- rather than political rights, which remain near zero. The largest drop, perhaps unsurprisingly, was in Syria, by 5.3 percent. The country's civil war has coincided with reduced political participation for women and sharply curtailed access to the country's shattered economy.

Other than these three countries, gender equality seems mostly level, including in revolutionary Egypt, protest-racked Bahrain, and rapidly changing Morocco. The WEF report doesn't provide numbers for Iraq or Tunisia.

The data raise an oft-repeated question of the last two years: has the Arab Spring been a net positive for women? On the one hand, democratization would seem to implicitly empower women, who make up more than half of any given country's population. On the other, conservative Islamist governments are rising in the region's politics. It's also entirely possible, of course, that changes for better or worse are still trickling through these societies and not yet reflected in the data. We'll keep watching.

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Max Fisher · October 25, 2012