Monday, May 28, 2007

In Algeria, h-i-j-a-b spells success

According to this Herald Tribune report, dressing for success means wearing the hijab in Algeria, where women are making economic and political gains unknown elsewhere in the Arab world. The raw numbers indeed impress: “Women make up 70 percent of Algeria's lawyers and 60 percent of its judges. Women dominate medicine. Increasingly, women contribute more to household income than men. Sixty percent of university students are women, university researchers say.” Women are even “starting to drive buses and taxicabs, pump gas and wait on tables.” Nonetheless, these women represent only 20% of the work force (though that “is more than twice their share a generation ago”). And even though men still control the political power, as women move into state positions some see a trend that may result in their control of public administration. While these changes seem surprising at first glance, a closer look shows that they were not entirely unforeseeable: “University studies are no longer viewed as a credible route toward a career or economic well-being, so men may well opt out and try to find work or to simply leave the country,” thus leaving the path open to women. Significantly then, this “quiet revolution”, as the IHT bills it, does not seem to have required any noisy agitation or provocation of Islamist ire: “women are more religious than in previous generations, and also more modern.” That is, they wear the hijab, but also work, “often alongside men, once considered taboo. Sociologists and many working women say that by adopting religion and wearing the Islamic head covering called the hijab, women here have in effect freed themselves from moral judgments and restrictions imposed by men.” In a climate of decreased faith in government, expressed not only at the polls but in protests, riots and even bombings, some sociologists consider that “women may have emerged as Algeria's most potent force for social change, with their presence in the bureaucracy and on the street having a potentially moderating and modernizing influence on society.” As a professor of sociology at the University of Algiers put it: "Women, and the women's movement, could be leading us to modernity."

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