Renaissance for Muslim women?

muslim women, renaissance

Women in Muslim countries have in a decade achieved what took fifty years in the US. Watch this really short video with Saadia Zahidi, Senior Director of The World Economic Forum, about how during the last ten years 40 million more women have started careers

What Saadia Zahidi says in the video speaks for itself.

Her statement that probably surprised most of you is that the percentage of women that study at universities is higher in Saudi Arabia than in China, India and Brazil. Are you aware that there are 800 million Muslim women in the world? That’s more than the combined population of Brazil, Russia and the United States. And they are swiftly, compared to how long it took us in the West, starting to work.

Many women in the Muslim world want to be part of the economy, work and contribute to society. They don’t want to be educated and then sit at home and do nothing. Lubna Olayan, pictured above, is just one famous example of a successful Saudi business woman. Sure her mother was American but her father was Saudi and in KSA the father is firmly in charge. Lubna Olayan is not allowed to drive a car in her home country but she is nevertheless the CEO of one of the largest corporations in Saudi Arabia.

There’s more to Saudi woman than not being allowed to drive

Am personally really tired of Western, not least Swedish, well meaning people lamenting how women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive. Positive facts about how things are steadily improving is never mentioned. Have written extensively about competent Saudi women in my articles Saudi women – a force to be reckoned with and What a wonderful surprise – Saudi women will vote! At the moment female volunteers from mainly Lebanon are coaching Saudi women about how to vote in local elections. One of the main objectives is to avoid that male patriarchs of the family decide who the women should vote for which is what happened in Palestine, Egypt and Iraq.

This way of dress code is a custom from the Arabian Peninsula.
This kind of dress code is a custom from the Arabian Peninsula.

Muslim women used to be prominent

The Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, Khadija, was a really successful business woman and the first person who converted to Islam. Women have traditionally been held in high esteem in the Muslim world and still are. But quite a few Muslim countries developed into patriarchies and, unlike the first Muslim woman Khadija, women started staying at home. But now women are increasingly going to work in all Muslim countries.

ISIS turning women into slaves

Isn’t it lamentable that now when women are getting a renaissance in all Muslim countries apocalyptic fundamentalist organisations like ISIS are turning women into slaves, even selling them at auctions.

And what’s surprising is that some Muslim women in the West move to Syria to marry jihadists from mainly ISIS. They cover every millimeter of themselves in black the way most educated Saudi men detest. Covering women from head to toe has nothing to do with Islam but is a custom from the Arabian Peninsula.

So we have two contradicting developments for Muslim women. One positive trend versus a crime against women. The good news is that out of the 800 million Muslim women world-wide only a minute fraction are in areas ruled by organisations such as ISIS. So there is a renaissance for almost all Muslim women apart from a small number who are affected by ISIS and their life is a nightmare unless they believe in Daesh‘s apocalyptic vision.

Were you aware that 40 million more women in Muslim countries have started working during the last decade? Did you know that the percentage of women in Saudi Arabia that attend universities is higher than in China, India and Brazil? Do you think it’s positive that Saudi women can vote in local elections and even run as candidates? Isn’t what ISIS is doing to women horrendous? Would you like to see more Muslim women have fulfilling careers? Do you agree that it’s a good idea to make that happen step by step? Considering that development for women in the Muslim countries is much faster than it was in the West, how long do you think it will take before another 100 million women start working?

Video: McKinsey & Company – Picture: World Economic Forum

48 thoughts on “Renaissance for Muslim women?

  1. Catrina this is such a fantastic post, especially the numbers mentioned in the post made me wonder where we in India are lagging behind? Where still even today well-educated couples are not happy for having a girl child, or they give lame excuses stating a girl must do what she likes after her marriage even when it comes to studies.
    I have a memory which has left a shocking impression on my mind where my school friend was denied of opting for the stream of science, the reason being the education expenses need to be done by parents while the husband will enjoy the high earnings after marriage. This I could not understand back then nor can I still.
    Anyways loved your post as well as the inspiring video 🙂

  2. Catarina — it's heartening to see the progress that Muslim women have made in education and in the workforce. That's why we shouldn't be fooled by stories about why Muslims shouldn't be allowed to visit my country. There are highly educated Muslim women and men who have a lot to give to the world.

  3. It is really great and uplifting to hear more positive stories as opposed to the negative ones. Saadia Zahidi is such an inspiring woman.

