Book Abstract

Islamic states struggle to modernize and, in some cases, democratize, the issue of women's rights continues to elicit strong feelings and controversy and there are many paradoxes surrounding the idea of Islamic Feminism. Why are conservative Islamists winning elections? Why are educated and professional Muslim women still choosing to wear the veil? Many of the populist revolutions we are witnessing in the Middle East focus on the legitimate grievances of marginalized groups and populations. This book highlights the voices of cultural elites in the oil-rich State of Kuwait, where a modern suffrage movement culminated in giving women their political rights in 2005. The result is a new brand of feminism, one born out of a traditional and culturally conservative climate, which gives Islamic Feminists in Kuwait the edge they need to soar to new heights.

Nominated for Book of the Year awards by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, and the National Women’s Studies Association.

Reviewed by Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociology of Islam, Contemporary Islam, the Journal of Church and State, the Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, Middle East Media and Book Reviews Online and listed in the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures Online.

Used for course instruction at Kuwait International Law School, University of Durham, Baylor University, Yale University, and the University of Chicago, among others.

The Economics of Cultural Change and Female Employment in Saudi Arabia

Book Abstract

Women’s mass entry into the labor force has been one of the great advances of the twentieth century. Yet the practice of a woman working outside the home in Saudi Arabia went from illicit to licit practically overnight when the Saudi government issued its transformational economic program Vision 2030 in 2016. Employers responded by institutionalizing investments to move women into employee and managerial roles. High school and university graduates raised their expectations for a career after graduation. Malls with women-only floors emptied, and the roads filled with women behind the wheel.

This book started out as an investigation into why college-educated females remained such a low percentage of the labor force in Saudi Arabia by 2016. Here, for the first time ever, we tell the story as seen through the lives of students entering the labor market that culture, its norms, and 

normative change are the best explanation. We see that culture matters for the labor market preference formation of entrants as they choose a major and embark on the job search process and that culture is not a static but rather a dynamic phenomenon in its impact on economic outcomes. Cultural norms also matter in determining the price at which employers will pay to conform to local norms and the price point at which both job seekers and employers start to challenge the status quo. The remarkable social transformation that has occurred in Saudi Arabia displays the power of cultural norms for women and work and the paradoxical consequences that follow when those norms change.

The data for this book is from a four-year original data collection project, from 2016 to 2020, and include over 180 longitudinal interviews with a cohort of 60 male and female undergraduates about their experiences in transitioning from school to work, survey data of 600 undergraduates and 200 university alumni on their career investments while in school and employment outcomes two years later, and interviews and surveys with employers including almost 100 business elites, business owners, and human resource managers about their efforts to hire and recruit Saudi youth— particularly women — into new roles. The interviews and surveys were complemented by months of fieldwork conducted over several trips around the country during this period, which included university and employer observational visits, informal interviews, focus groups, and related events such as career fairs and even personal invitations to homes, weddings, and job interviews.

The main argument of the book is that understanding cultural norms and the processes of cultural change in an economy are essential to understanding economic shifts. Here are some of the main findings of the book:

Understanding the economics of cultural change in Saudi Arabia’s twenty-first-century drive to increase female employment extends our understanding of the societal and economic impact of cultural change, when the price point of discrimination is reached and surpassed. This study informs future research on discrimination and integration, and how to set a “new normal” in once-homogeneous contexts.

In progress; book-length manuscript under contract with Princeton University Press.