The Third Billion: The Potential Power of Women in the Workplace

The opening paragraph of a recent article from The Financial Times reporting on the workforce impact potential of women compared the billion women who could be entering the workforce in the next decade to the billion-plus populations of India and China in regards to the significance on the global economy. India and China are large emerging markets that have already begun to stimulate the global economy. Women as a whole could essentially deliver the same type of impact…but that is only if they are able to actually join the workforce.

The MENA region was specifically highlighted as a region that would greatly benefit from this re-distribution of the workforce – estimating that the UAE could see a 12% growth in GDP and the Egyptian economy could grow by 34%.

Women engaged in class at local university. They may be learning skills for a job they will never have. Source: mideastposts

Women engaged in class at local university. They may be learning skills for a job they will never have.
Source: mideastposts

Not to mention the “spillover effects” of women in the workplace outside of direct economic benefits. The Third Billion Index which tracks statistical data about women in the workplace throughout the world has found a “strong correlation between women’s economic participation and general indicators of growth and wellbeing, such as per capita GDP, literacy rates, and infant mortality.”

With all these potential positive outcomes, it seems implausible that countries wouldn’t want to encourage their women to work. But, it seems in many MENA countries, women are excluded from the workplace for a variety of reasons – traditional values regarding gender roles, religious influence, and unstable labor markets are a few reasons.

In Saudi Arabia, the unemployment rate for women (34%) is disproportionately higher than for men (7%) and 40% of the 86% of women who receive unemployment benefits have college degrees. Saudi Arabia has been making strides in education their women. King Abdullah has set up multitudes of scholarships for young people to study throughout the world and Saudi Arabia’s number of universities has doubled in the last few years. There is even a women only university currently serving 37,000 students.

Women work in a lingerie shop considered to be one of the acceptable workplaces due to its female focus. Source: saudigazette

Women work in a lingerie shop considered to be one of the acceptable workplaces due to its female focus.
Source: saudigazette

Yet, the religious views regarding gender roles have severely limited women’s employment prospects. In Islam, unrelated women and men do not associate. This value has led to explicit gender segregation in most facets of life from shopping to banks to coffee shops. Although it appears that Saudi Arabia is moving towards modernization with its increase in education for women, the missing piece is the application of this education in the form of jobs.

An example of gender segregation Source: Washington Post

An example of gender segregation
Source: Washington Post

Qatar is faced with the same challenges as Saudi Arabia. They have more female college graduates than male yet only 35% of the workforce is women. Qatar does have policies that help empower women such as laws regulating maternity leave and gender equality but the traditional views of gender roles and the forbidden nature of mixing sexes also influences women’s unemployment. The balance of family and professional life is stressed and many women are faced with disapproval by their families should they choose a job outside of the standard fields (administration, clerical, education).

Empowering women – not only in the workplace – but in their everyday lives is the key to increasing their economic involvement. This will not be an easy process by any means. Undoing years of segregation and inequality will be difficult. Culturally, mindsets will need to shift and re-frame what a workplace looks like and how men and women function in it, together.

Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of female empowerment in the workplace in the US.

Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of female empowerment in the workplace in the US.

The economic and social implications would be incredibly rewarding for the MENA region should women be able to fully participate in the workforce. It seems that change cannot come soon enough for the many educated women who are sitting at home, with the desire to participate and use the knowledge they have acquired, but with no job in sight.

For more information on this topic, please read my fellow blogger, Farah’s posts on Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The Financial Times also has a comprehensive report on women’s empowerment here. 


Confessions of a Saudi Princess


Princess Ameerah at a school in Ghana in December 2011. (Courtesy of the Alwaleed Foundations )

Princess Ameera Al-Taweel of Saudi Arabia, wife of Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, spoke about women’s rights and image in Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Abigail Pesta, Princess Ameera stressed the importance of not judging a country based on the action of a few of its people mentioning  how the 9/11 event stigmatized the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia where women are discouraged to drive cars, date men and vote, Princess Ameera has been a vocal advocate for women’s rights and is working to enhance the image of Saudi Arabian women. Princess Ameera not only drives a car in a rural area where there is more freedom to drive but also chooses not to wear a veil.

Saudi King Abullah’s recent decision to let women vote in municipal elections despite severe opposition is an inspiring step towards women’s empowerment.  Princess Ameera asserts that the West has the wrong impression of Saudi Arabia because the good news does not tend to make headlines, only the bad one does. “Fifty-six percent of university graduates are women,” she says. “We watch Seinfeld, Friends, the presidential debates—a lot of Saudis love America. I swear to God, if you come, you’ll see Saudis watching American TV.” She mentions a recent Newsweek profile of a conservative Saudi woman, saying, “She doesn’t represent all women…she was an extreme conservative. Seventy percent of Saudis are people in the middle.”