  4. One of the women I follow as a leader for female entrepreneurs is a woman from Saudi Arabia. She has a very successful online business, mostly catering to U.S. female entrepreneurs and she is amazing. .I've learned so much from her. I don't know for sure her religion. But I know she is a very strong woman coming from the Middle East.

    I wish people would stop equating ISIS with Islam. You make such a good point that ISIS women are just a tiny fraction of all Muslim women. .

  5. To add to my comment, it's heartening to see the improvement in the life and education of Muslim women. But ISIS is a big concern. Their treatment of women is another reason why they must be defeated.

  6. Wow – 800 million Muslim women in the world, I would never have guessed.

    Of course Muslim women should become employees or own their own businesses. If they have studied they should put their skills and expertise into practice. It is encouraging to hear positive stories about Muslim women as some are greatly suppressed in their households and communities.

  7. It's nice to hear this. We tend to focus on what's still lacking as apposed to what's been accomplished. instead should work too recognize had been accomplished and what still needs to be achieved.

    1. Thank you, Susan. Am personally sick and tired of hearing about Saudi women not being allowed to drive. Why not focus on how more women than men go to university in KSA?

  8. Hello Catarina: Very timely topic. I live near Winnipeg, and we've had a very large influx of Syrian, Sudanese, and Ethiopian refugees who have immigrated to Canada in the past few years. There are now 2 Muslim women who are radio hosts on our #1 radio station, one of whom is a Muslim. So we are becoming much more knowledgeable about Muslim customs and thoughts, and that is a good thing. One love, one world.

    1. Great that Muslim women are doing well in Winnipeg, Doreen. But Canada's vastly different from Saudi Arabia where all women have a guardian who takes decisions for them. So what they can do depends on their guardians. When Muslims come to the West, however, many of the men feel castrated because they are losing power to their women. By the way, it's usually very difficult for Ethiopians to get asylum in Sweden because they are not refugees but economic migrants. But the Canadian system is different. And only people from Southern Sudan can get asylum here. If they are from the North it's very difficult for the same reason.

  9. I agree with you that most would focus on what is still lacking versus what has been accomplished. Yes. We do need to recognize where work still needs to be done, but let’s also acknowledge how far we have come.

    1. Yes, Cheryl, Rome wasn't made in a day. We progressed slower but still point out what's lacking in developing countries instead of recognizing that their accomplishments are faster than what we managed.

  10. I was totally unaware of the strides Muslim women have made. What a testimony to their spirit and resilience, I wonder why the media doesn't promote this information? I believe growth for one group of women is growth for all women, there's a collective consciousness for all females. We see ourselves in their eyes and identify with their journey.

  11. Very illuminating post! We don't see very much about these huge strides here in the states. In fact, I just finished reading Princess, a supposed true story of a Saudi Princess that outlines the many atrocities committed against Muslim women. One can only hope that ISIS is contained before they can do more damage not only to that part of the world but to this latest renaissance of women.

    1. It sure is, Jacqueline,isn't it. That book is about 10-20 years old. Have it in London. Wouldn't it be a good idea if media stopped focusing on negative news only? In the case of Muslim women it's mainly horrendous news, actually.

  12. It does put things in a different perspective Catarina, and clearly not as grim as the western press may usually portray the situation. Obviously I agree that ISIS is an intolerably negative influence on the lives of many, but particularly women. That said, why, if the Muslim world is being so progressive would there be a ban on women being allowed to drive? Perhaps there is more to the whole story that meets the eye.
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    1. AK, because of ISIS the royal family of Saudi Arabia need the cooperation of the religious establishment to make sure no iman is preaching fundamentalism in a mosque. And the religious people are against women driving. So that's the price for stopping Saudis joining ISIS. Why is it considered so important to be able to drive? Isn't voting in elections and having a career more important? Besides a lot of Western women would love to have drivers:-)

  13. No I wasn’t aware of this. Interesting video. Usually we only hear about the fundamentalists who suppress women. Good to see there is a very different story that is touching so many millions of Muslim women.

    1. It is isn't it, Ken. One female Saudi friend of mine has her own tallk show on Saudi television since 2006. Keep in mind that Barbara Walters wasn't allowed to have her own television in the US until in the 90s. Then years later a woman had her own show in the US:-)

  14. I like her comment that education has a multiplying effect. Not only does it give women the ability to start businesses themselves, but it gives them the desire and belief that they can do it. This was a great interview!

