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1On the threshold of the second stage of their demographic transition, Arab populations seem to be hesitant. Until the early 1980s, their rates of growth have risen constantly. Despite a steady decline in mortality, their birth rates have remained among the highest in the world (Table 1). Do recent changes give any solid grounds for supposing that a downward trend in fertility is now under way ?

2During the last decade, many studies have been devoted to Arab fertility, in particular within the framework of the World Fertility Survey (WFS). They have yielded some very interesting information on individual fertility variables. Two facts common to other developing regions were confirmed for the Arab world : that the urban fertility rate is lower than the rural one ; and that women’s education, particularly post-primary education, is a factor of fertility decline. These two variables, residence and educational status, were also seen to affect fertility through three proximate determinants : two which encourage lower fertility – contraception and later first marriage – and one which favours higher fertility – a reduction in the period of breastfeeding. The first two factors largely outweigh the latter (Farid, 1987).

Table 1

Natural population increase since 1950 in Arab countries and all developing countries (p. 1,000)

Table 1
Period Arab countries* All developing countries Birth rate Death rate Rate of increase Birth rate Death rate Rate of increase 1950-55 48.2 24.3 23.9 45.4 24.4 21.1 1960-65 47.9 20.4 27.5 42.8 19.7 23.1 1970-75 44.1 16.3 27.8 38.7 14.0 24.6 1980-85 42.5 12.4 30.1 31.2 11.0 20.2

Natural population increase since 1950 in Arab countries and all developing countries (p. 1,000)

* Members of the Arab League.
Source : UNO, 1986.

3These variables are very efficient for describing differences between sub-groups within one country, but appear to be inadequate to explain differences between countries (Farid, 1987), or certain long-term trends within a given country. Jordan is more urbanized than Morocco and the educational level of Jordanian women is higher, yet fertility is substantially higher in Jordan than in Morocco. The urban population of Algeria was larger in 1970 than in 1950 and much progress has been made in education, but the birth rate was higher than in 1950. To understand such contradictions, we must bear in mind that fertility is a social feature. Individuals must not only be described by certain personal characteristics, but their situation must be seen in a social context.

4In Moslem Arab societies, reproduction is restricted to married couples. In addition, perhaps more than in other societies, it represents the purpose of marriage : it justifies its conclusion and may be a condition for its survival. The present study will therefore focus on nuptiality, leaving aside the other intermediate variables which have been amply discussed elsewhere [1]. Whenever possible, the statistical relationships between marriage and the family, between fertility and woman’s role, will be established to try and pinpoint what is specific about the transition in Arab populations.

1 – Fertility at the dawn of transition ?

5In most Arab countries, fertility data are now collected and published [2]. Apart from the countries where birth registration is practically complete [3], these data are provided by ad hoc surveys (in particular, WFS).

6These surveys generally yield good estimates of current fertility (last five years, for instance), but they are less satisfactory for establishing past trends and inadequate for a reliable comparison of fertility declines in different countries. Similarly, answers to the retrospective questions included provide information on individual histories but do not throw light on a society’s history. They are therefore no substitute for administrative statistical operations (censuses, civil registration, employment data, etc.), which provide series of statistics that are the only satisfactory means for a detailed study of the changes which occur in a population and a society. These sources have been used as systematically as possible.

7Furthermore, although recent, these surveys are in some cases already out-of-date. The Arab populations are in the early stages of a period of fertility decline, which has not begun at exactly the same moment or exactly the same pace in all countries. It would therefore be risky to try and update information which may have been collected before the beginning of this decline.

8Various indices of birth and fertility [4] trends in Arab countries are presented in Tables 1 and 2 and Figures 1 and 2. They suggest the following remarks.

1.1 – Regional differences

9The Arab world does not offer a homogeneous picture ; on the contrary, it constitutes a patchwork of very different fertility levels. From Lebanon to North Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (national population), the total fertility rate (TFR) doubles (Table 2).

Figure 1

Map* of total fertility rates in Arab countries, 1980-1985

Figure 1

Map* of total fertility rates in Arab countries, 1980-1985

* Thanks are expressed to Hervé Le Bras, the author of the computer cartography programmes used in Figures 1, 7, 9 and 12, for kindly making them available.
(Source : Table 2)

10The map of fertility in Arab countries (Figure 1) shows fairly clear-cut regional differences : fertility is higher in the Arab peninsula and the Levant, and lower in North Africa, while the countries overlapping Black Africa are in an intermediate position.

11Two countries stand out from their neighbours : Lebanon, with a lower fertility than other countries in the area, and Libya, with a higher one.

12Fertility started to decline in Lebanon well before the rest of the Arab world (Courbage and Fargues, 1975). The only national fertility survey in this country was conducted in 1971 (Lebanese Association for Family Planning, 1971). It yielded a TFR of 4.57 children per woman, while in the same year this index reached 6 children per woman in Egypt and Tunisia. A recent survey of the population of Beirut shows that fertility has continued its downward trend during the civil war (Zurayk et al., 1985). Consequently, the UNO estimate seems acceptable (Table 2).

Table 2

Total fertility rates (TFR) and existence of legal family planning organizations (FP) in the countries of the Arab League, 1980-1985 (in increasing order of fertility)

Table 2
Countries TFR (children/woman) Existence of FP a) b) Yes No Lebanon 3.79 + Tunisia 4.8 4.92 + Egypt 5.23 + Morocco 5.7 6.44 + Algeria 6.1 6.97 + Somalia 6.09 + Sudan 6.58 + Kuwait * 6.5 6.15 – Iraq 6.66 + Qatar 6.76 – Democr. Yemen 6.87 + Mauritania 6.90 – Libya 7.17 – Syria 7.17 + Jordan 7.38 + Bahrain * 7.4 4.63 + Yemen Arab Rep. 7.9 6.76 + United Arab Emir. * 8.2 5.94 –

Total fertility rates (TFR) and existence of legal family planning organizations (FP) in the countries of the Arab League, 1980-1985 (in increasing order of fertility)

* Female nationals only.
Sources : a) Civil registration data (adjusted) or surveys, when available for 1980-1985. b) UN estimates (1986), to be considered (with caution) only when the above data are lacking.

