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Fifty Million Rising
The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World
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Across the Muslim world, ever greater numbers of women are going to work. In the span of just over a decade, millions have joined the workforce, giving them more earning and purchasing power and greater autonomy.
In Fifty Million Rising, award-winning economist Saadia Zahidi illuminates this discreet but momentous revolution through the stories of the remarkable women who are at the forefront of this shift — a McDonald’s worker in Pakistan who has climbed the ranks to manager; the founder of an online modest fashion startup in Indonesia; a widow in Cairo who runs a catering business with her daughter, against her son’s wishes; and an executive in a Saudi corporation who is altering the culture of her workplace; among many others. These women are challenging familial and social conventions, as well as compelling businesses to cater to women as both workers and consumers. More importantly, they are gaining the economic power that will upend entrenched cultural norms, re-shape how women are viewed in the Muslim world and elsewhere, and change the mindset of the next generation.
Inspiring and deeply reported, Fifty Million Rising is a uniquely insightful portrait of a seismic shift with global significance, as Muslim women worldwide claim a seat at the table.
ONE AFTERNOON WHEN I WAS NEARLY TEN YEARS OLD, MY father, a geophysicist, took me and my younger sister along on one of his regular work trips to a gas field in northern Punjab, a few hours’ drive from the capital, Islamabad, where I grew up. Pakistan doesn’t have much oil or gas, and most exploration of its limited supply is done by the national oil and gas development corporation, which my father worked for in the first half of his working life. It was a blistering hot summer day in a barren landscape of dry, sepia-colored rocks. Dotting this desolate landscape at regular intervals were scores of men placing seismometers into the ground. These small machines read sound waves to develop a picture of the formation of rocks thousands of meters below the surface.
I had been to my father’s office in Islamabad many times before, spending an hour or two there after school while he finished up his work, but it was my first time at the field. At the office were many “uncles,” friends and colleagues of my father’s who sent their children to the same schools and often socialized together with their families in the evenings and on weekends. This wholly male community of geologists, geophysicists, and engineers and their families made up a small, middle-class urban tribe.
Several of those uncles were at the field that day. One of them announced very proudly that the firm had just finished building a women’s bathroom and my sister and I could now use it. I was mildly surprised that they had bothered to build a women’s bathroom out here, but didn’t think more of it and the conversation moved on. As a young science aficionado, I was more interested in an explanation of how the seismometers worked. My father, perhaps without knowing the revolution he was about to start in his daughter’s mind, took me over to one of the cabins and knocked on the door. Out came a woman carrying a long roll of seismic graphs. Her name was Nazia, and she was one of the company’s first female field engineers. I was dumbstruck as she greeted us and remained so as she explained how the seismometers worked. I didn’t ask any follow-up questions on the technology, as I normally would have, to the misery of most adults. Instead, my mind was buzzing with questions about her—but I was too shy to ask them directly. I spent the rest of the visit waiting impatiently to get back to the car.
When we did finally start driving back, I launched into a stream of questions. How come Nazia was a field engineer? Despite growing up around geophysicists, geologists, and field engineers, I had never heard of a woman in these professions, and I’d certainly never seen one. How come she was allowed to be at the field? I didn’t know women could work in a place full of men or live in a gas field trailer alone. What did her parents or husband think? I didn’t think a woman could make such a bold choice without someone granting her permission. How could she wear shalwar kameez—the long shirt and loose trousers that most women in Pakistan wear—with a hard hat and boots? The only outdoorsy type of women I had ever seen were women working in rice fields, who dressed in traditional local outfits, or adventurous women in Western books and movies who wore Western clothes. A Pakistani white-collar woman in local clothes working in a gas field and using the safety equipment required in such an environment was more cognitive dissonance than my ten-year-old mind could handle.
