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Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World
Saadia Zahidi
Nation Books

According to author Saadia Zahidi, the 50 million Muslim women who have entered the work force across the Muslim world since 2000 are "a quiet but powerful tsunami" transforming societies for the better. Zahidi should know – she is an economist, a graduate of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum (WEF). She is the founder and co-author of the WEF's annual Global Gender Gap, Human Capital and Future of Jobs reports.

If one were to focus only on Zahidi's work on the Global Gender Gap report, one would surmise that the state of affairs for women in Muslim-majority countries is quite dire. These reports measure how resources are allocated between men and women in nations across the world, in the fields of education, health, business and politics. And since 2006, when first annual report was published, Muslim-majority countries have constantly finished in the bottom 20 per cent.

Yet, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of improvement of the gender gap index – suggesting that dynamic changes have been under way over the past decade.

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And this is the gist of the captivating book Fifty Million Rising, through analysis of data from 30 countries with at least 60 per cent Muslim citizens, in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, Europe, South Asia and East Asia. As Zahidi writes, "the changes in women's employment that took place over the course of half a century in the Unites States have been compressed into just a little over a decade in today's Muslim world."

The data are indeed, dizzying – charts would be helpful. Still, Zahidi is able to seamlessly weave number crunching with personal interviews of Muslim women who are leading the transformation of their societies. In doing so, she is able to bring forth the beauty of individual trees, while sketching the contours of the emerging forest.

Some of the numbers are surprising. Kazakhstan has a 75-per-cent female labour force participation rate, which is in line with Norway and Sweden, and higher than either the United States or China. According to Zahidi, Egypt has a higher percentage of women going into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields than in the United States. Seven Muslim-majority countries have had nine women as heads of states. The parliaments of Algeria, Sudan and Tunisia more than 30 per cent female representation, while eight Muslim countries have roughly 20-per-cent female representation – similar to the United States.

These numbers buttress many personal interviews, which provide a snapshot into the rich lives of Muslim women who have professional aspirations, while juggling family responsibilities and finances. Sound familiar? What may be unfamiliar to Western readers is the tectonic shift of cultural norms. Just one or two generations ago, women rarely ventured outside the home to work. The male head of the household was the main provider. But with the rising cost of living, this model became unsustainable, providing women with the impetus to enter the work force. Still, women have had to navigate delicate social dynamics within the traditional family structure – that is to say, men and women are negotiating what is culturally acceptable. In interviews with a new generation of Muslim female workers, we recognize the universal satisfaction that arises from employment, along with the independence and personal agency it brings.

The keys to the unprecedented change in employment are education policies (for girls) instituted by Muslim-majority countries decades ago. The story of Saadia, who has climbed the managerial ranks at McDonald's in Pakistan, is especially poignant. Saadia's mother never received an education, as her father was against girls' education. But, she didn't want her daughters to suffer the same injustice and encouraged them to study – which they did, with great zeal, with the support of both parents. This hit home – my maternal great-grandfather in India opposed the education of his granddaughters (including my mother). Once he died, my mother was allowed to study and became the first woman in her family to attend college.

Throughout the book, it is clear that Islamic teachings are important for Muslim women as they chart new territories. The Koran's first revelation, "Read," directed at men and women, is highlighted as the impetus for education. Prophet Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah, serves as a role model for many – she was a successful businesswoman, who hired Muhammad (15 years her junior), successfully proposed to him and supported him financially and morally during their nearly two decades of monogamous marriage. Female scholars, jurists, rulers and warriors throughout Islamic history serve as role models for women today.

All of this development is not without problems. Divorce rates are rising (although this may not be a bad thing, as social stigma decreases). The cause seems to be a mix of resentful husbands and women seeking personal fulfilment. The book also barely touches upon sexual violence and harassment – not surprising, given that the #metoo movement has yet to gain the same traction in the Muslim world.

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Nonetheless, 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.

Sheema Khan is a monthly columnist for The Globe and Mail and author of Of Hockey and Hijab.

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