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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, February 12th, 2018

Book Review: “Fifty Million Rising” explains how women are changing the Muslim world

Fifty Mil­lion Ris­ing by Saa­dia Zahi­di is that rare book that does every­thing it sets out to do, then goes beyond it.

Zahidi’s look at the cohort of “The Gen­er­a­tion of Work­ing Women Trans­form­ing the Mus­lim World” does­n’t con­tra­dict itself, but gol­ly is it large and con­tain­ing mul­ti­tudes. It could­n’t be any­thing less and still true, span­ning thir­ty Mus­lim-major­i­ty coun­tries from North Africa all the way to South­east Asia.

Fifty Million Rising by Saadia Zahidi

Fifty Mil­lion Ris­ing by Saa­dia Zahi­di (Hard­cov­er, NationBooks/Hachette)

As a Pak­istani woman from a Mus­lim fam­i­ly, Zahi­di only briefly cen­ters the nar­ra­tive on her­self, con­trast­ing the sort of oppor­tu­ni­ties and edu­ca­tion her grand­moth­ers had, then the Ph.D. that her own moth­er earned and the goals her fam­i­ly encour­aged her to fol­low, with broad­er cul­ture.

By doing this, she imbues her sub­se­quent sto­ries about oth­er peo­ple and the sub­ject of wom­en’s edu­ca­tion and work — and the bar­ri­ers to them that still exist in the Mus­lim world — with the per­spec­tive of a famil­ial under­stand­ing rather than that of the typ­i­cal, well-mean­ing but still for­eign, writer wield­ing an anthro­po­log­i­cal gaze.

This pays off as she trav­els to six­teen coun­tries, con­duct­ing more than two hun­dred inter­views to under­stand the ways in which Mus­lim women have made gains, espe­cial­ly in edu­ca­tion; have come into the work­force in the economies; and are chang­ing and being changed by the mod­ern world.

Nev­er in my life would I have imag­ined that get­ting a job at McDon­ald’s could be ful­fill­ing, affirm­ing work for a per­son in their ear­ly twen­ties, but for a con­tem­po­rary Pak­istani woman, it often is, and the multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion val­ues female labor because women val­ue the oppor­tu­ni­ty to demon­strate their worth beyond mar­riage mate­r­i­al or child pro­duc­tion and thus are punc­tu­al, hard work­ers.

This par­tic­u­lar anec­dote, includ­ing McDon­ald’s being a mid­dle-class sta­tus sym­bol that stren­u­ous­ly pro­tects women from cus­tomer and co-work­er sex­u­al harass­ment, lay far beyond my wildest fan­tasies before read­ing this book.

For an inter­est­ed layper­son, the pri­ma­ry util­i­ty of Fifty Mil­lion Ris­ing is to com­pli­cate your view of 1.25 bil­lion peo­ple who we tend to only find char­ac­ter­ized as an alien, homo­ge­neous bloc — hos­tile or down­trod­den or unfair­ly slan­dered, but, regard­less, so poor­ly under­stood that the diver­si­ty with­in and between Mus­lim soci­eties gets flat­tened till all its human­i­ty is wrung out.

On this lev­el, Zahidi’s book is con­tin­u­al­ly shock­ing when all you’re doing in con­sum­ing West­ern media about the Mus­lim world: ter­ror­ists, war, black-garbed head-to-toe women who are vic­tims of mon­strous patri­archy.

We’re well-aware Sau­di Ara­bi­an women are pro­hib­it­ed from going out in pub­lic with­out meet­ing a dress code of mod­esty, not allowed walk unescort­ed, and, at least until lat­er this year, dri­ve at all.

Yet less well-pub­li­cized is that half of all uni­ver­si­ty-age Sau­di stu­dents get a ter­tiary edu­ca­tion, and about half of those are women.

This com­pli­cates the pic­ture we’re pas­sive­ly encour­aged to have of an Islam syn­ony­mous with bar­barism and misog­y­ny.

Zahi­di is no apol­o­gist, though; as in oth­er places in the Mus­lim world, often those uni­ver­si­ty degrees are used more to mark the women as eli­gi­ble poten­tial brides than ever trans­lat­ed into pro­duc­tive work.

