Social System

Dismantling the Narrative of “Women as Economic Drivers”

This week, world leaders have been gathering at the APEC 2013 Economic Summit in Bali, Indonesia. This year, the APEC Women and the Economy Forum has adopted the idea of “Women as Economic Drivers” as its key theme and called for government and private sector measures and programs to encourage more women into employment and business, as well as to aid the growth of enterprises owned by women. It is simply another arm of an intensive campaign being waged by Western states and organisations including the UN and IMF to push women into work, under the narrative that this is the path to securing high economic growth, alleviating poverty, creating economic prosperity, and empowering women. There has even been a term coined for it – “Womenomics”. This April, the UN released a report entitled, “State of Women in Cities Report” that stated, “Women are key drivers of economic growth and wealth in their hands leads to much more equitable outcomes in terms of the quality of life of families and communities.” In September this year, IMF Director Christine Lagarde published an article, “Women and the World Economy” that discussed the potential economic gains from countries having a larger female workforce. She stated that in Egypt, if the number of female workers increased to the same level as men, GDP in the country could grow by 34%, and in the UAE it would rise by 12%. Similar discussions and narratives are being promoted in Turkey and other parts of the Muslim world.


However, this narrative that pushing more women into employment and business is the means to lifting poverty and empowering women in Southeast Asia and across the Muslim world is a false and deceptive one. Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria have been cited as three emerging market countries in which women’s participation in the economy has expanded in the last two decades. Indeed, in Brazil, the share of women in the workforce has risen over the past 20 years from 45% to 60%. However, in this country that has enjoyed a boom in economic growth, 26% of the population continue to live below the poverty line. In Nigeria, a country that has had over 6% GDP growth rate, poverty has risen year by year such that today 67% of Nigerians live in poverty. Such poverty is the direct result of the capitalist free-market economy and policies. Its interest-based model of finance, and its liberalization of economies including the lifting of state trade regulations, the privatisation of vital resources, corporate farming with its associated land-grabbing, and the removal of state protection of local industries has burdened nations with immense debt, crippled domestic markets and local businesses, harmed the domestic agricultural sector, raised extortionately the cost of living, and hence destroyed economies. All this has pushed millions of women and children in Southeast Asia and across the Muslim world into desperate poverty. In Indonesia as an example, from 2007 to 2010, over 6100 companies collapsed, due in large part by the flooding of local markets with cheap foreign imports – against which local businesses and industries could not compete. This was due to corrupt capitalist free-market policies that manipulated state trade regulations and the taxation system to benefit foreign companies at the expense of local traders. Such policies have also impacted the agricultural sector which is the primary field for women’s employment with women constituting 41% of the total employment in the sector (according to the International Labour Organisation). Therefore the fact that from 2003 -2013, 5.17 million farmers in Indonesia were forced to abandon their jobs due to lack of productivity, again resulting in large part from the import of cheap foreign imports, impoverished millions of women involved in the sector. Hence the idea that simply pushing women into employment is the path to alleviating poverty and empowering women is clearly false. Rather it is a narrative that diverts attention from the fact that it is the flawed capitalist free-market system that is the primary cause of the poverty and systematic disempowerment of women globally. So while living under this system and its policies, women will continue to suffer desperate economic hardship, regardless of being in employment, while those who run private businesses and enterprises will face a constant struggle to keep afloat. Indeed, this campaign to increase women in work across the Muslim world will simply add to the systematic economic exploitation that they already face as cheap labour by capitalist corporations and governments seeking to increase profits and revenue. We have seen in Morocco for example that female employment has increased in the past decade but mostly as unregulated labour with low wages. As the ASEAN economies move towards full economic integration in 2015, there is no doubt that they are in search for further supplies of cheap labour – provided by women – to entice foreign investors to their countries.

So as Muslim women, we should reject this corrupt narrative as well as the capitalist free-market system that views the woman simply as objects to generate wealth and through forcing women into work has robbed them of their time with their children. Rather we should support the call for the Khilafah state that views the woman as a dignified human being. This Islamic system enjoys sound economic principles and policies that have a time tested approach to solving poverty and creating economic prosperity. In addition, it is obliged to ensure that its women enjoy lives of financial security, cared and provided for always by their male relatives or by the state, while simultaneously giving them the right to employment, but not to work under oppressive conditions but rather in a safe and dignified manner, free from exploitation and abuse. Allah سبحانه وتعالى says,

وَلَوۡ أَنَّہُمۡ أَقَامُواْ ٱلتَّوۡرَٮٰةَ وَٱلۡإِنجِيلَ وَمَآ أُنزِلَ إِلَيۡہِم مِّن رَّبِّہِمۡ لَأَڪَلُواْ مِن فَوۡقِهِمۡ وَمِن تَحۡتِ أَرۡجُلِهِم

“And if only they had acted according to the Taurat, the Injeel, and what has now been sent down to them from their Lord (the Qur’an), they would have surely gotten provision from above them and from underneath their feet.”

(Al-Maida 5:66)

Dr. Nazreen Nawaz

Member of the Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir