FT and McKinsey Bracken Bower Prize
Womenomics in the Muslim World

Saadia Zahidi

Founder, Global Gender Gap Report
Senior Director, World Economic Forum

The first convert to Islam was a businesswoman. She was a wealthy trader who inherited her father’s business and later expanded the operation into an even more impressive enterprise. At one point, she offered a job to a man. He accepted and conducted a transparent trading mission from Mecca to Syria under the tutelage of his female boss. Her name was Khadija. He was the Prophet Muhammad, and the two later married. Khadija’s personal loyalty to the Prophet and her financial independence were essential pillars of support in her early days spreading the message of Islam.

These facts highlight the unusual economic independence of the woman Muhammad married – and his approval of her sovereign existence. This history is often missing from the narrative within Islam and about Islam. It is one of many reasons why women have not been a significant economic force to date within the Muslim world. But this is rapidly changing.

“The Muslim World” is an oft-uttered phrase that, on the surface, portrays a monolithic body. But today’s Muslim world is comprised of 1.6bn people. That’s nearly a quarter of the global population, and they contribute about 16 per cent of global GDP, growing at 6 per cent annually. It includes rich petro-states at the cusp of dramatic change like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, as well as countries that Goldman Sachs calls the Next 11: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia and Iran.

Half of these people are women: 800m women. How big is that? That’s more than the combined populations of the US, Russia and Brazil. There is an untold and still unfolding story buried in the lives of these women, hidden in their classrooms, in their careers, and in their purses. In just a generation or two, a widespread education movement has elevated the prospects of millions of women in these countries, from Tehran to Tunis. Most governments in the region, especially those that possess oil wealth, have made massive investments in education over the last decades – rapidly closing primary and secondary education rates from abysmally low starting points only 40 years ago. This shift has also occurred for women in higher education. In Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Algeria, Oman, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, university enrolment rates for women now exceed those for men.

These accelerations are not only massive and underreported, but they are also current. For example, in Turkey, both women and men are enrolling in university in much greater numbers than before, but women are enrolling faster – 10 years ago their levels were 75 per cent of men, today they are 85 per cent. In Egypt, 10 years ago there were three women for every four men in university. Today those numbers are nearly equal. In resource-rich countries the situation is even more extreme. In the UAE, women enrol in university at three times the rate of men. In Saudi Arabia, the university gender gap was closed 10 years ago, but the absolute numbers are also rising: 10 years ago, of all the women in the university age bracket, about 30 per cent were actually attending university. Today it’s above 50 per cent, a higher figure than in Mexico, China, Brazil or India.

What does all this mean? As female education becomes deeply rooted and normalised within family structures, the next wave of change has started unravelling: women are now going to work. The last 10 years in particular have triggered an exponential change that will one day be the stuff of history books. Nearly 40m more Muslim women are in the labour force compared to just a decade ago. In just the last decade, 9m new women have entered the labour force in the Arab world, 8m in Indonesia, 7m in Pakistan, 7m in Bangladesh, 2m in Turkey and a million in Malaysia. This is a broad way of saying that millions of ordinary women and men have made conscious, and often deeply personal and brave decisions to break family tradition, sometimes even shunning cultural pressures.These millions of individual decisions eventually add up to a new segment of the labour market – and subsequently an unprecedented consumer power.

This is not to suggest that the work is complete. The gaps between women and men’s labour force participation remain large. Out of all the women that could be working in the UAE, only 44 per cent are employed, while out of all the men in this pool, 90 per cent are working. If these numbers rose to OECD levels of about 60 per cent participation for women in the workforce of the MENA region in the next 15 years, the GDP of the region would spike by 20 per cent or more. These statistics evidence how the pace of change is accelerating, not only for individuals, but also for businesses and policymakers, who are generating momentum to begin the broader regulatory work of eliminating barriers to women’s participation in the workforce.

Womenomics in the Muslim World argues that a movement has started where economics trumps culture. It will seamlessly combine data and anecdotal stories to illustrate the power of the new female Muslim economy and why it, more than anything else, may ignite the changes the Muslim world so desperately needs. It will demonstrate – across the broadest and most personal landscapes - how labour markets in the Muslim world are becoming feminised at an accelerated pace, and how this phenomenon is in turn revolutionising society and culture. Changes that took half a century in the US are being compressed into a decade in today’s Muslim world, where they are set to continue at a significantly faster pace. Imagine if the US, for example, in just a few years, had transformed from the era of the Feminine Mystique in the 50s to Lean In in the 2010s. That is the magnitude of the change sweeping the Muslim world today.