But as a result, they also then have the auton­o­my to divorce their hus­band if he choos­es to take anoth­er wife — some­thing their moth­ers could­n’t have cho­sen — and to pro­vide for their chil­dren if they’re wid­owed.

More typ­i­cal­ly, women with edu­ca­tion and skills can con­tribute to the house­hold income in order to achieve the stan­dards of mid­dle-class con­sump­tion that con­tin­ue to per­vade from cul­ture, trav­el, liv­ing abroad.

William Gib­son is famous­ly attrib­uted with the quote, “The future is already here, it’s just uneven­ly dis­trib­uted.”

That’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly a thing he said and does­n’t actu­al­ly make sense, but it feels true, at least with tech­nol­o­gy. We think Lud­dites can’t turn back the clock while we under­stand social reac­tionar­ies can.

So let’s instead say the past isn’t even past.

When Zahi­di describes how Mus­lim women are emerg­ing into pub­lic spaces with the buy­ing pow­er and accom­pa­ny­ing social earth-shak­ing that entails, that first seems ret­ro­grade rather than the present. But the par­al­lels are unde­ni­able when read­ing about late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry white women in the Unit­ed King­dom and Amer­i­ca gain­ing access to the pub­lic through shop­ping for them­selves at depart­ment stores.

Lat­er, Zahi­di exam­ines the added bur­den women have when they take on win­ning bread for the fam­i­ly with­out being about to share the weight of house­hold chores, and it’s immi­nent­ly famil­iar to what Amer­i­can women have expe­ri­enced since Sec­ond Wave Fem­i­nism in the 1970s.

The way the so-called “gig econ­o­my” is rad­i­cal­ly alter­ing how peo­ple of uncer­tain finances can aug­ment their incomes more flex­i­bly, how women often arrive at being pri­ma­ry earn­ers chang­ing the pow­er dynam­ic in their mar­riages, and how men resent “all of the mon­ey” the gov­ern­ment spends on women at their expense is entire­ly con­tem­po­rary and famil­iar.

Like­wise, it’s easy to sneer when read­ing that the thir­ty Mus­lim-major­i­ty nations Zahi­di looks at have man­aged only sev­en­teen-per­cent female rep­re­sen­ta­tion in their nation­al-lev­el leg­is­la­tures until you com­pare that to the cur­rent U.S. Con­gress.

In scope, Zahi­di man­ages to demon­strate how much diver­si­ty there is in each place she trav­els to and whose sta­tis­tics she com­pares, but what I don’t think she intend­ed and still achieved so suc­cess­ful­ly was pro­vid­ing stark exam­ples of how misog­y­ny exists around the world, with the sub­tle and obvi­ous ways it impacts wom­en’s lives every­where.

None of it is a direct crit­i­cism of our own soci­ety in the Unit­ed States, but I don’t know what else you can feel when Zahi­di describes the expe­ri­ence of see­ing Benazir Bhut­to elect­ed prime min­is­ter of Pak­istan and what it meant for South Asian girls in the late eight­ies to know they could accom­plish any­thing they want­ed.

Or how work becomes low-paid when it becomes pre­dom­i­nant­ly fem­i­nine, such as in their exam­ple, account­ing.

Zahi­di accom­plished some­thing real­ly impres­sive with Fifty Mil­lion Ris­ing, with­out suc­cumb­ing to pollyan­nish assump­tions of the future or avoid­ing the struc­tur­al pre­scrip­tions nations need to include if they want to get the most out of half of their pop­u­la­tions for the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit of all.

She wrote a book that’s not only incred­i­bly inter­est­ing in each detail and per­spec­tive but also engross­ing on the largest scale, coun­try to coun­try, gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. And again, this is all in less than three hun­dred pages.

if you’re at all inter­est­ed in fem­i­nism, Islam, or the glob­al econ­o­my, get your­self a copy of this book. There is a lot of awful stuff going on in the world, but as this book shows us, not every­thing that’s hap­pen­ing is bad.

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