How 50 million women are transforming the Muslim world

Saadia Zahidi’s latest book charts a cultural revolution that is seeing a female-led transformation of the workplace

Saadia Zahidi, Head of Education, Gender and Work, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum speaking during the Session: Jobs and the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the Annual Meeting 2017 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 19, 2017.
Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sandra Blaser
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Amal is chief happiness officer at Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid's innovation office in Dubai. Hawazen, based in Riyadh, works for a pharmaceutical company. In Rawalpindi, Saadia is a manager at McDonald's. In Cairo, Amira created an online magazine, while Mozah runs a catering business.

To economist Saadia Zahidi, they are all part of a cultural revolution that has taken 50 million women into the labour forces of 30 primarily Muslim countries. Yet while interviewing them for her book, 50 Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World, Zahidi found that most of them had never considered their work as part of a wider picture.

“I was surprised that lots of them were not aware of this shift that is happening; they thought that they were exceptions,” she says, speaking from her office at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, where she is head of education, gender and work. “Talking to them, there was a sense of pride that they were part of this larger movement.”

Growing up in Pakistan, Zahidi was always aware that some women went out to work. Several of her relatives worked in "socially acceptable" female professions such as teaching and medicine.

But if one moment inspired her to pursue a different kind of career, it was when, aged 10, she visited her father at work on a gas field and encountered a female field engineer living and working alongside the men, wearing a hard hat and boots with her shalwar kameez. The woman's name was Nazia and, as Zahidi writes in the first few pages of the book, "once seen she could never be unseen".

The story serves as a kind of parable for the 50 million, who are educating their daughters and inspiring women around them. The Muslim world has now reached a tipping point, Zahidi argues, with women beginning to expect not just education but careers, contributing almost $1 trillion (Dh3.8tn) a year to their economies and changing the fabric of their societies. By 2025, another 50 million will be earning and spending, creating businesses and finding more ways of running their households.

It seems a rapid change, but in many places the groundwork was laid decades ago, notbaly in the United Arab Emirates, where universal education has been promoted since
the 1970s.

“There have been different starting points, but across almost all the countries there have been massive investments in education, and the Gulf countries in particular are leaders when it comes to this,” says Zahidi. “Today, the results speak for themselves, with more women going to university than men, and nearly full enrolment in primary and secondary education.”

Globalisation has helped women to translate their academic achievements into rewarding careers, as international employers search for the best talent of either gender. Technology raises awareness of what women are achieving abroad, and creates business opportunities such as the niche filled by Samira, a software engineer featured in Zahidi's book, and who created a ride-sharing app to help women get safely to work in Cairo.

“There’s a new energy in this space that in large part is about technological change putting the possibility of economic opportunity into the hands of a lot more people,” Zahidi says. “One of the most fascinating differences between these countries and the West is how they’re using the gig economy and platforms. In Europe and the US it’s disrupting a lot of professions and creating precarious work for people who were expecting more traditional employment. In the Muslim world, there were no traditional arrangements, so working through the gig economy is actually seen as some of the safest and most stable work you can find.”

Having a young workforce helps: the book refers to a "youth bulge" – one third of the population in Egypt and Pakistan is aged 15 to 29 – and the advent of a new generation "that holds new attitudes, has acquired new knowledge, and uses new technologies that were never available to the generation before them". This is in contrast to the ageing populations of countries such as the UK and the US, where "baby boomers" voted overwhelmingly for Brexit and President Donald Trump.

Of course, the older generation in the Muslim world has some adjusting to do. One of the biggest issues faced by the 50 million is navigating how their paid work affects their families and domestic lives. Of the 200 working women Zahidi spoke to from 16 countries, many had adopted what she terms a Third Way – continuing to take responsibility for unpaid household work, but outsourcing certain tasks such as childcare, cooking and cleaning, either to their parents or paid domestic help.

In doing so, they have created yet more economic opportunities, whether for cooks such as Mozah, or the Kazakh entrepreneurs who offer a “mother-in-law gift basket” to help working women maintain the norms of sending elaborate gifts to their husbands’ mothers. And they have largely managed to appease the patriarchy.

“There might be people who ideologically are opposed to women being outside the home, but most of the families I spoke to have recognised that there is a return,” Zahidi says. “That comes in the form of economic value, but also a different kind of respect and social power that comes from education.”

For Zahidi, “educated women in Muslim-majority countries may represent the world’s greatest waste of skilled talent – and human potential”.

The economist is also frank about the apparent link between the increase in numbers of women going out to work and rising divorce rates. While there are many forces in play, the author agrees that financial independence helps women to put their own happiness first. “If you’re a young woman with your own economic independence and you’re not happy in your relationship, you have a lot more options than your parents’ generation, where your mother was wholly dependent on your father in terms of financial support, transport and so on,” she says.

The book was written just before the scandal around Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein made sexual harassment a hot topic, but Zahidi points out that, in many cases, families and employers are well ahead on the matter. “Because of the cultural barriers that might prevent families from allowing their daughters to work, companies have had to put in place very strict criteria and really take action around them,” she says. “Saadia’s family was convinced to allow her to work at McDonald’s because they were able to see that harassment would be dealt with very strictly.”

It would be an exaggeration to call 50 Million Rising the Muslim world's answer to Lean In: a mixture of analysis and anecdote, the book lacks Sheryl Sandberg's pithy professional advice. Nonetheless, Zahidi wrote it partly in the hope that she could help women like Amal, Hawazen, Saadia, Amira and Mozah to recognise their own power.

Published by Nation Books, 50 Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World was released on January 30


Read more:

Saudi cleric says abaya no longer necessary for women

Watch: An evolving Saudi Arabia sees women more involved in society

US retail giant Macy’s to launch clothing range including hijabs