The case for gender equality in the Muslim world

In the Muslim world, economic advancement depends upon women’s empowerment.

Malala Yousafzai receives an offer to study at a British university
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Pakistan Taliban in 2012 for her campaigning over girls’ rights to an education [Hakon Mosvold Larsen/EPA]

“If you want to go forward, you have to give education to girls. And once you educate girls, you change the whole community. You change the whole society.”

These were the wise words of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, upon being appointed the youngest ever UN Messenger for Peace at a ceremony in New York.

Malala’s groundbreaking appointment, given with special consideration for her work promoting education for women, comes at a pivotal moment for women worldwide. For just a week earlier, the United States announced it would strip all US funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). 

This is a shame because as a UNPFA statement pointed out, the agency works across 150 countries providing voluntary family planning, midwife training, pre-natal care and safe delivery services, and working to end child marriage and female genital mutilation. The provision of such critical services “empowers girls and women to pursue an education, earn an income, and live more prosperous lives”.

Ironically, the decision emboldens those across the Muslim world who resort to regressive cultural practices and grotesque distortions of Islamic teachings to justify their repression of women.

The burden of patriarchy

Patriarchy has no single religion or culture. It rears its head in all nations and in all cultures with uniform ferocity, despite the differing ideologies by which it seeks to perpetuate itself. 

Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. Only half of the world’s women are employed, compared to three-quarters of the world’s men. In most developing countries, female employment is even lower, at around 25 percent. Yet, women spend two and a half times more time and effort than men on unpaid care work and household responsibilities. 

The total value of the global employment participation gap and the wage gap between women and men is $17 trillion; in other words, women only have a 36 percent share of global income, measured in purchasing power parity terms. This generates massive inequalities in overall incomes, health and education. 

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Lack of access to education has an inextricable rebound effect on health. Women are unable to access critical information and are disempowered from changing their own lives, making them more vulnerable to regressive cultural practices and distorted religious teachings. All these act as fundamental barriers not just to the advancement of women, but to the overall economic development of entire societies. 

These challenges are particularly pronounced in the Muslim world, where approximately 65 percent of women are illiterate, compared to 40 percent of men. The UN’s Arab Human Development Report points out that in Arab countries, the high rates of gender inequality coincide with a lack of economic opportunities among women. Female labour force participation is slightly less than 24 percent, and among young women, less than 18 percent – the lowest rate among all regions. The share of women in GDP in the Arab region is only about 29 percent, against 50 percent in all developing countries. And the poverty rate is 31.6 percent among women, but 19 percent among men.

The Muslim world must realise that not supporting women's empowerment is among the biggest barriers to a country's economic advancement.


This holds back the region economically. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Index reveals that fully 23 of the bottom 25 countries with the widest gender gaps are all Muslim countries which are also OIC members. Yet it is increasingly recognised that closing the gender gap could massively boost GDP. The IMF, for instance, calculates that closing gender gaps in labour markets could increase GDP in the United Arab Emirates by 12 percent, and in Egypt by 34 percent. 

Breaking the cycle

It is, therefore, imperative for civil society, governments and grassroots communities to work together to break this cycle. Part of my role at the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second largest intergovernmental body after the UN, is to raise awareness of the challenges faced by women across our 57 member states. 

The challenges women face in the Muslim world are often enshrined in archaic laws and practices on ownership, early marriage, female genital mutilation, education, healthcare, job opportunities and wages. Yet the irony is that these laws and practices are in violation of the letter and spirit of Islamic teachings on women’s rights. 

That is why the OIC initiated the Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women (OPAAW), to empower women across social, political, economic and cultural domains; combat violence against women; and eliminate gender inequalities in all sectors. The OIC also proposed the creation of a Women’s Development Organisation to begin actively monitoring and accelerating the implementation the OPAAW in OIC member states.

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But progress on ratifying the proposal has moved too slowly. The dire conditions facing the world’s women, and their direct role in slowing down economic growth, offer an urgent wake-up call.

The Muslim world must realise that not supporting women’s empowerment is among the biggest barriers to a country’s economic advancement.

Malala’s critical message to the world has consistently been that one’s religion or culture need not stand in the way of women’s empowerment. 

In fact, Malala herself is a shining example of how one brave young Muslim woman has reclaimed her faith and culture from extremists to change not just her own life, but the lives of countless men and women who are inspired by her example. 

It is high time that Muslim political, business, cultural and financial leaders heed the same wise advice.

Maha Akeel is the Director of the information department at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s second largest intergovernmental body after the UN with 57 Member States. She is an author and a former journalist.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.