Malaysian women
About two-thirds of students in tertiary education in Malaysia are female. Reuters

The Islamic world should work to empower its women as a way to improve and maintain economic growth, said the prime minister of Muslim-majority Malaysia. In a speech delivered to the World Islamic Economic Forum in London on Tuesday, Najib Razak cited that higher participation of females in a nation’s economy uplifts economic growth and development. He also noted that the basic tenets of Islam endorsed the contributions of women to a society’s economic well-being. “The Quran and the Hadith [deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad] are clear: Learning is an honorable pursuit, regardless of gender,” Najib told the gathering.

The prime minister also pointed to the deep gulf between advanced Muslim nations like his own, which encourage women to study and work, and poorer Islamic states that severely restrict the rights of women. According to the World Bank, of the 20 countries on earth with the lowest rates of female participation in the economy, 19 are Muslim-majority. “The acquisition of knowledge is binding for all Muslims,” Najib declared. “Those who argue against educating women do so as a result of a cultural bias, one which frustrates the aspirations of Muslim women -- and holds back economies.”

In Malaysia, for example, two-thirds of students in tertiary education are female, said Najib. According to the CIA/World Factbook, almost 91 percent of Malaysian women are literate, one of the highest figures in the developing world, “All countries stand to benefit from the economic empowerment of women,” he said. “For aging societies, it represents a welcome boost to the workforce; for the poorest countries, positive impacts on education, health and development. And for the developed world, productivity gains and a rebalancing of growth.”

Indeed, Najib noted, studies by the World Economic Forum found that economies with high female participation rates enjoy high per capita income. The World Bank also estimated that for every 1 percent increase in the number of women with secondary education, their country’s annual per capita income grows by about 0.3 percentage points. In the OECD nations (which includes only one Muslim-majority state, Turkey), “female labor participation is positively correlated with GDP.”

Najib also vowed to improve the economic opportunities available to women in his native Malaysia. “Our female labor force participation is currently 49.5 percent,” he stated. “We are aiming to improve it in order to see continued and sustainable growth. So we have introduced policies to attract, increase and retain female employees. We have made a commitment to increase female labor participation rate to 55 percent over the next three years.” He also set a timetable for the increased presence of women on Malaysian company boards – within two years, 30 percent of “senior decisionmakers” and corporate boards must be female -- three times the global average, more than double the figure found in the United States, and not far behind global leaders like Norway.

Najib also crowed about some of the advancements women in Malaysia have made since he took office four years ago – the percentage of women occupying the top positions in the country’s civil service jumped to 33 percent from 18 percent; seven of the government’s departments are headed by women; and the chief of the central bank, Zeti Akhtar Aziz, is a woman (one of the very few female central bank governors in the world). “Dr. Zeti is an example to young Muslim women around the world; her success shows that the glass ceiling can be broken, for the benefit of all,” Najib added.

In a report in Free Malaysia Today, the chief of Microsoft Malaysia, Carlos Lacerda, thinks it is possible for the nation’s corporations to reach the government’s 30 percent target (of women on company boards). “There are many capable, meritorious women in Malaysia’s corporate world,” he said. “Still, what needs to happen more is that boards need to be very conscious of the diversity within their boards and leadership teams — it is oftentimes easily overlooked. For us at Microsoft [NASDAQ:MSFT], we have specifically built it into our corporate DNA so that it is never out of sight.”

However, a report in International Policy Digest from last year suggested that women in Malaysia remain prey to the ills found in other parts of the world, including endemic poverty, human trafficking, environmental degradation, and a resurgent Islamic movement. A women's rights organization called “Sisters In Islam” has raised awareness of the dangers posed by rising Islamic fundamentalism, as well as the existence of Shariah courts, in the country. “Since the Islamic Revival [of the late 1970s/early 1980s], women's rights have been under attack in a judicial system that stripped women of fundamental human rights and enabled men to justify spousal abuse and polygamous marriages,” SII stated. “[The] establishment of Shariah law left women, alongside religious and ethnic minorities, disenfranchised in their own state. While domestic violence had always been considered a criminal offense, Sharia offered legal justification for spousal abuse, as well as other discriminatory practices against women.”

But Prime Minister Najib has declared that there is no need for the existence of women's rights organizations in Malaysia. “In some developed countries, the men were allowed to vote before women, but in Malaysia women had the right to vote from the start,” Najib said last year, according to Malaysian Insider. “Don’t think that everything is better [in the developed nations] as we are way ahead especially in terms of women’s rights. We provide incentives like grants, double tax reductions and allowances to private early-education centers so more can be built and women can go to work.”