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

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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