13For Libya, on the other hand, the estimates proposed by the UN are not based on any field survey. They are too unreliable for this country’s apparent anomaly to be discussed here [5].

1.2 – Variations in time

14The data are not sufficient for a proper comparison of the recent past in these countries. However, it seems probable that around 1960 total fertility was of the order of 7 to 8 children per woman in all of them (except Lebanon). The present differences therefore presumably reflect changes which have set in during the last three decades.

15Civil registration makes it possible to follow birth trends for five countries (Figure 2), and general fertility for four of them (Table 3) ; these cover almost the whole range of present fertility levels.

Figure 2

Recent birth trends in five Arab countries

Figure 2

Recent birth trends in five Arab countries

Source : The author’s own calculations, based on the series of birth data provided by each country. For Syria, births in year t are estimated by summing : births reported in the legal period, year t + births reported late in year t + 1.

16In Tunisia and Egypt, the transition began early ; after Lebanon, they were the first two countries in the region in which fertility started to decline. They had been the pioneers of Arab family planning, the first programmes beginning in the 1960s. In a first stage, these programmes no doubt facilitated birth control for women who were already motivated to use it, rather than aroused new interest. This is what seems to have happened in Egypt. The quasi-stability of total fertility between 1937 (6.45) and 1960 (6.71) has been shown to be the result of two counterbalancing trends : a fertility rise for cohorts born before 1930, but a decline for subsequent cohorts, whose members started their reproductive lives towards 1950 (Fargues, 1986b). It was as though the official family planning programme adopted in 1964 met a demand which had been latent for ten or fifteen years.

17After following remarkably similar trends between 1960 and 1974, Egypt and Tunisia suddenly diverged. Whereas birth and fertility rates continued their regular downward trend in Tunisia, the birth (and presumably the fertility [6]) rate in Egypt started to rise after 1975. Several explanations may be put forward. The most plausible is perhaps that between the end of its fourth war with Israel (October 1973) and the signing of the Camp David treaty (September 1978), the Egyptian army was gradually demobilized. After years of separation, couples were reunited and made up on long-delayed births.

18The next in line is Algeria. With a birth rate initially higher than in the two countries discussed above, the first stage of fertility decline began ten or fifteen years later. Total fertility has dropped by three children over the last twenty years (Table 3), indicating that its rate of decline is now similar to that of Tunisia.

19In Kuwait and Syria, the fertility decline began even later, with an initial level of fertility exceeding that in Algeria [7].

2 – The marriage transition

2.1 – Between an old and a new equilibrium

20We have shown elsewhere (Fargues, 1987) how two institutions which combine to characterize Moslem marriage law, polygyny and repudiation, rely on two conditions not mentioned in the law : universal marriage and age differences between spouses at first marriage.

21Polygyny, that is, the right [8] for a man to contract another marriage while he is already married, and repudiation, that is, an easy means of divorce offered to the husband (generally in order to remarry), require an excess of females in the marriageable population. A simple diagram (Figure 3) shows how the association of two norms leads to an excess of single females on the marriage market. Leaving aside the differences in age structure between the sexes, the male and female population pyramids may then be superimposed, which is approximately the case at the ages when first marriages are generally contracted. If all females marry for the first time at age A1 and all males at age A2, the number of females who remain single, P1, is higher than the corresponding number of males, P2. The difference between these two populations represents the "surplus" S of young women who will leave their single status by marrying a man who is already married. This will either be a polygynous marriage, if he is married at the time, or a remarriage if he is divorced or widowed. The former is the more common case of remarriage, the combined effect of age differences between spouses at first marriage and excess male mortality meaning that men are rarely widowers at the ages when remarriage with a single female is possible. Out of 1,000 marriages, 14 are between widowers and spinsters in Algeria (1980) and 15 in Egypt (1977), compared with 30 and 34 respectively between divorced men and spinsters (Statistical Yearbooks of Algeria and Egypt).

Table 3

Changes in total fertility in countries for which data are available (children per woman)

Table 3
Year Tunisia Algeria GTFR Egypt GTFR Kuwait * GTFR GTFR MTFR 1960 6.71 1966 6.89 1967 6.11 7.56 1968 6.14 7.39 1969 6.31 7.40 1970 5.99 6.85 8.36 7.21 1971 5.72 6.51 1972 6.74 1973 6.27 1974 5.99 1975 5.81 6.06 5.52 7.08 1976 5.33 5.90 1977 5.83 6.03 7.41 1978 5.30 5.47 7.27 1979 5.29 5.53 7.05 1980 5.18 5.53 6.95 6.60 1981 4.95 5.42 6.39 1982 5.11 6.37 1983 4.91 6.33 6.71 1984 5.02 6.09 6.60 1985 4.95 6.47 1986 4.95 5.41

Changes in total fertility in countries for which data are available (children per woman)

GTFR : sum of age-specific general fertility rates.
MTFR : sum of marital fertility rates estimated by number of births in a given year divided by a weighted mean of marriages in previous years, calculated for Tunisia because of the length of the series available.
* Female nationals only.
Sources : Civil registration data, adjusted by the countries. For Algeria, 1986 : Enquête nationale algérienne sur la fécondité, CENEAP, June 1987, quoted by Kouaci (1988).
Figure 3

The unbalanced marriage market

Figure 3

The unbalanced marriage market

22Comparison of the different Arab countries (Table 4) shows that an increase in the age difference between spouses tends to go hand in hand with an increase in either the polygyny or the divorce rate, or both. This can only be taken as a tendency, as the indices used – the only ones we were able to calculate – are not perfect.