My questions and the assumptions and biases behind them were a product of the time and place I grew up in. In 1990, only 2 percent of college-age women in Pakistan actually went to university, and barely 13 percent went to high school. Fewer than four million adult women—just 14 percent of the total adult female population—were part of the Pakistani workforce. Of course I had met educated, working women. There were my teachers in school, and my mother and grandmother were teachers. The latest doctor I had visited had been a woman, and one of my aunts was a doctor. Yet, despite their proximity to my life, and even with a child’s eye, I knew that working women were very rare in the society around me and that teaching and medicine were among the very few professions in which women’s work was socially sanctioned.1
But a woman who studied to become a field engineer and then chose to practice her profession on a gas field full of men—her image is burned into my mind to this day because of all that she represented. A woman who held her own in a man’s world. An educated woman who earned her own money. A woman who made her own independent choices. A woman who was respected professionally by men like my father and his colleagues. She was a type of woman I had never before seen in my young life. The type of woman most girls in Pakistan didn’t get to see. But once seen, she could not be unseen.
For men like my father, who was already convinced that women should be able to study, having these early pioneering female colleagues showed them firsthand that their daughters might have a viable path for professional fulfillment too, even in fields that men of my father’s generation had never considered. As the first in his family to go to university, my father saw education as a path to the middle class. But he also enjoyed learning, and so he was always trying to expand our minds with talk of science, math, and politics, subjects he loved to discuss. Soon after that trip to the gas field—and soon after Nazia’s start in the company—he began to speculate excitedly about all the things we could do with our future acquired knowledge. In one such chat, he proposed that my sister could become a pilot, because the Pakistan Air Force had just started to train women. Another time he speculated that I could become a news anchor, because Pakistan Television, the state-owned television network, had starting recruiting more women. At first, I was surprised, just as I was when I met Nazia. I had never imagined that these were possibilities for us, because, well, we were girls and I thought our options were limited. We could go into teaching or even medicine perhaps, if we were lucky. But before long I too caught his enthusiasm and was imagining a new future for myself. Change was in the air.
That change has accelerated very rapidly since the turn of the millennium. Since 1990, when there were fewer than four million working women in a Pakistani population of 107 million, the population has almost doubled, but the number of working women has nearly quadrupled, and much of that acceleration happened in the last decade. Fifteen million women now participate in Pakistan’s labor force.2 Working women are still a small percentage of the adult female population—around 25 percent—but 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. They are setting out of the house for reasons their mothers never had. They are earning an income, as only their fathers, husbands, and brothers may have done in the past. They are spending their new income in new ways, exercising power over markets that may have ignored them in the past or simply never existed without their purchasing power. They are shaping their workplaces—schools, hospitals, corporate offices, armies, factories, and yes, gas fields—in unprecedented ways. They are envisaging a different future for their daughters and changing their sons’ preconceptions of women’s role in society as limited just because of who they are. And by planting the seed of an idea in the minds of millions of other little girls, the daughters of their neighbors, friends, and relatives—the idea that they too can work someday—they are spreading a movement from one generation to another.
This shift has not been limited to Pakistan. A quiet but powerful tsunami of working women has swept across the Muslim world. In all, 155 million women work in the Muslim world today, and fifty million of them—a full third—have joined the workforce since the turn of the millennium alone, a formidable migration from home to work in the span of less than a generation.
As a result, more young Muslim women work and earn an income than ever before in the history of Islam. Through this simple but unprecedented act, they have changed their own destiny, the future of their economies, the shape of their societies, and perhaps even the world.
A Role Model at the Origin
The first convert to Islam was a businesswoman.
She was a wealthy trader who inherited her father’s business and later expanded it into an even more impressive enterprise. At one point, she offered a job to a man. He accepted, and then conducted a trading mission from Mecca to Syria under the tutelage of his female CEO.
Her name was Khadija, he was the Prophet Muhammad, and the two later married.
Khadija’s personal loyalty and dedication to the Prophet were essential pillars of support in their early days of spreading the message of Islam. So too was the safety net of wealth and financial independence she was able to provide for him and early converts in a hostile environment.
