How we can support genuine diversity in Islamic business and unlock its huge potential

Helena Morrissey
THE WORLD Islamic Economic Forum is in London – the first time it’s being held outside an Islamic country. This is a great opportunity to explore how Muslim and non-Muslim countries can work together to ensure our world is a happier and more prosperous place.

I will be speaking at the Forum today about my experience working collaboratively with men and women via The 30% Club, to push for more diverse leadership at all levels of business. I will be focusing on whether the lessons learned in Britain about affecting change might be useful within the Islamic business world, where the Western perception at least is that women have much less power, and are sometimes actually oppressed.

It is important to recognise, of course, that the “Islamic world” is not a monolith. It’s a long way from Morocco to Malaysia, both geographically and culturally. The potential for increased participation of women in business must take into account the cultural situation in individual countries, and distinguish between what is “Islamic” and what is cultural, as the two are often mixed up. For example, a more basic reform of women’s rights in somewhere like Pakistan needs to precede discussion about women’s opportunities in business. But this is not the case in Malaysia, Turkey or some of the Gulf States.

With that in mind, however, the entire Islamic world faces the challenge of engaging with Western societies and taking advantage of opportunities, while not losing traditions and values. How to reconcile these two?

First, change must not be seen to be imposed by outsiders, as that can encourage people to be defensive or even reactionary. Change needs to emanate from a genuine recognition of the economic and social benefits of diversity and equality within the society itself. This is happening in the UK – gender diversity is now seen as a business issue.

Secondly, men must be involved in any transformation effort if it is to succeed. The participation of men for me is crucial. This is a key reason why The 30% Club has had an impact. Women talking only to each other will not deliver real change. That needs the people who hold the power – and today that’s typically men, in both Islamic and non-Islamic countries – to champion progress.

Within the Islamic context, this is not such a radical proposal as it might seem. In the history of Islam, there are both male and female leadership precedents. Khadija, wife of the Prophet Muhammad and the first convert to Islam, is well-known as a successful businesswoman who supported Muhammad financially, and indeed is a role model for many Muslim women today.

In modern times, the women’s rights movement in Islam was founded by an Egyptian man, Qasim Amin, at end of the nineteenth century. This paved the way for famous female activists like Hoda Sha’arawi and May Ziadeh, and shows the key role men can play.

Although there is a lot to do before we get genuine diversity in Islamic business, the situation for women in many countries is improving, particularly with respect to educational prospects. In Iran, women outnumber men in primary schools and higher education. In the political arena, five Muslim-majority countries have more women in parliament than the UK (Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Iraq).

However, opportunities in business are still limited. Again, in Iran women make up less than 20 per cent of the workforce, and then they mainly work as teachers, civil servants and doctors. In many Islamic countries, a large proportion of highly-educated women are not active in the workforce – particularly in the private sector.

According to the IMF, the Middle East and North Africa need to create 100m jobs by 2020, so the under-utilisation of women must be addressed if these regions are to prosper. With around 800m Muslim women in the world, we must collectively and sensitively offer our help to unlock their huge undeveloped potential.

Helena Morrissey CBE is chief executive of Newton Investment Management and founder of The 30% Club. With special thanks to Fitzroy Morrissey, Domus Scholar in Arabic and Islamic studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University, for contributing his insights on this topic.