23These indices do not make it possible to assess the roles played respectively by polygyny and divorce, the two regulators of a marriage market characterized by a surplus of females. This would require comparison of the relative frequency of polygynous and divorced men among first husbands. Indeed, it is not the same thing to measure polygyny as the frequency of the polygynous state among all married men (see Table 4) or as the frequency of polygynous marriages among all marriages (which would be necessary for comparison). In the four countries where the calculations were possible (Table 4), the second index was roughly double the first. This simply means that, in about one case out of two, polygynous marriage is followed by divorce from the first wife, making the man monogamous again. In Kuwait, for instance, 36 % of divorces ended a polygynous marriage (1985). The mean proportion of polygynous men among all married men, 5.6 % for the twelve countries presented in Table 4, could correspond to a frequency of polygynous marriages of the order of 10-12 %. Divorce therefore plays a major role in many Arab societies, polygyny a more modest one.

Table 4

Nuptiality indicators around 1980

Table 4
Countries Age difference at first marriage between husband and wife * Polygyny Divorces per 100 marriages ** per 100 married men per 100 marriages Tunisia a) 4.1 years 0.5 0 14.8 Syria a) and b) 4.3 1.9 n.d. 7.0 Algeria a) 4.4 1.8 5.6 n.d. Morocco a) and b) 4.6 6.6 n.d. 25.7 Kuwait a) 4.8 7.0 11.9 29.5 Yemen b) 4.9 5.2 n.d. 25.3 Jordan a) and b) 5.2 3.8 n.d. 19.8 Lebanon a) 5.3 3.7 n.d. 8.0 Bahrain a) 5.3 5.4 11.1 26.8 Egypt a) and b) 5.9 3.8 6.5 20.8 Sudan b) 6.5 16.8 n.d. 17.4 Mauritania a) and b) 7.9 6.0 n.d. 45.3 Mean 5.3 5.6 – 21.9

Nuptiality indicators around 1980

* Difference in SMAM (singulate mean age at marriage calculated from the proportions single by age at a given date).
** This index is equal to either a) the ratio of divorces to marriages in a given year or b) the frequency of ever-married females aged 40-49 whose first marriage was dissolved by divorce.
The former underestimates the frequency of marriages that end in divorce, as the number of divorces is divided by a number of marriages larger than those actually at risk (interference of widowhood, increase in marriage cohorts).
Sources : a) Census or population survey and civil registration data, adjusted by the countries themselves or by the author. b) World Fertility Survey.

24These four phenomena – universal marriage, age difference between spouses, polygyny, divorce – have varied through time, although managing to maintain a fragile balance. Certain Arab societies seem to have experienced a major change during the 20th century : a plummeting divorce rate. In Algeria, for instance, it fell from 35 % of marriages at the beginning of the century to 10 % around 1960. Between 1945-49 and 1975-79, it dropped from 28 % to 20 % in Egypt and from 25 % to 16 % in Damascus, etc. (Fargues, 1987). This lower divorce rate implied that it had a lesser regulating effect on the marriage market. As the second regulator, polygyny, also decreased, the balance could only be maintained by a compensatory reduction in the mechanisms that produced a surplus of marriageable females.

25The first of these mechanisms apparently did not react to the drop in divorce and polygyny : no rise in the proportion of females never married has been observed [9]. It is the second mechanism which has adapted : age at first marriage has risen for women, thus steadily reducing the age difference between spouses during the last two or three decades. This later first marriage for females is confirmed to be general. It is observed in all the Arab countries in which adequate data exist for calculating it, and in Morocco, a detailed study showed that every province, urban as well as rural, was affected. Regional differences are, however, increasing : the highest level and the highest increase have been observed in Rabat, where mean age of women at first marriage rose from 21.2 years in 1971 to 25.2 years in 1982, while in the outlying provinces of Guelmin (urban) and Ouarzazate (rural), both the levels and increases were lowest (from 19.0 to 19.5 years and from 17.6 to 18.2 years respectively) (CERED, 1982).

26We are thus faced with a transitional situation, where a balance based on repudiation-remarriage and polygyny offset by a substantial age difference between spouses, gradually gives way to a new balance where equality in age at marriage becomes possible as inequality concerning divorce and remarriage disappears.

2.2 – Lower divorce rate and contradictory fertility trends

27In none of the Arab countries are there data which would permit the complex relations between fertility and polygyny to be analysed. It is consequently impossible to examine how a reduction in polygyny would affect fertility, and our study must focus on the other factor of change, divorce.

28An ambivalent relationship exists between divorce and childbearing. In Moslem Arab societies, divorce often ends an infertile union. Its traditionally high frequency can thus be regarded as a factor that favours high fertility : on the one hand, because it redistributes infertile, but not necessarily sterile, partners ; on the other, because the threat of repudiation may encourage a woman to have more children. From this point of view, a lower divorce rate would be expected to result in lower fertility. However, divorce also means that until a woman remarries she is not exposed to the risk of childbearing. From this point of view, a lower divorce rate would lead to higher fertility, by increasing the length of exposure to risk. In a first stage, the second effect seems to gain the upper hand. In Algeria, for instance, between 1906 and 1966, a significant correlation is found between a drop in the divorce rate and a rise in the birth rate (Figure 4). But these both occurred at the same time as other changes which could account for each of them separately, so that it is impossible to be certain to what extent the decline in divorce – that is, the stabilization of the marital family – has contributed to the fertility rise observed during the first part of the demographic transition in a variety of Arab countries.