These details were taught so dryly and rapidly in my childhood schools—and indeed even in schools today—that it took me until now, while researching this book, to realize how much subtle power they might hold in shaping the minds of Muslim women. For many Muslim girls and young women, Khadija is one of the few influential female role models they learn about through their own religion. She, perhaps more than anyone else in the history of the religion, legitimizes the possibility of Muslim women’s independence, both economically and socially.
The epic battle between work, professional fulfillment, and selfhood, on the one hand, and marriage and motherhood, on the other, plays out in many cultures around the world. Although scholars and religious authorities’ interpretations of Islam on the matter of women’s education, work, and family roles vary vastly by sect and geography, there is near-universal reverence among Muslims for Khadija, who is often referred to as the Mother of the Believers. This reverence sends a powerful if implicit signal, to ordinary men and women alike, that women who work and earn money can also be good wives and mothers. It underscores that women’s economic independence can be good for all without being in conflict with their family roles.
Today Khadija’s legacy is reflected in the fifty million women who are emerging as new economic actors. These entrepreneurs, employees, and CEOs are redefining what it means to be a woman in the modern Muslim world.
There is an untold and still unfolding story hidden in the lives of these women, and it started in their classrooms. In just a generation or two, a widespread education movement has elevated the prospects of women in Muslim countries, especially in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, parts of North Africa, the newly industrializing countries of Southeast Asia, and Central and Western Asia. Most of these governments, especially those that possess oil wealth, have made massive investments in education over the last decades, rapidly lifting primary and secondary education rates from abysmally low starting points only forty years ago. Progress in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia has been slower.
The shift has also occurred for women in higher education. In two-thirds of the Muslim-majority countries covered here (see the next section), university enrollment rates for women now exceed those for men, in part owing to investments put in place several decades ago. In Algeria, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates, women’s university enrollment rates are higher than those of men by double digits. In many countries of the Muslim world, these education revolutions are much bigger than in other emerging markets. In Bahrain, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, university enrollment of college-age women exceeds rates in Mexico, China, Brazil, and India.
With female education becoming deeply rooted and normalized within family structures, the next wave of change has started to build: women are going to work. Where are these fifty million women? Over nine million new women have entered the labor force in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, over ten million in Indonesia, over ten million in Bangladesh, over eight million in Pakistan, nearly three million in Turkey, over two million in Iran, and over a million each in Malaysia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
These ordinary women have made conscious, and often deeply personal and brave, decisions to do something—work—that is at once mundane and yet utterly profound. This extraordinary shift is at its heart a dramatic human movement in which economics trumps culture.
And it has happened at unprecedented speed. The changes in women’s employment that took place over the course of half a century in the United States have been compressed into just a little over a decade in today’s Muslim world, where they are set to continue at a significantly faster pace. Imagine if the United States had been transformed in just a few years from the era of the “Feminine Mystique” in the 1960s to the “Lean-In” era of the 2010s. In essence, that is the magnitude of the change sweeping the working women of the Muslim world today. The context, however, for this exponential change—the economic drivers, the use of technology, the globalization of goods and ideas, the cultural caution, and the societal adaptation—is entirely unique to this moment in the Muslim world.
The Muslim World
Today’s Muslim world comprises 1.6 billion people, one-fifth of the world’s population. Half of these people are women: one in every ten of us on the planet, or eight hundred million women in all. That’s more than the combined populations of the United States, Russia, and Brazil. Or put another way, there are more Muslim women in the world than there are Chinese women or Indian women, who hail from the two most populous countries in the world.
The oft-uttered phrase “the Muslim world” suggests a monolithic body but in fact covers a vast spread of geographies, cultures, and economies. Most of the world’s Muslims live in over fifty countries where they are the majority. These include the oil-rich states of the Arabian Gulf—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—which boast very high per capita incomes and relatively small populations.3 Countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, and Tunisia have upper-middle-income levels, with annual income per capita between US$4,000 and US$12,000. The nations where the per capita income falls in the lower-middle range include Morocco, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Tajikistan. Finally, the Muslim countries with low income per capita include economies and cultures as diverse as Afghanistan, Mali, and Niger. Many Muslims also live in countries where they are not a majority but their absolute numbers are still in the millions, like India, Nigeria, and Ethiopia.