  15. Hi Catarina, this post stands in such stark contrast to what we see in the news on television or read in the papers or online about Muslim women. In fact it is the first I believe I have ever truly heard about significant positive strides being made by or on behalf of Muslim women. Thanks for the eye opener. I am glad things are changing for the better and the women are getting educated and getting the right to vote.

  16. I didn’t know that Muslim women are making such great strides in such a widely spread way. I’m so glad that they are becoming more educated which is the key to improving their lives. Voting and going into public office shows the progress in women’s status changing. I am so sad about the women being tortured by ISIS but happy for the high percentage of Muslim women whose lives are being enriched.

  17. Having lived in the Middle East, like you Catarina, I'm more aware of this than many people. It's clearly good news that gender-equality movement is happening in the Muslim world as it is elsewhere – frankly, the sooner we move away from looking at people on the basis of gender, race, religion or other "accidents of birth" and look at them from the perspective of what they can do independent of these issues, the better.

    1. Isn't it nice, and interesting, to look at women in Muslim countries from a positive point of view for a change, Donna. What's in the media varies from gloomy to horrendous.

  18. Hello Catarina

    I really appreciate you for writing on this topic.

    Well I know, how the Muslim women in South Asia is progressing but I was not sure about this large number.
    In last decade there is remarkable increase of Muslim women in Education and jobs.

    If I just take the example of the university where I studied my Master. Out of 50 seats in each semester (on open merit) more than 80% were females.

    As women are good in studies than boys(In my part) so they get to better universities for education. Getting more jobs than boys as again in jobs, academics scores are considered in available jobs.

    There is remarkable change in Muslim work. The women who was oppressed and was treated just as a servant at home, has come to know her rights and she knows that only education is way to success.
    I think you know more than me, how Prophet Muhammad have treated their wives and they were allowed to have their business. As Hazrat Khadija ( Wife of Prophet Muhammad) was doing her business. And no one ever stop her to do that.
    I do not know, from where the current ideology of taliban and Daesh has erupted. Islam is surly not the one, they are preaching. It’s above that and women has more rights than she is given.

    1. My pleasure, Andleeb. Many of my female Saudi friends have studied at top universities abroad and hold senior positions in leading Saudi companies. Daesh's vision is an apocalyptic interpretation of Islam that boils down to the fact that people joining Daesh will go to heaven and the ones that don't will go to hell. Apparently there is some text somewhere that they base this on. And Syria is the place where that text predicts that the end of the world will happen.

  19. Catarina, thanks for this eye-opening post. We do have this view of Muslim women still being subservient and having to cover up. This is such a refreshing view that it gives a lot of hope. The bad news stories may make for better (that’s questionable) news but me personally, I would love to hear the truth. Discovering that Muslim women are making such strides should be front page news – it is through education and participating in all levels of employment that these women are going to make a difference around the world.

    1. Glad you learnt about how the situation for women in Muslim countries is improving, Lenie. And just wait until they have really taken off. There are 800 Muslim women and they accomplished in 10 years what took American women 50 years.

  20. Hi Catarina. Interesting post. I've not yet been to Saudi Arabia, but I've been to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and was quite surprised at how women still have to cover up and how there is such a separation between men and women. I'm glad the Saudi women are being educated in Universities. Hopefully, that will help change things for them and create greater equality among the sexes.
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    1. Doreen, 40 million Muslim women world-wide have started a career the last 10 years. That way of covering women started because of the constant tribal wars on the Arabian Peninsula. The tribe that won abducted the beautiful women. So they were covered to make it more difficult. In the 80s women were getting liberated in Saudi Arabia. The abayas became shorter and shorter and they stopped using the veil. Then Iranian fundamentalists occupied the mosque in Mekkah. The royal family got scared and allied themselves, again, with the Wahhabies and it was back to being covered. So now with the problems with ISIS there will be no swift change when it comes to the dress code in that part of the world.

  21. Catarina — your post was an eye-opener. All we see in the Western media are horror stories about the treatment of Muslim women. Of course, that makes for a better story than the good news about the strides they have made in education and the workplace. Education is the key for not only Muslim women but all women to compete on a level playing field with men.
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    1. Glad it was, Jeannette. It's lamentable how Muslim women are portrayed in the West. Things are changing for the better. If the West i.e. America tries to speed it up, like in Iraq, it doesn't work. And without US help 40 million more Muslim women have started a career.

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