‘Fifty Million Rising’ sheds light on Muslim women at the workplace

Zahidi presents facts, figures and case studies of working Muslim women, shedding light on the changing nature of female employment in the Muslim world.
Sunday 13/05/2018
Cover of Saadia Zahidi’s “Fifty Million Rising.”
Up against stereotypes. Cover of Saadia Zahidi’s “Fifty Million Rising.”

There is increasing pressure on employers in the MENA region to hire more women. Part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%. There are calls for greater gender equality in matters of employment in the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.

In her book “Fifty Million Rising,” award-winning Pakistani economist Saadia Zahidi presents facts, figures and case studies of working Muslim women, shedding light on the changing nature of female employment in the Muslim world.

The author fights stereotypes about Muslim women at the workplace with her expert analysis. Her book is about the more than 50 million Muslim women who have fought social and cultural prejudice and joined the workforce in just more than a decade.

Zahidi is head of Education, Gender and Work and a member of the executive committee at the World Economic Forum. She works with businesses, government, civil society and academia to improve women’s skills, help plan their future, implement lifelong learning and promote gender equality.

In the first chapter, Zahidi describes her shock seeing a female field engineer in Pakistan when she was 10 years old. In 1990, it was rare to see women working. She summarises the story of Khadija al-Kubra, wife of the Prophet Mohammad and the first businesswoman to convert to Islam. She said the story should be taught in greater detail in schools.

She writes: “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 realise how much subtle power they might hold in shaping the minds of Muslim women.”

Zahidi takes the reader on a journey through 16 countries across Asia, the Middle East and the Gulf. The book is filled with interesting stories of successful Muslim women but one story particularly stands out.

Samira Negm, an Egyptian woman, joined a multinational company as an engineer, designing software for smartphones, shortly after graduating from university. Later she joined another firm writing software for intelligent cars. She was sent to Germany to work on a project for BMW, where she tried carpooling services. She was inspired to introduce the service in Egypt where sexual harassment in busy public transport is on the rise.

Taxis in Egypt are expensive and Negm said she was frustrated with the long commute to work so she started “Raye7” (“Going”) carpooling service with her colleagues.

Raye7 won prizes in competitions and recognition from the Ministry of Communications. After just a few months, the initiative had 11,000 cars. Negm aims to reach 1 million users by mid-2018 and expand beyond Egypt.

Other chapters address issues of marriage and the expectations Muslim husbands often have of their wives.

Zahidi describes a TED talk by Leila Hoteit, a consultant in Dubai. She speaks about how professional Arab women can be successful despite having more responsibilities than their husbands while facing a more rigid culture than Western women. She stresses the importance of hiring nannies and empowering them. For low-income, low-skilled women, this chance has enabled them to provide an income to their families for the first time, which changes the power dynamics in these poorer families. However, these women can stay trapped in low-income work.

“Fifty Million Rising” covers the MENA region as well as other regions in the Muslim world such as Pakistan and Indonesia.