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The (silent) revolution of Muslim women

Since 2000, 50 million women in predominantly-Muslim countries have entered the labor market

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, April 03, 2018

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It is true that working women still account for only one quarter of the female population of these societies. But as Saadia Zahidi states, “the increase in their numbers represents an economic and cultural shift of enormous magnitude. Fifteen million women are renegotiating their own and their families’ norms and values.”
It is true that working women still account for only one quarter of the female population of these societies. But as Saadia Zahidi states, “the increase in their numbers represents an economic and cultural shift of enormous magnitude. Fifteen million women are renegotiating their own and their families’ norms and values.”

MORE ON World

by Andres Ortega*


There is much speculation as to whether liberalizing moves, such as the ones undertaken in Saudi Arabia, are for real. 

To be sure, despite recent, very encouraging signs, the jury is still out on that matter.

But in a broader context, there are definite signs of progress across the Muslim world. 

Indications are that a veritable revolution is underway among women in such societies.

Of course, it is not an overt revolution, but a profound transformation that has great scope: Since the turn of the century, 50 million women in predominantly-Muslim countries have entered the labor market.

As Saadia Zahidi, a Pakistani member of the World Economic Forum’s Executive Committee and head of its initiative on Education, Gender and Work, argues in her well-researched book packed with concrete examples, Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World, what is happening is a real “tsunami.”

The figures
Let’s start with the most revealing figures: 155 million women (as opposed to 342 million men) are currently employed in the Muslim world. 

That is a 50% increase over 15 years. A third of these women have joined the labor market just over the last decade and a half.

It is true that working women still account for only one quarter of the female population of these societies. But as Saadia Zahidi states, “the increase in their numbers represents an economic and cultural shift of enormous magnitude. 

Fifteen million women are renegotiating their own and their families’ norms and values.”

To give one example, in Pakistan, only four million women worked out of a population of 107 million 1990. By now, while the population has since doubled, the number of women workers has risen fourfold.

We should also remember that the United States and Europe only managed this transformation half a century ago. Some decades ago, in countries like in Germany, women still needed the consent of their husbands to take up work. Sound familiar?

Everything starts with education
Everything starts with the education of young women, the greatest investment for a country’s development, according to the World Bank.

In Saudi Arabia, fewer than 2% of young women went to university in 1970. By 1990, 9% did so. Today, the figure is 57%. That is on par with the United States in 1983, and more than in Mexico, China, Brazil or India.

In Algeria, the percentage of women among university graduates has risen from 20% to 40%. Something similar has happened in Iran.

In Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, there is now talk of “Asiatic tigresses.” Naturally, there are exceptions. Pakistan trails well behind in this area, as does sub-Saharan Africa.

The tipping point
Research suggests that, once women reach a 30% share in a nation’s labor force, this constitutes a tipping point where things start to change. They now account for 31% of the workforce across the Islamic world.

The type of education these young women are choosing also matters considerably. There are only five countries in the world with a higher proportion of women than men studying science, technology and engineering.

Two of them, Kuwait and Brunei, are predominantly Muslim. Half of the 18 countries where women constitute 40% of such students are Muslim, according to Zahidi.

Recent academic years in Egypt have seen almost 34% of the places in these subjects being taken by women, many of whom go on to pursue careers in the same fields, often as tech and online retailing entrepreneurs.

This is not only a higher percentage than in the United States or in Europe. It also prompts one to ask why, after many years of bemoaning this state of affairs, it should be that there is such a shortage of women in these fields in the West (and even more particularly in Silicon Valley).

The rise of women in education and the workplace in these countries has been accompanied by a reduction in the fertility rate. 

And although many educated women leave the labor market when they marry and have children, this is a trend that is on the wane.

Changing customs
Even the existence of large families, which in a sense help to preserve the status quo, may help them continue working while their children are little. At any rate, these developments are also contributing to a change in custom.

This includes a reduction in polygamy in many of these societies, which is virtually non-existent among young people. 

The same applies to a large extent to ending the tradition of arranged marriages. Educated mothers, and those who have lived in educated settings, tend also to ensure that their daughters receive higher education too.

Backed by those data points, Zahidi goes even further. She claims that the professional rise of women in the Muslim world is making a significant contribution, and in future will contribute even more, to the growth of their economies. This is bound to have global impact.

Clearly, there are major differences among Muslim countries. Only six of them have laws protecting against discrimination on the grounds of sex in employment contracts: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Mauritania, Morocco and Tajikistan.

And very often, although they can now study and work, these freedoms are not accompanied by basic freedoms for women. 

For example, rates of mobile phone ownership are significantly lower among women than among men in the majority of these societies.

In other words, it is a revolution that is by no means assured. It is “exponential, but not inevitable,” as Saadia Zahidi puts it. 

The forces of conservatism may push it back – as has already happened in some countries. Armed conflicts may thwart progress as well, as has occurred in Syria.

But if the trend continues, it will change many things. Just recall that in 2004, the sociologists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris had convincingly argued that the real clash today’s world has to contend with was not one between civilizations, as Samuel Huntington had argued. 

They cast it as a clash between sexes, because of the often subservient role played by women, especially in the Muslim world.

*Senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute.
**First published in theglobalist.com

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