Figure 4

Birth rate, divorce rate and proportion of females remaining single in Algeria, 1906 to 1986

Figure 4

Birth rate, divorce rate and proportion of females remaining single in Algeria, 1906 to 1986

Sources : 1) Birth rates : 1906-1956, Jean-Noël Biraben, "Essai d’estimation des naissances de la population algérienne depuis 1891", Population, 4, 1969. 1956 and after : corrected data provided by the Algerian Statistical Yearbooks. 2) Divorces : the author’s own calculations based on the corrected data provided by the Algerian Statistical Yearbooks. 3) Proportions remaining single : 1948, 1966 and 1977 Population Censuses ; 1984 Household Survey.

29In a second stage, however, the relationship between divorce and fertility tends to be reversed. Simple arithmetic shows that when there is less divorce, the age of women at first marriage rises ; thus a drop in the divorce rate contributes to delaying reproductive life. The Algerian example shows that when ages of women at first marriage begin to rise noticeably – in this case, around 1970 – the birth rate starts to drop. This suggests a twofold change in the marriage pattern, towards a more stable union and towards greater age equality between spouses, which leads first to an increase, then to a decrease, in fertility.

2.3 – Later marriage and lower fertility

30Fertility has fallen in all Arab countries in which it can be measured, except for Yemen. Most of the decrease observed so far can be attributed to later age at first marriage.

31In only three countries are data published which enable the most recent trends in general (Table 5) and marital (Table 7) fertility to be studied by age of women. They represent three different examples of the demographic transition. Their data have been compared for three age groups, under-25, 25-34 and 35+, which correspond respectively to the beginning of married life, peak fertility and the end of childbearing.

32a) Under-25. General fertility has declined more than at other ages, whereas marital fertility has risen at all ages. This means that the lower fertility among young women can be attributed entirely to later first marriage. Indeed, the proportion of single women between the ages of 20 and 24 years has more than doubled during the last fifteen years in Tunisia and Kuwait, and more than quadrupled in Algeria. As for the higher marital fertility, this clearly reflects selection : early marriage is a custom which persists only in the most "traditional" social groups, those least inclined to limit their family size. Comparing general fertility and marriage data for Egypt, Coale and Shorter (1982) reached similar conclusions : a drop in early marriage played a major role in that country’s fertility decline.

33b) 25-34. Both general and marital fertility have remained practically stable in the countries which are in the earlier (Kuwait) and the later (Tunisia) stages of the demographic transition. Algeria, in which the initial level was higher than in Tunisia, maintains its higher fertility despite a decline which has continued in this age group.

34Thus once they are married, and whatever their age at marriage, women maintain until the age of 35 the fertility which prevailed in times of early marriage.

Table 5

Age-specific general fertility trends in Tunisia, Algeria and Kuwait (rates p. 1,000)

Table 5
Year Age groups Total fertility rates 15-19 20-24 25-29 30-34 35-39 40-44 45-59 TUNISIA 1966 75 285 335 302 232 115 35 6.35 1970 43 261 299 269 202 95 29 5.99 1975 40 238 307 265 188 97 27 5.81 1980 36 207 296 250 170 77 23 5.29 1982 33 186 281 254 149 63 25 4.95 V – 2.1 – 4.7 – 1.7 – 1.4 – 4.5 – 2.3 – 0.5 – 0.089 ALGERIA 1970 114 338 388 355 282 152 42 8.36 1977 97 285 342 336 267 129 27 7.41 1984 27 224 322 293 227 104 20 6.09 V – 6.2 – 8.1 – 4.7 – 4.4 – 3.9 – 3.4 – 1.6 – 0.162 KUWAIT * 1970 121 339 375 315 225 59 16 7.21 1975 123 339 374 284 216 57 23 7.08 1980 89 291 367 263 225 59 25 6.58 1985 68 267 349 282 234 72 24 6.48 V – 3.9 – 5.3 – 1.7 – 2.4 + 0.7 + 0.8 + 0.5 – 0.054

Age-specific general fertility trends in Tunisia, Algeria and Kuwait (rates p. 1,000)

V : Mean annual variation : slope of the regression line calculated at each age on all available points (presented or not in the table).
* Female nationals only.
Source : Civil registration data (adjusted in Tunisia and Algeria).

35It has been found in various studies that patterns of family formation during the first years of marriage have not been greatly affected by the spread of contraception [10].

36In Tunisia, for instance, the mean interval between marriage and first birth does not vary with fertility determinants such as educational status and place of residence [11]. Whatever their level of lifetime fertility, women do not use contraception before the birth of their first child (Chekir, 1985). Contraception only affects births of fourth and higher orders (Baraket, 1985). Tunisian statistics permit marriage duration-specific fertility rates to be calculated for two periods with a four-year interval. During the first twelve years of marriage, the difference between the two periods is very slight : cumulated fertility at the twelfth wedding anniversary fell from 3.92 children per marriage in 1977-78 to 3.78 in 1981-82. After the twelfth anniversary, the difference becomes much more substantial : 2.30 children per marriage during the first against 1.79 children during the second period.

