Enhancing gender diversity in Muslim countries

Women in Muslim countries today have responsibility to amplify voices of women in our societies.

Though more and more organisations are prioritising diversity and inclusion, the mindset that women are best suited for clerical and menial jobs has not completely left the organisations. The argument against women’s participation in the workforce is not that organisations hire fewer women compared to their male counterparts. The argument is that fewer women are given the opportunity to climb the organisational leader to assume leadership roles.

Multiple researches have suggested that women leaders are generally “risk averse”. They regard lives and act more “quickly and decisively” with “significantly better outcomes”. According to a 2020 McKinsey report, more than 30% of women executives performed better than organisations with fewer or no women. Research shows that having women in senior positions adds a new dimension to an organisation’s idea exploration and innovative activities.

The unfortunate part is that as compared to Western societies, women in Muslim countries have been the worst target of inequality, missed opportunities and male chauvinism.

There were times when Islamic society was not measured by their gender but by the strength of their beliefs and the virtue of their acts. Women were permitted to participate in political decision-making, inherit property as a legal heir, and own and run a business. However, over centuries, many countries have left women behind in different areas of life. Violation, discrimination and abuses against girls reignited, leaving women worse off. Stack that with new forms of gender bias and inequality in the digital world to find new barriers against the advancement of women.

The World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law 2021” index showed that 75% of Islamic countries scored below the world average, indicating a long way to go before women get equal opportunities to men across Muslim-majority nations. The index of 190 countries analyses economic rights during different milestones in a woman’s working life through eight indicators: mobility, workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, asset and pension.

The hurdles Muslim women have faced in acquiring education and getting fair and equal employment opportunities, to a large extent, emanate from imposed cultural and religious backwardness. The veil has been used as an instrument of fear and suppression, limiting women’s role within the four boundaries of their homes. Whereas the idea of donning a veil or modest wearing is to make mingling and working with men at a workplace or any other area effortless and less controversial.

Historically, Muslim women have participated alongside men in economic activities. The often-cited example is that of the first spouse of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Hazrat Khadija, who remained an entrepreneur after embracing Islam. Moreover, her wealth had been instrumental in helping the Prophet (peace be upon him) wade through financial hardships in the initial years of revelation in Mecca. While the Quran replaced many pre-Islamic activities with better and more progressive alternatives, it never forbade women from participating in economic or any other social and political activities.

Everyone in society pays the cost of looking down upon women as they experience less peace, less economic vitality and less progress. Unfortunately, despite all the modernity and theoretical emancipation, women are the first and the worst sufferers. Over 130 million girls are out of school worldwide.

For course correction, more should be done in the field of education, women empowerment and advancing the leadership role of women for resolving conflict and sustaining peace. Muslim countries must aim to impart inclusive and progressive education that transcends cultural, societal and religious barriers to give agency and dignity to all persons. Last but not least, all discriminatory laws and practices hindering access to education should be abolished.

In many Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Indonesia and Senegal, Muslim women scholars, doctors, entrepreneurs and political leaders are making their way forward, rooted in tradition but embracing progress and change.

Women in Muslim countries today have a responsibility to amplify the voices of women in our societies, especially our sisters in Afghanistan. We must correct the false impression and ignorance that denying girls and women education and opportunities is consistent with our Islamic faith.

Though women still have to walk miles before getting anywhere closer in number to men in economics, it will take another 131 years, according to the findings of the World Economic Forum, to close the gender gap. However, that is no reason to slow down the pace of progress many Muslim women have undertaken for a more inclusive workforce formation. Women’s empowerment is not a question of fairness or equality but a matter of justice, progress and prosperity.

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