Shazia stood in front of a tainted bathroom mirror. Her lips firmly pressed on a safety pin as her hands efficiently wrapped a black scarf over her head, tucking the loose ends of the scarf in folds close to her neck. The fingers she hoped would code on laptop keys were busy shuffling between rusty utensils she was used to since a young age. Crinkled chits with lines from a Python program were deeply crushed into the bottom of her purse by fresh lists of grocery items. Deep down she knew she was more capable than monotonously listing vegetable names. She was capable of discussing data structures and programming tips only a handful were aware of. Getting vegetables from the market was not the only duty of the morning. She juggled between preparing tea for her in-laws and mopping floors. She did not mind doing household chores but wondered what her life would have been like if she walked into the glass doors of a big tech firm doing work she would be paid for and looked forward to. The house was being adorned for her marriage ceremony and her three degrees seemed to occupy too much space amongst the decorations. She could see years of hard work being removed and placed facedown, without a second thought.
Shazia is just one such story where her degrees are mere wall hangings, often considered as unworthy rather than a source of pride. Many such stories exist but lack transparency. How do you convince family, usually expected to be your largest support system, but is it against your dreams? Finding a mentor or an ally is incredibly important because many such stories exist but lack support, outreach, and transparency. More visibly, numbers do the work in highlighting the drop in India’s labor force participation rate for Muslim Women in India. According to the 66th round of the National Sample Survey Organization (2009-10), for every 1,000 women in the labor force, only 101 women were Muslims.
The first reason is the insecurity Muslim women have of dully fulfilling duties of marriage after the 2019 Union government’s victory in the Rajya Sabha over the triple talaq bill. While this bill is aimed to “empower” women, men can often use this as a source to control the marriage and employment prospects. Muslim women can be given ultimatums to leave their jobs on the threat of instant divorce. This causes them to be pushed further into the care economy reducing labor force participation rates. This issue is further exacerbated amongst marginalized Muslim women where labels of divorce are considered taboo. If they are first-generation students, more specifically the first women in their families to earn degrees, chances are they have minimal or non-existent support from other women in the family.
The second reason is the lack of safe public spaces at workplaces for Muslim women. Due to the lack of tolerance and secularity amongst religious communities, there is minimum reassurance that hijabs will not be snatched away, especially with police brutality on the rise as seen during the Jamia protests. This is highly appalling because these incidents are facts that cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, these brutal acts of violence are perpetually on the rise. Therefore, it is justified for not just Muslim households but anybody to think twice before seeking formal employment.
The key consideration is the extent to which women labor force participation rates can boost the Indian economy. According to the World Bank, “At 17% of GDP, the economic contribution of Indian women is less than half the global average. India could boost its growth by 1.5 percentage points to 9 percent per year if around 50% of women could join the workforce”. It is crucial to note that both men and women start off as prominent and confident but over 3 year’s time, the lack of mentoring opportunities creates a backlog in positive professional developments. Often women are educated till marriage but when the husband gains employment, women’s education is considered as a burden rather than a priority as education is considered only in the context of financial outcomes than economic independence, escape from the stigma around abuse, access to supportive networks and overall personal development. Moreover, it is known that for female labor force participation India ranks as 120 amongst 131 countries in the Gender Equality Index with gender-based violence rates at skyrockets. Hence, the inclusion of Muslim women in the formal sector would not only reduce gender-based violence through the financial autonomy of women but also contribute to the Indian economy by increasing the GDP to 3.7 percent.
In conclusion, the working Indian woman is truly an untapped market. Recent changes in policies and limited structures prevent capable Muslim women from being economically empowered. This sense of economic empowerment is not only beneficial at an individual level to escape abusive marriages but also contribute to India’s growth as a whole.
Salwa Mansuri is studying Politics and International Relations at University College London, this is her first in a three-part series
The views expressed by the author are personal