While the news out of the Muslim world has been focused on the threat of extremism from ISIS and Al Qaeda, a quiet but powerful shift has been taking place among women. In the last 10 years alone, nearly 50 million Muslim women have entered the workforce, arming them with more purchasing and earning power and giving them greater autonomy. Saadia Zahidi, a Senior Director at the World Economic Forum, argues that these profound changes will not only empower women; they will also revolutionize and strengthen the economies of their countries.
Zahidi documents this revolution through the stories of the remarkable women who are at the forefront of this shift, from McDonald’s workers in Pakistan, to middle class software technicians in Egypt, to the heads of global Saudi conglomerates. Zahidi calculates that if female labor participation rose to Western levels, the GDP of many Middle East regions would spike dramatically.
The implications are enormous. As businesses learn how to integrate the new female talent pool, their business models will need to adapt to accommodate their new consumers and their new talent. New businesses are already beginning to emerge that cater to women’s purchasing power, creating new opportunities for female entrepreneurs, and growing the health, education, food, beverage, and retail sectors that are critical to a diversified, stable economy. At the same time, the new economic and social power of women will force the hands of politicians and policymakers who still consider women second class citizens.
Many of these women face a backlash from conservative voices and even members of their families. But because this is an economic revolution, Zahidi argues that it will endure, overcoming cultural mores and forever remaking these societies in ways that we, too, can learn from.