Table 6

Changes in the proportion of single females at ages 20-24 (p. 1,000) in Tunisia, Algeria and Kuwait

Table 6
TUNISIA ALGERIA KUWAIT * 1966 270 1966 112 1965 161 1975 361 1977 310 1975 320 1984 590 1984 534 1985 391

Changes in the proportion of single females at ages 20-24 (p. 1,000) in Tunisia, Algeria and Kuwait

* Nationals only.
Sources : Population censuses, except Algeria 1984 (Household Survey).
Table 7

Age-specific marital fertility trends in Tunisia, Algeria and Kuwait (rates p. 1,000)

Table 7
Year Age groups Total 20+ 15-19 20-24 25-29 30-34 35-39 40-44 45-59 TUNISIA 1966 405 401 378 327 252 131 43 7.66 1970 289 413 347 292 220 107 35 7.07 1975 385 447 369 289 205 108 32 7.25 1980 439 452 381 280 185 85 27 7.05 1982 450 435 373 288 162 70 29 6.78 V + 5.8 + 2.7 + 0.7 – 2.2 – 5.0 – 3.3 – 0.9 – 0.040 ALGERIA 1970 275 444 449 402 327 187 56 9.32 1977 431 439 410 374 300 153 36 8.56 1984 290 508 425 333 246 113 23 8.24 V + 1.1 + 4.6 – 1.7 – 4.9 – 5.8 – 5.3 – 2.4 – 0.077 KUWAIT * 1970 364 452 418 347 253 75 23 7.84 1975 438 516 444 319 242 68 30 8.09 1980 453 494 450 311 250 70 33 8.06 1985 384 456 438 326 269 86 31 8.03 V + 1.5 – 0.2 + 1.4 – 1.4 + 1.1 + 0.7 + 0.5 + 0.011

Age-specific marital fertility trends in Tunisia, Algeria and Kuwait (rates p. 1,000)

V : Mean annual variation (see Table 5).
* Female nationals only.
Source : Table 5 and proportions of women still married taken from the population censuses and interpolated.

37A closer study shows that differences exist at all marriage durations (Figure 5). Fertility during the first year of marriage was considerably higher during the second period. There may be two reasons that explain this change : a rise in pre-marital conceptions, and fewer marriages of younger girls, who are less fertile than their elders. On the other hand, between the third and the 25th wedding anniversary, fertility was consistently lower during the second period, progressing with marriage duration [12].

38In Egypt, the pattern is very similar to that in Tunisia. Later first marriage means that births postponed from the years before the 25th birthday are carried over into the next two age groups, 25-29 and 30-34, where general fertility rates have apparently remained relatively unchanged (Bucht and El-Badry, 1986).

39All these observations seem to suggest that contraception only intervenes once the family has reached its desired size, that is, in the next age group. In this case, is contraception as a means of birth spacing insignificant ? Are its effects merely limited, or even offset, by the fact that protracted breastfeeding, a well-known inhibitor of fertility, is gradually disappearing ? Examining the various proximate fertility determinants for two rural areas of Egypt, Beni Suef and Menoufia, Gadalla (1987) confirmed the results reported elsewhere (Page and Lesthaeghe, 1981). When women’s educational status improves, the gain due to more widespread contraception and the loss due to shorter breastfeeding practically cancel one another out. This leaves only the effect of age at marriage : the more education a woman has received, the later she marries.

40c) Over-35. Both general and marital fertility have fallen where the second stage of the demographic transition is already well under way (Tunisia and Algeria), but have tended to rise [13] in the country at the very beginning of this stage (Kuwait). The diffusion of contraception makes all the difference here, essentially contraception for stopping rather than spacing births.

Figure 5

Marriage duration-specific fertility in Tunisia, 1977-78 and 1981-82

Figure 5

Marriage duration-specific fertility in Tunisia, 1977-78 and 1981-82

Source : The author’s own calculations, based on data provided by the Tunisian Statistical Yearbooks.
Figure 6

Fertility by age at marriage after 15-19 years of unbroken marriage

Figure 6

Fertility by age at marriage after 15-19 years of unbroken marriage

Source : World Fertility Survey, in Farid, 1987.

41Age at marriage is a key variable for understanding differences in family size within a same country : lifetime fertility declines regularly as women marry later and later. However, it does not explain the differences observed between countries (Figure 6). This requires investigation into the specific determinants of fertility.

3 – A general family transition

42Later marriage of women is only one of the transformations experienced by the Arab family. It is closely related to two other changes, one that is well under way, women’s education ; the other just making its bow, the entrance of women on the labour market. In Arab society where a woman was traditionally cloistered at home – first her father’s, then her husband’s – these two changes cannot be without effect, if only because both take her away from home (Fargues, 1986a). How do these changes correlate with fertility ?

3.1 – The educational transition

43In developing countries, extension of schooling often goes hand in hand with a fertility decline. Several factors are involved :

44a) A purely demographic factor. Longer schooling contributes towards delaying first marriage, with the consequences we have discussed at length.

45b) An economic factor. Widespread schooling, in particular secondary schooling, is a sign of a transformation in the role of children. The balance between the gains from having children (in the short term, their labour, in the long term, "old age insurance") and the costs they entail (education, health, housing, food and clothing consumption), is reversed. Whereas in traditional rural society gains exceeded costs, the latter now tend to exceed the former, particularly in towns, where children start work later and the goods consumed by families are no longer produced at home.

46c) A psychological factor. Schooling projects girls into a world outside their family circle. It may give them occupational ambitions other than the traditional role of homemaker and mother.

47For all these reasons, a negative relation is expected between length of schooling and fertility level. This has, indeed, been observed within each of the Arab countries for which data are available (Table 8). However, this variable sheds little light on fertility differences between countries. An illiterate Tunisian woman gives birth to fewer children than a Jordanian woman with 4-6 years schooling. A Tunisian woman with 1-3 or 4-6 years schooling has fewer children than a Jordanian woman who has spent over 7 years at school, etc.

