MIDDLE EAST POPULATION, children-to-mother ratio
MIDDLE EAST POPULATION
(From an article by Ann Misch, Nov/Dec World*Watch magazine)
Caught between the potential disapproval of in-laws and a lack of
birth control, a rural Yemeni woman conceives for the eighth time.
The birth of a son nine months later is greeted with a chorus of
approval, in spite of the mother's flagging health and the deepening
hardship of feeding one more child in the hardscrabble countryside.
This scene, repeated millions of times over in the Middle East and
North Africa, has led to population growth rates that are stretching
food, water, and land resources beyond their limits. The region
already holds 340 million people and is growing by 3% annually,
meaning that the population will double in about 23 years. The high
growth rates can hardly be afforded much longer, but population
control here is as politically awkward as it is rapidly becoming
Average number of children per woman (total fertility rate)
in the Middle East and North Africa, 1990: (Source: Population
Morocco - 4.8 Egypt - 4.7 Saudi Arabia - 7.2
Algeria - 6.1 Sudan - 6.4 Iraq - 7.3
Tunsia - 4.1 Yemen - 7.4 Iran - 6.3
Libya - 5.5 Oman - 7.2 Afghanistan - 7.1
Turkey - 3.6 Cyprus - 2.4 Lebanon - 3.7
Jordan - 5.9 Kuwait - 3.7 Syria - 6.8
Some countries in the region, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Oman
chief among them, already depend heavily on imports to feed their
burgeoning populations. It's not likely the situation will improve.
The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.
C., calculates that nations in the region that are not now major
food exporters will become the largest Third World importers of
basic staples by 2000.
Food shortages are not the only trouble prospect for the Middle
East. Water is also in short supply. Syria and Iraq bristled last
January over the Turkish government's temporary divergence of the
Euphrates River to the reservoir of the huge new Ataturk dam. Close
by, Israel finds itself competing with Palestinians over aquifers
underling the West Bank. The stakes can only rise as Soviet
immigration to Israel continues and the Arab populations of Gaza and
the West Bank grow rapidly.
Although government policies have contributed to the region's
population problem, the underlying cause of the Middle East's high
growth rate may well be the low status of women. In the Islamic
world, opportunities for women are strictly limited by "purdah", the
custom of keeping women out of the public eye and often confined to
the home. As a result, the only sure way for a woman to gain status
is through the birth of a child--preferably a son.
In countries where women have more opportunities for education and
employment, they tend to have fewer children. This is true in
Western nations, and it holds for the Middle Eastern and North
African countries that have loosened Islamic restrictions on women.
There, educated women stay in school longer, marry and begin
childbirth later, and hence have fewer children. They are more
likely to marry men who are also educated and better informed about
Educated couples also tend to move to the city from their rural
homes, away from the influence of parents and in-laws. These couples
appear more likely to practice family planning, rather than resign
themselves to "God's will." In a survey in Jordan, 60% of illiterate
husbands "did not believe in" contraceptives, compared to 15% of
husbands educated past secondary school.
In Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, and Tunisia, later marriage has led to
declines in the average number of children per woman, and,
therefore, to a slowdown in population growth. Tunisia, though,
provides a good example of long-lasting influence of the
Between 1966 and 1984, the number of single Tunsian women aged 20 to
24 more than doubled, while fertility dropped. Today, in addition to
marrying later, about 42% of Tunsian women practice contraception.
Credit for that achievement goes to the country's family planning
program, which was begun in the mid-1960s. However, in keeping with
social tradition that frowns on using contraceptives right after
marriage, young Tunsisian wives tend to give birth to a quick
succession of children. Contraception is practiced only after the
desired family size has been reached --four children on average.
Besides unbudging social attitudes, a Muslim fundamentalist
resurgence from Afghanistan to Morocco threatens what small gains
women have made. According to Sophia Mohsen, an Egyptian lawyer and
anthropologist who teaches at the State University of New York in
Binghamton, fundamentalists in several countries are turning to
family laws as targets and symbols for their movement to instate
the Koran as the ultimate source of all legislation.
Family laws are easy targets, says Mohsen, because revisions can be
made without constitutional change, and because "women do not form a
political constituency" ready to react to an assault on its rights.
Fundamentalists have so far chalked up victories in local elections
in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, and have gained seats in the
Jordanian and Egyptian parliaments. In Egypt they have eroded
women's rights by challenging the Islamic authenticity of family
laws. A law that required men to inform their wives in writing of
divorce, and which stipulated that the marital home go to the woman
as long as she had custody of the children, was overturned by a high
court in 1985. Fundamentalists claimed the law was "un-Islamic."
Since then, new legislation has returned rights to "adequate
housing" (although not necessarily to the marital residence) to
women, in the event of a divorce. But the same law has limited a
woman's automatic right to divorce should her husband take a second
wife, according to Judith Tucker, an associate professor of
Middle-East studies at Georgetown Univ. in Washington, D.C. Also,
an Egyptian man may still legally divorce his wife without her
In the Sudan, Omar al-Bashir's Islamic fundamentalist government has
fired women lawyers, removed women from their government jobs, and
broken up the businesses of female street vendors. The government is
also considering limiting women's entry to universities, especially
in the fields of medicine, science, agriculture, and engineering.
The idea echoes one proposed by the leader of Algeria's rising
fundamentalist party, Abbassi Madani, who suggests barring women
from jobs. A tight job market could turn the band into a popular
Should an Islamic revival sweep the Middle East, many women would
find themselves with few choices other than a life spent at home
bearing children. Pushing women back into the home to carry out the
narrow duties of motherhood will only exacerbate the region's real
dilemma -- rising populations drawing more deeply from a limited