People all across the MENA region take pride in their culture and the values they have inherited from older generations. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Arab society is the close-knit family ties that shape every aspect of people’s lives – these have fostered a society that is extremely community-oriented.

But for women in MENA, this dynamic is much more complex. Being part of a conservative and collective culture means that in many cases women are expected to adhere to the outdated stereotype of the traditional Arabian woman; merely adapting to fit the changing roles they are meant to assume as they grow older.

As a child she is expected to be obedient and well-behaved - she learns that she should be soft-spoken around people, and that she should always dress conservatively. She also learns about taboos such as mixing with males in the workplace or in public. These restrictions guide her through life, all the way to adulthood until she becomes old enough to fulfill her ultimate goal in life: starting a family.

This is especially true in the case of older generations who grew up at a time when it was more difficult to challenge the status-quo, which exists to this day in more rural and conservative societies in which traditions are extremely revered. As a result, many have embraced this way of life with ironclad determination to offer their families the best life possible. Ultimately, her household becomes her kingdom and her influence in matters of the home is unparalleled.

 Women in MENA face the greatest barriers to entering the workplace
Image: World Bank

But the women of younger generations want more. They have grown frustrated with the double standards that prevail. They watch the men in their lives live differently; they make their own life decisions and have the freedoms these women yearn for. Men can travel alone, stay out late, excel professionally—and today's women believe it is time that they have the same opportunities.

And so now more than ever, the region's younger women are fighting traditional notions with the help of an older generation who want their daughters to enjoy freedoms that were not afforded to them at that age.

Her influence is moving beyond the household

As it currently stands, despite the fact that women already form a majority of university students across several countries in MENA, the fact remains that this region has one of the highest labour market gender gaps. However, this reality is slowly changing.

In fact, perhaps the most important change currently taking place in the region is the increased participation of women in the workforce. While their lives used to revolve solely around their duties as daughters, wives, and mothers, younger generations are now determined to add 'businesswoman' to the list. They realise that they are living in an era of change and progression, and they are starting to see women in places they never have before; at the checkout counter when they shop, waiting at restaurants, selling clothes and accessories on Instagram. They see people talk about powerful Arab women in leadership positions, and they want to be part of this change.

That said, this shift is sure to bring about changes that will affect the fabric of society. As it currently stands almost 70% of women in MENA rely on the men in their lives financially - this often puts limitations on women’s independence and compromises their freedom to make decisions especially if it goes against societal norms. But with more women taking ownership of their financial situation, MENA is sure to witness a rise in the role and influence of women across different domains.

Not only that, but with more women entering the workforce and the subsequent emancipation of females, MENA is bound to witness a decrease in women’s fertility rates. Ultimately, as more women choose to marry later in life and focus on their careers, many will have fewer children as a result, and the population growth in MENA is sure to slow down even further.

Social media as a catalyst for change

All these changes are happening in an era of unprecedented connectivity, which is playing a crucial role in further catalyzing the reach and influence of women in the MENA region. Currently, almost 70% of women in MENA have access to the internet, and 86% are on social media with that figure nearing 100% in more urbanised regions like the Gulf Cooperation Council.

With that in mind, women all across MENA have eagerly taken advantage of the proliferation of social media platforms to reveal a side of themselves that was previously kept under wraps. Social media platforms have become women’s safe havens with many considering their social media accounts as reflections of who they are and what they want to convey to those around them. All of a sudden, those who previously felt invisible now have the tools and more importantly the audience with whom they can share their opinions and outlooks.

Social media has also exposed women to ways of life previously unknown to them. They see other women living out their dreams, and this gives them the courage to demand new and exciting adventures that were once out of their reach.

The journey is not over yet

However, despite all the progress currently being made, perhaps some of the most pressing changes still need to happen at a legislative level. Changes have been slow to materialise so far, but women in MENA have already led inspiring movements and have fought against outdated laws in Morocco and Jordan, called for women’s rights to vote in Kuwait and to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Even though some of these changes are long overdue, they represent significant milestones for women in the region. However, there remains a lot to be done to elevate the role of females in society, and the younger generations are up for the challenge - fighting relentlessly to bring about real change.