Princess Ameera’s latest project is a launch of an initiative by Al Waleed Foundation called “Opt4Unity”, a project similar to that of Clinton Global Initiative which aims to produce business leaders, investors and philanthropists and to address international challenges in education, food and health.

imagesCAK5QW09Today, media controls the minds of the people. Media nowadays shapes people’s opinions, attitudes, vision and perception of countries and citizens of those countries. Some people take the news as gospel truth and so it is easy to cultivate hatred using media. After the 9/11 incident, some media channels projected the image of Muslims, typically the ones with beard and long robes as terrorists. Some news channels gave a more factual and unbiased opinion.  Being an international student from Pakistan, I have been questioned many times about the seriousness of the terrorism issue in Pakistan. Many look at me skeptically when I tell them it is a peaceful country and that we do not roam around with bomb detonators. Therefore, one should form an opinion after listening to different versions of the same story or reading opposing standpoints before passing on a judgement.

Education is not only about going to schools and getting a Penn degree . Education is about being an informed reader and not having a parochial approach towards any issue.Education is about interpreting things in the right way. Education is being able to make informed decisions and having the ability to see beyond the human eye. Hence, before forming a particular viewpoint; one must view both sides of the story. It is very easy to form opinions but it is hard to form educated ones.


For more information,  view:


The Research Reality in Libyan Higher Education

The Faculty of Sciences at Tripoli University, Libya. (Courtesy of the Libya Herald)

The Faculty of Sciences at Tripoli University, Libya. (Courtesy of the Libya Herald)

According to an article written by Mohamed Eljarh of The Libya Herald, one of the largest problems facing the higher education system in Libya is the lack of scientific research that is occurring. This article links the lack of infrastructure for such research to neglect from the Gaddafi regime. As mentioned in one of my former posts, Gaddafi had established a strict set of regulations in the higher education system that included a strict censorship of education and a ban on any activity that was at all linked to the West.

In order to enter the world market with a strong economy, Libya will need to embrace a commitment to rebuilding a higher education system that focuses highly on innovation and research. While I sometimes feel that highly ranked universities in the West place too much value on research and not enough on teaching their students, this is a structure that allows institutions to receive funding and recognition. If university professors do not produce groundbreaking research, the university will not appear as prestigious and will often lose grants and in some cases, enrollments. The proper balance between teaching and research is a key element at any higher education institution.

Unknown-1The research sector at Libyan universities is scarce, at best. According to data included in the Libya Herald, less than 1% of Libya’s GDP was spent on research and development. Furthermore, a study done by Benghazi University and Manchester Metropolitan University concluded that The School of Medicine at Tripoli University only produces 1.4 academic papers per 100 members of the academic staff during a year (statistics taken from the Libya Herald). The lack of research done and grants received in Libya has lead to problems in funding universities as well as giving them the proper accreditation. This in turn leads to difficulties for college graduates who struggle finding job opportunities both domestically and internationally. Students have little access to performing their own research and in many cases are not taught by instructors that have the proper knowledge to carry out research projects or even teach the subject. As I highlighted in a previous post, students are craving more involvement in their own education. Through offering more opportunities to be directly involved in research studies, students will emerge from universities with viable experience that can be applied in the labor force.

Elajarh provides many useful examples of how to reform the Libyan university system. However, none of these changes can be implemented without the proper allocation of funding, which means that government officials need to see the importance of a strong commitment to research. Professors must have the time in order to pursue research endeavors as well as teach, and they will also need the proper equipment and laboratories to carry out such projects. At the moment, there is little incentive for professors to, in a sense, “do more work,” by committing to research projects. Professors should be rewarded for their involvement in research and development. If they are able to travel to promote their research and receive bonuses for writing academic papers, this would be a positive start. By further publicizing the positive advances in research in Libya, foreign students would be attracted to the Libyan universities, and foreign capital would follow

To read the entire article in the Libya Herald, please visit:

For more information on the current reforms in the education system in Libya please visit:

Egyptian History-a Book of Lies?

education_0Egyptian history curriculum has become events-oriented rather than character-based adapting to the changing political scenario. Many feel that there is a dire need to change the way in which history is taught to students in schools.