This book looks at thirty countries in particular for data: those with at least 60 percent Muslim citizens, populations over one million, and an average annual income of US$1,026 per capita or higher.4 Sixteen are in the MENA region—Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Two are in sub-Saharan Africa—Sudan and Mauritania. Eight are in Europe and Central Asia—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Finally, two are in South Asia—Pakistan and Bangladesh—and two are in East Asia—Indonesia and Malaysia. Six of these economies are high-income, ten are upper-middle-income, and fourteen are lower-middle-income. In all, they account for 1.2 billion Muslims.
The combined gross domestic product (GDP) (adjusted for purchasing power parity [PPP]) of these thirty Muslim-majority countries, at nearly US$14 trillion, represents almost 12 percent of global GDP. This percentage of GDP is nearly as high as that of the two largest economies in the world, the United States (over US$18 trillion) and China (over US$19 trillion), according to 2015 figures. Since the turn of the millennium, half of these thirty countries have had average growth rates of 5 percent or more. In that same fifteen-year period, the United States grew by 2 percent, Brazil by slightly more than 3 percent, China by over 9 percent, and India by 7 percent.5
Many of these Muslim economies continue to be a source of international interest, owing to their large market size, natural resources, agricultural production, manufacturing, and tourism and other services—or their geopolitical relevance. The high-income, oil-producing Muslim countries have provided the fuel base for much of the world’s energy needs during the last decades; even as oil prices have plunged, they remain attractive markets. The middle-income group includes some of the highest-potential markets in the Muslim world. Six of them—Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey—were identified by Goldman Sachs as among the “Next 11” economies with promising outlooks for investment and future growth.6 Most of them have in fact lived up to their promises for growth, despite the global economic crisis and the political instability several of them have experienced recently.
According to the data, each of these economies has already experienced major changes in women’s education and employment—and they are poised for more. This is not to suggest that the work is complete, nor that the advent of “womenomics” in the Muslim world has led to gender equality or even debate over the desirability of gender equality, in the economy or otherwise.7 The gaps between women’s and men’s labor force participation remain large across most Muslim-majority countries. Many women are still held back by cultures, norms, and religious interpretations that diminish their opportunity to learn or earn—and that sometimes even curtail their basic safety, identity, and dignity. Many live in countries where poor governance, conflict, or economic downturns, rather than culture, hold back generations of both women and men from education and jobs.
But in the aggregate, the change under way today is unleashing a domino effect that may well be unstoppable. As more and more girls go to school and university, and as more and more women join the workforce, they change the world around them through their newfound agency. Their talents, skills, spending power, and ideas are a vital fuel for the economies of their countries. In the Middle East alone, if female labor force participation rose to its full potential by 2025, the GDP of the region would spike by 47 percent.8 Even if female participation across the MENA region were to rise only to the same levels as the best-performing country in the region by 2015, estimates suggest an 11 percent increase in GDP. The simple and yet extraordinarily complex phenomenon of women working can lead to economic prosperity—and strengthen the conditions for greater societal stability—in the Muslim world.
Businesses and policymakers are starting to notice, and what they do next will guide some of the most important change the Muslim world has ever seen. If they begin in earnest the broader regulatory work of eliminating barriers to women’s participation in their companies and economies, they will unleash the power of the new female economy. And that matters not only to the eight hundred million women in the Muslim world but to the world at large.
Although the majority of their populations identify as Muslim, the countries covered in this book are by no means economically, racially, and culturally homogenous. Far from it. Interpretations and sects of Islam also vary greatly across and within these economies. Some people are deeply pious, others are nominally practicing, and some practice not at all. But these countries all share the common thread of Muslim identity, however weak or strong it may be in each society. And the same forces that are exposing the Western world and the Muslim world to each other are also leading to more exchange and exposure within the Muslim world, including among working women who are noticing the diversity of ways in which different types of Muslim women are reconciling work, family, and faith.
