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Updated: Mar 11, 2020

by Yashaswini Shekhawat

24 June: History was created in Saudi Arabia; the only nation of the world where women could not drive, (even until now, when we’re well into the 21st century) lifted the unjust ban amidst cries of “making women loose and immoral” by some clerics.

Amartya Sen, argued vehemently and very rightly (in my opinion), that growth and development cannot be envisaged without freedom; political, social, cultural, religious etc. (Sen, 1999)

With this article I wish to delve a little deeper and observe the relationship between free women, (i.e. women with freedom in all spheres of life; political, social, cultural, educational, religious etc. [1]) and a country’s growth and development.

On one side we have the largest oil exporting nation of the world, and the most notoriously backward and conservative where women are concerned, Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, with the majority of its population following Islam.

Saudi Arabian economy is largely dependent on oil, although it also has considerable metallic and non-metallic resources like gold, zinc, copper, phosphate, high grade silica sand, limestone, dolomite, quartz etc.

On the other, we have Kazakhstan, a Central Asian nation not too disparate from Saudi in its constituent parts but quite disparate in the freedoms it provides its people with, it being a presidential constitutional republic, and majority of its population following Islam.

The Kazakh[2] economy, like its Saudi counterpart is largely dependent on export of oil and related resources, but also has considerable mineral resources like copper, iron, lead, zinc, uranium, manganese etc. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan has considerable agricultural potential, but currently the primary sector accounts for about 5% of the GDP, so a comparison between the two will not be overly unfair.


In Saudi Arabia, even after King Salman’s reforms, there exists considerable discrimination against women. All women in Saudi Arabia have a male guardian or “wali” (who is typically a relative) whose consent they need for any major activity like travel, obtaining passports/divorces and signing contracts. Saudi Arabia also follows a policy of sexual segregation, i.e. keeping women away from “non- mahram” (from whom purdah is obligatory) men. It is practiced both at home and in public. Most educational institutions follow a policy of sexual segregation, as do banks, restaurants etc. Even companies are expected to follow this policy, if they hire women. Women also face discrimination in courts, where testimony of one man equals that of two women and discrimination also occurs in family and inheritance laws.

In a sphere where freedom of women has been so curtailed by the society, what can be the impact on the development of such an economy?

A comprehensive look at development involves looking at not just economic growth, but also parameters like education, gender equality and employment rates. As of 2017, 22% of Saudi women are in the labor force, and around 15% are in the workforce. The surprising fact is that around 57% of university graduates in Saudi Arabia were women. Amani Hamdan says that the national system of education is failing to prepare Saudi women for competitive roles in the labor force (Hamdan, 2005), and this seems to be the case even in 2017, with more than 1000 of the unemployed women in Saudi possessing a doctorate level degree.

With such a large chunk of the population unemployed, (and those employed being involved in a narrow range of jobs like private business and banking) diversification of jobs in the economy is limited. With the fall in oil prices, in 2016, the annual GDP growth rate fell to 1.61%, was -0.74% in 2017, and is projected to be around 1.7% in 2018 and 1.95% in 2019.

Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has a policy of achieving full equality of men and women. The Kazakh Family Code does not discriminate against women. The law prohibits polygamy, and any property acquired during marriage is considered to be the joint property of both husband and wife. The Civil Code guarantees equal ownership rights for both men and women.

According to the constitution of Kazakhstan, secondary education is mandatory for all, regardless of sex and coeducational institutions are the norm.


When we look at the parameters of development in the case of Kazakhstan, we find that women are more educated than men, as they form 62% of the intellectual pool of specialists with secondary and higher education. The total share of women in the labor force is 46%, with women being employed largely in the tertiary and primary sectors. Women are also involved in small businesses in Kazakhstan and face no discrimination in getting credit for business purposes. In fact, about 2/3rd of credit is diverted towards women for their needs.

This is not to suggest that all is hunky dory for Kazakh women. They have a high rate of unemployment too (around 60%), especially in the casual labor market as women are considered to be more occupied with family, child rearing etc.

But given the high involvement of women in the primary and tertiary sectors (in healthcare alone around 70% of those employed are women), there is greater diversity in the economy in terms of contribution of different sectors.

Thus, even with the oil price fall in 2016, annual GDP growth rate was 1.08% and actually rose to 3.99% in 2017. It is projected to be 3.16% in 2018, 2.83% in 2019, and around 2.9% in 2020.

Thus, we can see that the economic recovery in Kazakhstan was faster than that of Saudi Arabia. This is not to say that all of it can be contributed to women’s freedom and consequent involvement in the economy, but the positive relation cannot be denied.[3]

Thus, a rule of thumb to find (relatively) free women: look towards the nations that are developing faster.


Hamdan, A. (2005). Women and education in Saudi Arabia. International Education Journal .

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford university press.

For data on women’s rights:,

For data on GDP:

[1] Author’s note: This is relatively speaking, we’re still talking about this world only and not a utopian world with no patriarchy

[2] Kazakh in this article does not refer to the ethnic group but denotes of the nation of Kazakhstan.

[3] Refer Arjan de Haan: Win-win case for women’s economic empowerment and growth

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