In an article from Egyptian Independent, ‘“Outrage broke out when the new books for the sixth primary grade were released in the post-uprising fall of 2011 with the same section discussing Hosni Mubarak’s achievements, now ending with the line: “But these attempts were not enough to live up to the ambitions of the nation and the needs of the people, which led to a revolution of the people against the ruling regime in January 2011.”’

The Education Ministry aligned the history curriculum in accordance with the new political situation in the country. Some contended that Mubarak’s history be cancelled altogether while others stressed that his period be examined as an example of revolution The Ministry provides curriculum guidelines for all subjects including history every year. For history, the course content, morals learnt from the text and image of the leaders is decided upon by the. Academicians argue that political interference in the curriculum leads to national bias and that the curriculum should be decided by academic scholars.

The history taught to students between the ages of 10-18 years is all about glorification of the Egyptian rulers and is particularly apparent in the glorified way the ruling military council is portrayed as. Emad Hilal, a history professor in Suez Canal University asserts that students are being exposed to inaccurate information in history books as every current ruler depicts the era of the previous ruler as a “stone-age” era and every regime politically interferes with the development of curricula rather than treating history as a social science. According to Hoda Ismail, a history teacher, exaggerating about Egypt’s achievement does not increase national pride but reduces a student’s credibility about history as a subject as they see a sharp contrast between the stories being told and what they observe in real life.

impMany other countries in the world experience the same issue regarding the history curriculum. History is always written by the victor who will have his own version to tell. History will always have its objectives defined by state. Hence, history is always biased.  Nationalism is one of the major culprits and so the curriculum is a confused mix of desire to promote national pride and inquiry.

I have never romanced history which is quite apparent from my opinion in this blog post. The only memory I have of my history course is that of my teacher educating us about the glorified Mughal rule, heroic Muslim invaders and Pakistan’s Independence struggle. Now when I contemplate (which I am forced to as I have to finish my blog assignment), I wonder why the Muslim invaders like Muhammad Bin Qasim and Mehmood of Ghaznavi were deemed as heroic. I never studied about how many hospitals or schools they set up or the poverty eradication measures they took. I only studied the number of people they killed and the lands they conquered. I never studied about minorities in my history textbooks or about women leaders and their achievements. The history that I studied was fraught with wars and extravagant Mughal spending. Maybe it’s time to rewrite history and include philanthropists, women leaders, minority’s achievements rather than glorifying political dictators. After all, we would not want our children to learn war, blood, corruption as their first history words.

Learning Amidst Conflict: Schools in Gaza Re-Open Following Ceasefire

Paying attention in school can be hard enough for kids…and that is without the added component of airstrikes in their backyards. This is the reality for students in Gaza. Schools were closed during the eight days of airstrikes and when children returned to school on Saturday, November 23rd, some were faced with only rumble.

An estimated 52 schools were damaged and some completely destroyed in the airstrikes between Israel and Palestinian militant group, Hamas. Not to mention the countless homes, offices, streets, and other public spaces that were also impacted by missiles.

The surviving schools have tried to recover what they can so that they are able to open the doors to their students. Other schools have set up “double shifts” where one classroom is used for two separate classes of students – one in the morning and one in the afternoon- thus allowing all students the ability to return to school, even if it is an abridged day.

Students survey what was their classroom. Source: World Vision

Students survey what was their classroom.
Source: World Vision

The physical damage to buildings and infrastructure is severe, estimated at $4 million dollars by Gaza’s Ministry of Education. The UN and Oxfam have dispatched representatives to assess the damage.

However, the psychological trauma to children is potentially permanent damage that will take far longer to repair than the buildings themselves. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed the following concern regarding Gaza, “Destruction of homes and damage to schools, streets and other public facilities gravely affect children and deprive them of their basic rights.”

Students walk to school among the rumble. Source: PressTV

Students walk to school among the rumble.
Source: PressTV

One in three of the total 104 dead and 970 injured in Gaza was under the age of 18. With all the uncertainty and instability surrounding their homes and their city, stability and normalcy is a necessity for the youth at this time.  Schools can provide that stability. Many students were happy to return to a semblance of normalcy with the re-opening of the schools and relieved when they saw their friends were safe and unharmed as well.

Seeing children injured and gravely affected by the recent airstrike is a horrible aftereffect of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict – no matter personal feelings for either side. Children can surely not even comprehend the reasoning and history behind what causes things like these airstrikes. But, their lives are altered, irrevocably changed, and sometimes ended, regardless of their understanding and unwilling involvement. The only thing they know that is certain is they won’t be having a regular school day for quite some time. Even when they do, there is no way of knowing how long it will last until another deadly interruption.