I love data. Data reveal fascinating patterns that allow us to see that large numbers of people are making new decisions. It’s what first got me excited about writing this book.
But while data reveal trends, they do not tell us why trends occur. To understand what these numbers about Muslim women’s employment meant, I needed to learn more about the lives of the women who represent them. I spoke to 200 women, as well as some men, from different classes, countries, and professions to understand the factors that led fifty million Muslim women to the workforce, an act with scant precedent in their own families and little public backing in their societies. I reported from inside their homes to understand individual and household decisions, from inside the businesses that sought their skills and their cash, and from inside the government agencies trying to regulate this enormous economic opportunity. In all, I visited sixteen countries, representing just over half of the thirty that this book’s data foundation rests on and nearly 70 percent of their population: I went to Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt in North Africa; Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain in the Middle East; Turkey and Azerbaijan at the edges of Europe; Pakistan in South Asia; Kazakhstan in Central Asia; and Indonesia and Malaysia in East Asia.
The challenge that I had expected—that of gaining access to the homes and workplaces of these women, across a range of income levels—was almost never a problem. From my very first reporting trip I came away surprised at not only the number of people, men and women alike, who were willing to help me get access to the women I wanted to profile but also the women’s candor once I reached them. We discussed their new education and employment opportunities, the impact on their families, and their hopes for the future. Over the course of our conversations, we navigated a minefield of potential taboos—money, marriage, clothing, and religion—with unexpected frankness.9
Within the first few minutes of our encounters, my interviewees would often ask me questions, and three in particular: Where was I from originally? Was I from a Muslim family? And what was I writing about? After giving my answers—I am from Pakistan, and yes, my family is Muslim, and I am trying to find out the realities behind the numbers about working women in your country—I often felt like I had passed some kind of test. Many expressed frustration that even though they could feel the positive changes in their daily lives and see them reflected in the anecdotes of a growing number of women around them, the narrative about Muslim women remains largely negative in the West and largely unspoken within their own societies. Some stated outright that they were tired of seeing only negative stories about Muslim women coming out of the West and hoped their story could contribute to changing that portrayal. Others felt strongly that while women’s growing educational and employment opportunities are indeed important, the traditional choices of motherhood and marriage should be respected too. But whatever their personal views, I often left receiving hugs, handshakes, or blessings from my interviewees, with appeals to “make sure you tell our story.”
They had a point. When it comes to Muslim countries, the public conversation in the West often stalls on extremism and security. Surely, these are important, if not evocative, narratives. But they are far from the only narratives. When it comes to women in the Muslim world, there are major concerns, ranging from discriminatory laws to policing of their clothing to physical violence to honor killings carried out in the name of religion or culture. But there is also rising education and employment among them that has unfurled economic, social, and political power they have not had before. Both of these narratives can be true at the same time, in the same countries, in the same cities, in the same communities, and sometimes even within the same families. Women’s economic empowerment opens up the path to other forms of agency. And the widening set of choices for one set of women slowly opens up choices for other women in their societies. Economics trumps culture—and then shapes culture.
One way to understand this book is to know what it is not. It is not the tired story of the downtrodden women of Islam. Neither is it an unrealistic and apologetic ode to the respectful place granted to women in Islamic societies. The reality is more complex. This book is about the new opportunities changing the everyday lives of millions of women in the Muslim world and the dynamism they are bringing to their communities and economies. It is written for these women but also for those men and women—policymakers, business leaders, civil society leaders, and individuals—who want to learn more about them, grow their numbers, and support them, rather than save or censure them.