Table 8

Total fertility at the 25th wedding anniversary by educational status (children per woman) : World Fertility Survey

Table 8
Country Number of years the woman attended school 0 1-3 4-6 7 + Egypt 6.53 6.35 6.15 3.78 Jordan 9.73 9.27 7.70 6.19 Morocco 7.03 5.53 5.82 4.63 Syria 8.97 7.20 6.53 5.42 Tunisia 7.32 5.92 6.01 3.88

Total fertility at the 25th wedding anniversary by educational status (children per woman) : World Fertility Survey

Source : Farid, 1987.

48We selected girls’ secondary schooling rates as an index of the three factors listed above. The map of national variations in this rate (Figure 7) does not correspond to the one representing total fertility (Figure 1). Among the countries with the highest schooling rates (shown in relief on map 7 bis), we find countries with moderate fertility (in light plane on map 7 bis), Lebanon or Egypt, and very high fertility (in dark plane), Jordan, Kuwait or Bahrain.

49The link between schooling and fertility thus disappears when international comparisons are made.

50Perhaps our indices were ill-chosen. The present rate of schooling is more closely linked to economic factors than to demographic and psychological ones. The schooling rate at the time when today’s mothers attended school would no doubt be more satisfactory for measuring these two factors. However, this cannot be done since no data are available.

51Another possibility is that schooling influences fertility in two ways. We have seen why it contributes to lowering fertility. There are perhaps also reasons working in the opposite direction. The extension of schooling was a factor in differentiating the sexes before becoming a factor of equality ; this may have confirmed the Arab woman in her role of wife and mother. If the balance between these contradictory effects varies from one country to another, the expected relationship between schooling and fertility will disappear.

52We proceed to examine how illiteracy has been reduced over the years. Tunisia is a striking example of what can be termed a real "educational transition" (Figure 8).

53Members of cohorts born at the turn of the century in rural areas, and a little earlier in urban ones, were in a situation of equal ignorance : the illiteracy ratio was high, and the probability of never attending school was the same for both sexes. As school attendance increased, so did inequality between the sexes. It is only in the urban cohorts born around 1950 and the rural ones born around 1960 that this gap started to shrink, and equality between boys and girls – this time in a situation of universal literacy – was not re-established until the cohorts born after 1970 in towns (and is yet to come in the country).

Figure 7

Map of secondary schooling rates in Arab countries, 1980-85

Figure 7

Map of secondary schooling rates in Arab countries, 1980-85

Source : UNESCO : 1986 Yearbook
Figure 7

bis. – Total fertility rates (plane) and secondary schooling rates (relief) in Arab countries, 1980-85

Figure 7

bis. – Total fertility rates (plane) and secondary schooling rates (relief) in Arab countries, 1980-85

Figure 8

Illiteracy in Tunisia, 1984

Figure 8

Illiteracy in Tunisia, 1984

Source : Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat (1984). Vol. 3.

54The difference observed between illiteracy trends of males and females would be repeated, on a different scale, for all other levels of education. It can be taken to reflect mean educational inequalities between spouses. In Tunisia, these inequalities increased continuously throughout the first half of the 20th century. 1950 marks a turning point, the gap having been steadily reduced for cohorts born after this date. The time when these individuals began their reproductive lives, around 1965, coincides more or less with the first stages of the fertility decline in Tunisia.

55In that country, the cohorts with the greatest educational inequality between spouses – the "turning-point" cohorts – are those born shortly before 1950. In other Arab countries, they will no doubt differ : schooling did not spread at the same pace everywhere, and the inequality between sexes did not increase, and then decrease, simultaneously in all countries. This may partly account for the strong divergence observed between the schooling and fertility maps.

3.2 – Towards a transition in family roles ?

56Childbearing and employment may be in competition with one another, particularly in the lives of urban women. They compete for time, which could be devoted to either child-rearing or paid work, and space, as the place of work is not necessarily the home. More generally, there is competition between two aspirations, family fulfilment and social achievement. This competition is experienced worldwide, but the problem may be particularly acute in Arab societies : it is there that urban women’s employment rates are the lowest in the world (Fargues, 1986a).

57The map of women’s participation in the labour force [14] (Figure 9) is very close to representing the converse of their fertility map. Except in the two most rural countries (Mauritania and Sudan, which are also more strongly influenced by Black African traditions, where women’s economic role is more readily accepted), fertility is lower (light plane on Figure 9 bis) whenever women’s employment is higher (in relief on Figure 9 bis).

58Does this result lead us to an economic interpretation of fertility patterns, which the dissimilarities observed between the international variations in schooling and fertility seemed to contradict ? Indeed, the practical necessity of leaving work as women have additional children should be regarded as one of the costs of childbearing. Confirmation of this mechanism would require cohort studies of the points during a woman’s life course when she enters and leaves the labour force.

59The economic assumption would imply that the employment rate falls as the number of children rises. As this rise goes hand in hand with an increase in the woman’s age, women’s participation in the labour force would be expected to decrease with increasing age. The last two population censuses in Tunisia confirm this (Figure 10 I). But as age increases, other changes occur, in the composition of the female population by marital status. The proportions of married women, and later of widows and divorcees, also grow, while the proportions of spinsters decrease. Thus lower employment at higher ages could perhaps be explained by marital status rather than family size. When age-specific rates of women’s employment are examined for each marital status (Figure 11 – for 1975 only, the 1984 census publications do not contain the necessary tables), it is this explanation which is confirmed. A clear-cut difference is observed between married women, 85 % of whom are unemployed whatever their age, and irrespective of whether they live in Tunis or elsewhere, and divorced or single women, between 30 and 40 % of whom participate in the labour force at the national level, and between 40 and 60 % in Tunis.

