Thursday, June 19, 2008

Petroleum, Patriarchy and Marx

The latest issue of APSR has a fascinating article by Michael Ross entitled "Oil, Islam, and Women". Ross argues that oil production, not Islam, explains why gender inequality is greater in the Middle East. Here is the abstract:

Women have made less progress toward gender equality in the Middle East than in any other region. Many observers claim this is due to the region's Islamic traditions. I suggest that oil, not Islam, is at fault; and that oil production also explains why women lag behind in many other countries. Oil production reduces the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence. As a result, oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions. I support this argument with global data on oil production, female work patterns, and female political representation, and by comparing oil-rich Algeria to oil-poor Morocco and Tunisia. This argument has implications for the study of the Middle East, Islamic culture, and the resource curse.

Ross's conclusions would be, I contend, supported by the Marxist interpretation of human history that I advanced here (and discussed here). The superstructural differences that exist between Western democratic countries and oil-rich Muslim countries (like the status of women) are ultimately explained by what occurs at the level of the productive forces present in these different societies. So the rights of women in largely oil-producing countries would be roughly comparable, and the rights of women in countries that developed low-wage export-oriented industries (in textiles, garments, and agricultural goods) should be comparable.

Of course one would need to do an extensive empirical comparison to see if my hunch is correct. But I think Ross's study suggests that there may be a good deal of empirical truth to what I take to be the two central tenets of historical materialism. Namely: (1) the superstructure supervenes naturally on the economic structure; and (2) the relations of production supervene naturally on the forces of production.

These two Marxist theses could help us understand why we find the different patterns of gender inequality that exist in the world, and what action would be needed to do something about improving the treatment of women.