As I was writing, I considered the potential reactions to a book that focuses on a segment of women in Muslim societies for whom a largely positive economic story is unfolding. My Western readers might wonder why I do not elaborate more on those women who have not been part of the education revolution, or those who face the overt discrimination and, at times, violence that have become almost synonymous with women’s treatment in Muslim societies. And when I thought about my Muslim world readers, I also felt conflicted. These societies, just like any other in the world, are mosaics, and addressing just one part of the story, especially when there is a hunger among young Muslim women for narratives that reflect the diversity and complexity of their experience, could be construed as an oversimplification.
I understand—and anticipate—these points of view. I ultimately chose to keep the focus on the growing segment of working women across the vast section of humanity that makes up all Muslim women, because their story remains largely untold. Understanding more about their lives is imperative for understanding the rest of their modern societies, today and in the future. I start by laying out the shift in education over the last decades and how it created the foundation for the present-day trends in the labor force. I then dive deeper into the implications for women who have made the migration from home to work and the uncharted waters they often have to navigate in their societies as they do so, the unprecedented new opportunities offered to them by digital technologies, and the impact of their newly expanded set of options on the marriage market. Next, I explore the role of leaders—in both the economic and political space—in helping or hindering the change under way, and finally, what the future might hold for the working women of the Muslim world. I share the lives of about thirty women—and men—in depth in the pages that follow in addition to insights from scores of others. Some are low-skilled workers; others are intellectuals or business practitioners; still others are some of the richest or most powerful business and political leaders in the world. Through their stories, across their countries and regions, we can begin to understand how the sweeping changes in education and employment for women unfolded and how they are creating a new future.
The millions of individual decisions being made in households and families about education and employment for women eventually add up to a massive new segment of work and productivity, and subsequently an unprecedented rising—and very likely disruptive—power
- "A much-needed celebration of courageous women, and a reminder that education for girls and women can transform our communities and our world."—Malala Yousafzai, Co-Founder, Malala Fund
- "A stirring read on the essential role of working women in the Muslim world. Saadia Zahidi deftly describes the personal and political, emotional and economic, local and global dynamics that are finally enabling women to gain the opportunity and the power that they deserve. The world will be a better place because of it."—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take, Originals, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg
- "Work is a source of identity, meaning, dignity, and fulfilment for many of us. For the women who have joined the workforce in the Muslim world-and for their societies-it is nothing short of transformational. Fifty Million Rising is an indispensable guide to a unique and hopeful economic story."—Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum
- "Fifty Million Rising shows how digital technologies are enhancing opportunities for a new female workforce in the emerging markets of the Muslim world. If you care about technology and social inclusion, you need to read Saadia Zahidi's important book."—Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor at MIT and co-author of The Second Machine Age and Machine | Platform | Crowd
- "Impressive. Drawing on economic data and interviews with female domestic workers, entrepreneurs, doctors, and C.E.O.s, Zahidi relates daunting and largely unheralded journeys."—New Yorker
- "Starting with her arresting insight that the first convert to Islam - Khadija, the wealthy trader who later married the prophet Muhammad - was a businesswoman, Zahidi explores this under-researched area with élan and a wealth of reportage."—Financial Times
- "In this lucid presentation, [Zahidi] draws on 200 interviews to depict an inexorable march forward for Muslim women, who are set to make up over 30 percent of the global Muslim work force by 2030."—Foreign Affairs
- "Zahidi provides an engaging, clear-eyed analysis of the dynamic economic changes that may usher in a new 'Golden Age' of Islam. Her book subverts prevalent stereotypes about Muslim women through their personal stories and contributions to their respective societies. Their resilience, determination and pioneering spirit will leave an indelible mark for years to come."—Globe and Mail
- "Zahidi makes her literary debut with an informative and revealing look at the work life of Muslim women throughout the Middle East and South, Central, and East Asia... A well-documented and fresh perspective on Muslim society."—Kirkus Reviews
- "In this fascinating look at a monumental shift, Zahidi elevates the voices of women across the world who speak about their motivations, successes, and challenges in forging new paths."—Booklist
- "A valuable baseline for measuring future progress and helps to debunk Western myths about Muslim women."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jan 30, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Bold Type Books