Figure 9

Map of women’s employment rates at ages 15 and over, around 1980

Figure 9

Map of women’s employment rates at ages 15 and over, around 1980

Figure 9 bis

Map of fertility (plane) and women’s employment rates (relief)

Figure 9 bis

Map of fertility (plane) and women’s employment rates (relief)

Figure 10

Women’s employment rates in Tunisia : 1966, 1975 and 1984

Figure 10

Women’s employment rates in Tunisia : 1966, 1975 and 1984

Source : 1966, 1975 and 1984 population censuses.

60It is therefore marriage, not childbirth, which proves incompatible with women’s employment outside the home. The fact that many single or divorced women participate in the labour force shows that opposition does not stem from society, but from the conjugal family itself.

Figure 11

Women’s employment and marital status in Tunisia, 1975

Figure 11

Women’s employment and marital status in Tunisia, 1975

Source : Recensement général de la population et des logements, 1975.

61How is women’s employment changing ? We have seen that it decreases with age, at a given date (1975 or 1984). Does this mean that it decreases as age advances, when we consider the same cohort through time ? Between 1975 and 1984, age-specific women’s employment rates increased substantially in Tunisia. Reclassifying the data by cohort (Figure 10 II) yields two superposed curves, which means that there was neither gain nor loss. In other words, the number of women who left work in order to marry was offset by the number of new arrivals on the labour market [15]. The new generations, those who reached their 15th birthdays between 1975 and 1984, also participated in the labour force to a greater extent than their elders did at the same age. If their employment rate were not to decrease as they grow older, following the pattern of their elders, women’s role could, in the near future, be more profoundly modified than has been the case during recent years. The continuation of the demographic transition could well depend on the behaviour of these younger women as regards employment after marriage.

Figure 12

Map of rates of participation in the pilgrimage to Mecca, 1982-86

Figure 12

Map of rates of participation in the pilgrimage to Mecca, 1982-86

Source : see table presented in Annex.
Figure 12 bis

Map of fertility (plane) and rates of pilgrimage to Mecca (relief)

Figure 12 bis

Map of fertility (plane) and rates of pilgrimage to Mecca (relief)

62In Egypt, progress has been slower than in Tunisia. Between 1976 and 1987, women’s employment rates increased from 5.5 % to a mere 8.9 % [16]. This disparity between the two countries as regards women’s participation in the labour force can presumably be related to the disparity in their fertility trends.

63Does women’s employment have a direct influence on fertility, or simply represent a good indication of her position in the family and society ? Islam assigns a specific role to women, and the many regional variants of this religion no doubt contribute to the differences observed in their status. But this is a field where statistical data are extremely scarce : there are no figures of mosque attendance or surveys on religious practices. The Saudi Arabian Yearbook, however, publishes precious information on the number of pilgrims to Mecca by nationality. This provided us with a series of "pilgrimage rates" [17], whose international variations are remarkably close to those observed for fertility (Figure 12). However, this should not be taken to suggest that Islam constitutes a brake to fertility decline : the index is too rough for drawing conclusions of this kind. In addition to religious conviction, two other elements have considerable weight in the decision to make the pilgrimage : distance to Mecca [18] and standard of living. In this particular case, these two elements combine to favour certain countries, those nearest to Mecca also being those blessed with oil. For reasons which are not all related to the economy, it is these countries which are the most conservative as regards the family.


64In traditional Moslem Arab society, woman’s whole universe was confined to the family. Married to an older man, who alone was entitled to encounter the outside world, through school and then working life, a woman organized her daily life around her role as mother. Over the last quarter of a century, however, three of the forms of inequality between spouses have been successively challenged : difference in age, difference in education, and difference relating to the possibility of working outside the home. The first two inequalities have already practically disappeared, resulting in an appreciable fertility decline. The third will no doubt be the last to yield. It implies that the doors of society are wide-open, that the barriers that keep women within their family circle have given way. Such a fundamental change will be difficult to accept for some people. It is this difference in attitude which is reflected in the diversity of present fertility trends. The country in which fertility decline has made most headway, Tunisia, is the only one in which equal rights for men and women are recognized by the law. In certain Arab countries, religious movements are attempting to persuade governments to reconsider the rights granted to women. What the future holds in store for these movements might well affect the demographic transition in the years to come.


Urbanization, schooling, women’s employment and pilgrimage : some indicators in the countries of the arab league

tableau im24
Country Prop. of urban population (p. 100) Female rate of schooling (secondary) (p. 100) Female rate of employment 15 yrs and + (p. 100) Rate of partic. in pilgrimage to Mecca (p. 10 000) Algeria 43 39 5 27 Saudi Arabia 72 29 < 5 200 * Bahrain 82 79 17 188 Djibouti 77 – – 114 Egypt 46 46 17 44 U.A. Emirates 78 65 16 293 Iraq 71 37 16 29 Jordan 64 77 6 103 Kuwait 94 79 14 198 Lebanon 80 63 17 57 Libya 65 67 6 120 Morocco 45 17 25 18 Mauritania 35 6 24 13 Oman 9 19 < 5 205 Qatar 88 76 < 5 185 Somalia 34 12 – 16 Sudan 21 16 22 30 Syria 50 47 10 46 Tunisia 57 30 21 25 Yemen (Aden) 40 11 – 77 Yemen (Sanaa) 20 3 8 192

Urbanization, schooling, women’s employment and pilgrimage : some indicators in the countries of the arab league

* The actual value is in fact probably much higher, but was reduced for clarity of the relief map.
Sources : a) UN : The Prospects of World Urbanization, New York, 1987. b) UNESCO : 1986 Yearbook. c) National population censuses ; when lacking : ILO, 1986 Yearbook. d) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia : Statistical Yearbook (1983 to 1987) and national population censuses.


