Tahrir Square Cairo early 2011
The path to prosperity worked for Japan when that country industrialized. It is working for many Asian nations today. Starting over 200 years ago it worked during the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the United States. It is a path closed to Islamic countries that insist on segregating men and women (and keeping women at home). This suggests that the promised move toward democracy in Arab countries will not solve the problem of general poverty, and will lead only to continued misery and resentment. (Except for those corrupt Arabs with their hands on oil money.) The resentment will be directed against the West, which gets blamed for everything wrong in the Arab world.
Historically, the path to prosperity starts with cheap stuff made to simple specifications using female labor recruited from the countryside. Reaching back in time, when water and steam powered textile looms were introduced, first in Britain and later in the United States, it was women from the countryside who did the hard work at the looms. In Massachusetts during the 19th century, recruiting women to work in the textile factories were easy and inexpensive. They lived in company sponsored boarding houses, 4 in each room, 2 in each bed. Textile factories in Britain had similar dormitory-like housing near the factories. Often, in both Britain and the United States, the women employed were less than 18 years old.
More recently, the cheap stuff, at least at low Asian wages, is things like toys, textiles, athletic shoes, and inexpensive clothing. The female labor is drawn from the countryside, and managed – and arguably exploited – by men with training in Western ways of doing business. In many cases, like their Massachusetts and British predecessors, the companies provide cheap, dormitory-like housing near the factory their women employees. John Gunther's 1939 book “Inside Asia” describes exactly this path, which led Japan to produce cheaper clothing than could be produced in India, which had much cheaper labor. Japan then sold its clothing in India, after paying shipping costs and tariffs. According to Gunther, at that same time Japan sold high quality pens in New York City.
China started on the same path during the 1980’s. It was easy to find references to the massive factories in China during that period that employed thousands of women and housed them in factory dormitories. This practice continues today. It is not fair by current Western standards, but it still part of the path to prosperity.
Reading about these factory and living arrangements led me to pull out my copy of “Inside Asia”, in which the descriptions of textile factories of Japan in the 1930s were difficult to distinguish from those in China in the 1980s. In China such factories with their dormitories and their reliance on cheap female labor from the countryside still exist. (The one difference, at least based on “Inside Asia”, is that the Japanese treated their female employees better.)
Whatever one thinks about this use of female labor, it seems to be a recurring pattern at the beginning of industrialization, and one that lasts for a few decades at most. Today it is easy to find articles online and in newspapers about how China is pricing itself out of cheap toys, textiles and athletic shoes, with these jobs going to countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. Meanwhile, back China some former textile and shoe makers now produce $1500 leather jackets and computer chips.
In Britain and the United States, women are now software engineers, lawyers, company owners, or managers of divisions of companies. Women in Japan and some in China are moving in that same direction. I do not argue that women do not suffer from discrimination in Britain and the United States, or Japan and China, just that the pattern of economic advancement started in remarkably similar ways. Also, I do not argue that the cost of social unrest as Western textile workers fought for unionization and living wages were not large.
Women textile workers were striking as early as 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts. A review of the history of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union in the United States shows how hard the struggle was. The ILGWU carried out major strikes over working conditions and wages in New York in 1909. Women strikers died during these confrontations. One could hope that the struggle would be less confrontational today. A slim hope I admit. Still, women textile workers were striking over wages in Cambodia in late 2010 without violence. This is good sign, at least for Cambodia.
Now consider education among Arab women compared to their competitors. In New England women had a higher literacy rate by 1830 than women in most Arab countries have today. In Japan, even before 1900, women were educated to a degree not seen in Arab countries today. Because of this education, they could learn to do the textile work quickly.
Even if allowed an education, would Arab countries permit women to work in factories? Would they be allowed to work outside the house without the direct supervision of their own families, meaning the men in their own family? Would young women in the countryside be allowed to move to cities where the work is? And even if they were allowed to work and move, would they eventually be allowed to organize for better working conditions?
Of course such employment, movement and organization of women would not be allowed in any Arab country. What is seen in the most liberal Arab countries is the provision of advanced education of young men, who then have no way to turn this education into productive endeavors. Instead, the men hope for jobs with the government. Oman and Tunisia, often seen as relatively liberal, are two Arab countries that have invested in educational opportunities for men, and yet show few signs of anything the West would call modernization. Denying women any roll in a modern economy is certainly part of the problem.
The Islamic repression of women will not allow the known path to general prosperity in Arab countries. And the rest of the world should expect nothing approaching wealth to be created for those without direct access to oil money in any Arab country. So, the “Arab problem” will be with us for our entire lifetimes. If Arab Muslim culture does not change – and how can it? - this problem may exist as long as the Arab states exist.