Middle Eastern Women and the Invisible Economy

By Richard A. Lobban | Go to book overview

7
Women, Work, and the Informal Economy in Rural Egypt

Barbara K. Larson

Since the 1970s, there has been a growing awareness that women's contributions to the economy are frequently overlooked, underestimated, and undervalued. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East and North Africa, where women's official participation in the economy is one of the lowest in the world: At the start of the 1990s, women's share in the labor force for the Middle East and North Africa was 27 percent, and only 16 percent of North African women and 21 percent of Middle Eastern women were considered economically active.1 The corresponding figure for Egypt in 1986 is 5.9 percent.2 The reasons for this official blindness are several: women's work is frequently concentrated in the domestic or family sphere, where tasks such as housework and child care go unrecognized and unpaid; women's productive activities in agriculture, crafts, and services are often performed as part of a family enterprise where women's contributions are not separately recognized or remunerated. Even when women engage in independent income-producing activities, such activities are frequently part of the informal or "invisible" economy, where they may escape official tallying and recognition, or they are seen as an extension of women's "domestic responsibilities" and hence are not culturally recognized as "work." As others in this book show, even a casual glance finds many women actively engaged in productive work. Lack of recognition of their efforts distorts the picture of the local, regional, and national economy.

What kinds of work, then, are open to women? How does women's economic participation compare with that of men? How does it articulate with both the formal and informal sectors of the economy? This chapter

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