  • [*]
    Translated by Linda Sergent.
  • [**]
    See the chapter by P. Fargues entitled "Monde Arabe : la citadelle domestique" in Histoire de la famille, Vol. 2, eds A. Burguière and M. Ségalen, Le choc des modernités, Armand Colin, 1986.
  • [***]
    Alain Blum, "La transition démographique dans les républiques orientales d’URSS", Population, 2, 1987.
  • [****]
  • [1]
    A very interesting comparative study of countries covered in the World Fertility Survey is to be found in Farid, 1987. For Egypt, see Studies in African and Asian demography : CDC Annual Seminar, a series published by the Cairo Demographic Centre, which devotes several articles each year to fertility. For Tunisia, see the publications of the National Office for the Family and Population (ONFP).
  • [2]
    Only in Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, United Arab Emirates, Libya, Oman, Somalia and Democratic Yemen has no information on fertility yet been collected.
  • [3]
    Algeria and Tunisia in the Maghreb, Egypt, Kuwait and perhaps Syria in the Machrek.
  • [4]
    Depending on the published data and the calculations they permit, birth rates will be used in some cases, fertility rates in others. Birth rates are unsatisfactory for comparing fertility in countries with different sex-age structures : this is the case for the populations in the Gulf, except when national populations only are considered. They are however satisfactory for assessing period fertility trends in a given country, provided its age structure is fairly regular, which is the case for the countries considered in this paper.
  • [5]
    Does proximity – geographical, social, economic – to countries whose fertility is known serve as a basis for estimation ? The estimate proposed for the United Arab Emirates seems very low compared with that for its neighbours, Kuwait and Bahrain. We were able to verify that the UN estimate for Bahrain, a synthetic fertility index of 4.63 children per woman, was erroneous, being based on uncorrected civil registration data. However, the publication of the 1981 census data makes it possible to re-estimate this figure at 7.4 children per woman using Brass’s method.
  • [6]
    Data for Egypt are inadequate for obtaining a fertility trend ; the last available figure relates to 1976. Fertility rates may not have followed exactly the same pattern as birth rates, since emigration occurred in Egypt after the war of October 1973. This mainly concerned men who left to work in the Gulf and who generally left their wives behind. Returning to Egypt fairly frequently, they may have contributed to natality although they were no longer considered as residents : their children would be counted in the numerator of the crude birth rate, while they themselves would not appear in the denominator. If fertility were constant, this would result in an increase. However, the volume of emigration – less than 4 % of the total population – means that it cannot account for the 10 % rise in the birth rate. Furthermore, Tunisia has a comparable volume of emigration, but no accompanying rise in natality.
  • [7]
    The WFS had also shown that, despite its remarkably high level, fertility in certain Middle Eastern countries had already started to decline. In Jordan, for instance, total fertility was 7.70 children per woman two and a half years before the survey, but 8.94 ten years earlier, while in Syria, the drop was from 8.46 to 7.51 : in other words, a difference of one child in ten years for these two countries. Only in Yemen, with 8.51 children per woman, was there apparently no drop in fertility (Farid, 1987). The caution with which retrospective WFS estimates should be considered must, however, be borne in mind.
  • [8]
    Tunisia is the only Arab state whose personal status code has abolished this right, along with the right to divorce by repudiation.
  • [9]
    This can only be measured for the cohorts whose members have reached the end of the first marriage stage, taken to be the over-50s. It is therefore too early to assess the rise in the proportion of never-married which could follow the later first marriage observed among recent cohorts.
  • [10]
    A limited use of contraception for delaying childbirth seems characteristic of Arab countries. For all developing countries covered by the WFS, the ratio of prevalence among women who have reached the desired number of children to prevalence among women who have not is 1.5. In the Arab countries, this value is consistently higher : Egypt 3.4, Mauritania 6.0, Morocco 2.9, Sudan 2.4, Tunisia 1.8, Jordan 2.0 and Syria 2.9 (calculated by the author from WFS figures, Principal Reports).
  • [11]
    It ranges from 15.6 to 21.6 months, Tunis holding a middle position (Chekir, 1985).
  • [12]
    Tunisia presumably offers a good illustration of the situation in other Arab countries. Results from the WFS showed, for instance, that in large urban centres, fertility declined at all marriage durations except the first years (Farid, 1987).
  • [13]
    This trend, barely perceptible, may be due to longer marital life as a result of the lower divorce rate. The assumption requires verification.
  • [14]
    The index we have used, the employment rate for those aged 15 and over, is very unsatisfactory for women, especially in Arab countries (Zyrayk, 1985) ; however, we had no alternative option.
  • [15]
    Unless measurement of women’s employment improved between 1975 and 1984, as was apparently the case between 1966 and 1975.
  • [16]
    In the population aged 6 and over (census data).
  • [17]
    Defined as the mean annual number of pilgrims per 10,000 adults in 1982-86.
  • [18]
    Charter flights organized from all the Arab countries have reduced travel costs, which are not the major expense in the pilgrimage.

Moslem society has so far vigorously resisted fertility decline, largely as a result of the roles played by women’s status and family structure [**]. But, contrary to pessimistic forecasts, this situation has begun to change, first in the Eastern Republics of the Soviet Union, as has been shown recently in Population[***], and later in a certain number of other countries.
The time is, therefore, ripe to present a more general picture of these new trends. Philippe Fargues[****] does so in the present paper, basing his observations on the most recent data. The apparently disorderly pattern of these first changes is reminiscent of the situation in Ancient France, where birth control had already taken root in some regions, when in others it had yet to appear.


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