Across the globe, women have been sidelined when it comes to finance and technology, and the Middle East is no exception. Luckily, things are changing, and the internet is providing new opportunities for learning and inclusion.
Blockchain offers a blank slate in the Middle East: a new industry where the rules have not yet been fully defined and where women can get involved and make it their own when given the right tools.
It is no secret that in areas of the Middle East, women have far less financial autonomy in society than men. A 2020 McKinsey report on “women at work” in the Middle East found high inequalities persist, most notably in legal protection and financial inclusion with a significant number of women in the region remaining unbanked.
The distribution of knowledge is more egalitarian nowadays, as anyone with access to the internet can learn to code or trade. Decentralized finance (DeFi) can help to level the playing field when it comes to women’s finances, removing the need for intermediaries and reliance on centralized institutions that often fail to safeguard their money.
Brilliant initiatives such as All Girls Code are shaking up the status quo in the region by encouraging women to code and study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects at an university. Elsewhere, associations such as Arab Women In Code are leading the charge in giving women more skills. In my father’s home country of Lebanon, this institution was involved in hosting the first all-female hackathon in 2015, and similar events have continued to gain momentum since then.
Where permitted, women in the Middle East stand to benefit disproportionately from access to cryptocurrency. The decentralized and anonymous nature of crypto transactions means that women will not be discriminated against based on their gender and can take control of their money without the involvement of intermediaries.
Digital currencies have been making inroads in the Middle East, with Dubai’s first crypto listing occurring this year, as well as the Bank of Israel’s trial of a digital shekel. In developing markets, crypto offers citizens a way to control their money without having to rely on the relative hardship or prosperity of their national economy.
In many areas, women are unequal in both the eyes of society and the law, which is compounded by overt prejudices in everyday life. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) findings show women make up the majority of workers in healthcare and social services sectors in the Middle East and often play the role of homemakers and caregivers.
COVID-19, particularly in emerging markets, has compounded an already existing gender imbalance, with women far more likely to experience economic fallout from the crisis due to their economic status and professions. It is imbalances like this that reflect the necessity of alternative revenue streams and educational pathways for women.
In war-torn areas such as Lebanon, there is a huge diaspora among women and men alike, as citizens have had to flee economic crisis and potential starvation. For those citizens who still remain, crypto has become a way to work around a defunct financial system, whose local currency value plummeted more than 80% during an economic crisis that reached its apex in March 2020.
Citizens have increasingly turned to crypto to transfer their money, while using encrypted chat rooms on Telegram to leverage transactions. Here, we see an example of the freedom that cryptocurrencies can bring in times of hardship, providing a safe and anonymous way for people to take control of their finances when state institutions fail to do so. Women who are marginalized in the Middle East should note these freedoms and leverage digital currencies when possible and useful.
It's also important to note that blockchain is more than DeFi; it has the ability to reshape supply chains and redefine how countries do business, as well as being a force for social good. The work that Cardano is doing in Ethiopia to help the government track student academic performance in local schools is just one of many examples of the amazing ways blockchain’s tracking and data storage capacities can be used for social good.
Looking at these examples, women in the Middle East should take note of all the industries that can stand to benefit from blockchain and how they can make difference.
Weaker governments and population exodus driven by warfare or instability often encourage more widespread adoption of emerging technologies such as blockchain and crypto, as citizens look outside of the state to manage their money and other affairs.
In the same vein, digital currencies offer a means for women across the Middle East to take control of their finances in times of hardship. With a more long-term view, women in the region should take note of the opportunities that the emerging blockchain sphere holds. Female blockchain developers are in high demand worldwide.
Non-commodity based economies with strong higher education rates, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, offer ripe opportunities for educated women to enter this exciting sector. When armed with the right education and resources, women in the Middle East can benefit from and contribute to blockchain, which in turn will help to increase their individual economic and social freedom.