To read more about this, please go here or here.

Jordanian Women Strive to Achieve Educational and Economic Empowerment

In Dana, the conservative southern region of Jordan, a lot of Jordanian women are entering workforce as reported by Kristen Gillespie World Focus correspondent in her documentary here. The tribal culture of Dana is against women leaving their homes for work but the economic stagnation and escalating cost of living has forced women to take part in the economic activities.

Samia, a woman in Dana village works six days a week in a silver jewelry factory to earn for her family. Samia’s husband is unemployed so she has to raise her three children by toiling day and night for a 200 dollar monthly salary. This is the story of many women in Jordan who are now forced to work with men to meet the needs of the family. Nadia Dajani, a famous jewelry designer contends that women workers in the factory need to have more training in order to improve and create more silver pieces. Hence, the importance of educating women cannot be overlooked as it is the need of the hour that they contribute towards household income. Realizing the importance of providing education to women, many NGOs and non-profit organizations have come forward to improve the situation of women in Jordan. Hopes for Women in Education is one such organization.


Volunteers and beneficiaries of Hopes For Women in Education gather at an orientation meeting in Amman last month (Photo courtesy of Hopes For Women in Education)

Hopes for Women in Education is a new non-profit organization in Jordan that is helping women from Jordan’s most disadvantaged community to acquire post-secondary education. This organization was registered in Ontario, Canada with the objective of enhancing Canadian understanding of contemporary Arab world by connecting local women with Canadian and International Donors to assist in educational research, training and developmental projects. Hopes for Women in Education provide education to women who are displaced, stateless, refugee and have financial constraints to continue their education. The organization collects donations through micro fundraising efforts and provides full university scholarships to deserving students. It also focuses on empowering women and providing them with vocational skills that will help them to earn a livelihood.

Economic empowerment has many benefits for women at macro and micro levels. At micro level it allows women to take part in household decisions, child-bearing decisions, career choices and other aspects of life. Financially empowered women use a major portion of their income for their family’s better health care, nutrition and education. At a macro level women contribute to the GDP of the country by becoming a part of the labor force. Hence, having economic power is one of the most fundamental rights of the woman as her access to employment and education opportunities reduces the likelihood of household poverty.


A Need for English Language Proficiency in North Africa

Maghreb countries include Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

A recent English Language Proficiency Index report from Education First provides information on Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt as being countries with low English language proficiency levels.  An article from titled Strong Case for English Proficiency in North Africa discusses that by increasing the number of English language speakers in these countries, it may help solve some of the countries’ current economic challenges.  The Education First report demonstrates that there is a “…strong correlation between English language proficiency and higher levels of exports, more foreign direct investment inflows, better business environments and greater competitiveness.”  Therefore, more speakers of English may be able to contribute to lowering the current high number of unemployment rates in the region.  Currently in Egypt, 98% of job ad listings require an individual to be proficient in English.  Therefore, if more individuals were able to speak English then they would be able to accept job positions to improve trading among European markets, participate on an international scale, and gather global information from internet-based forums because in 2011 more than half of the pages on the Internet were written in English.  In addition, being proficient in English guarantees a higher income.  Actually, in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia the differential between incomes of individuals who are fluent in English versus those who are not fluent in English is seven to ten percent.

One of the main contributing factors for low levels of English language proficiency in these regions can be attributed to education.  One of the possible resolutions to this problem is to start teaching English to children at a young age.  One of the counter arguments to this suggestion is that the children would then lose appreciation for their native language.  As I see the affordances and concerns to both suggestions, I wonder how education can play a role in supporting the teaching of English and learning to value a region’s native language.

Children in an Algerian school.

Children in an Algerian school.

Perhaps a compromise can be established in order to create a multilingual learning environment, which supports English language learning and also recognizes and practices the region’s native language as a way to sustain a nation’s identity.  I believe increasing the level of English language proficiency in these regions is important because it will greatly benefit the countries’ economic future.  Individuals who become proficient in English will then have the potential to seek different business, education, and communication opportunities, both on a regional and international scale, where English is often the collaborative language used.

Additional References:

To view the full article on visit: Strong Case for English Proficiency in North Africa

To view Education First report on the MENA region visit: English Language Proficiency Index

For more information view: Euromonitor International report The Benefits of the English Language for Individuals and Societies: Quantitative Indicators from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen