In the past few months, I have been involved with a project which aimed to look at reducing the gender gap in Muslim majority countries, with a focus on Pakistan which is usually near the bottom of major reports and indicators, such as the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report. This talk was sponsored by the University of British Columbia International Relations Students’ Association and the Maria Helena Foundation (MHF). Along with Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, UBC Professor Emeritus and President/Founder of the MHF, Ana Komnenić, Eliana Chia and I have spent a few months preparing for this presentation which was held on February 23.
The Gender Gap report lists Muslim majority countries as being the worst in terms of gender equality. The bottom 20 countries have a Muslim majority with Belarus as an exception. The report doesn’t penalize countries based on their economic development, so it measures gaps rather than levels, and it quantitatively looks at four useful dimensions where we would expect to find measurable gender differences. Namely, those categories are economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. So what did we mean by equality during this presentation? Using the definition from Human Development Report (2006), equality is defined as equal access to “opportunities that allow people to pursue a life of their own choosing and to avoid extreme deprivations in outcomes”.
Globally, across all income levels, the gender gap in Muslim majority countries is the highest. On Thursday, we wanted to look at why the gender gap was so high and what we could do about a problem that impacts a large segment of the world’s population. Culture (both pre-Islamic and contemporary) and religion are foundations for institutions which shape people’s lives. This is not exclusive or unique to Muslim majority societies, but it seems to be more notable in non-secular societies, where a combination of religious and cultural forces controls every aspect of women’s lives, especially in areas where extremist interpretations of religion exist (Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia). Moreover, in many areas religious and cultural practices are immune from criticism to the point that they may even be punishable by death or at least result in social exclusion and violence.
Culture and religion have an enormous impact on values and how they are expressed and institutionalized. In Pakistan for example, especially in rural areas, parents do not always send their daughters to school and due to structural and cultural barriers, and many Pakistani girl are not literate and do not work in professional fields. Prevention from equal participation in society seriously impacts their personal growth, health and their and childrens’ health, families, and communities.
Varying levels of socioeconomic development also help explain a high gender gap: rural areas are generally less developed, women may have less access to health services, education, and employment. This is especially true in war-torn countries where in addition to poor infrastructure, existing infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. According to the 2011 World Population Data sheet, most of the population growth occurs in the less developed countries where high fertility rates could mean that families may not be able to educate all their children, or have to choose, where preference is often given to boys.
Muslim societies also have varying levels of women’s social programs and opportunities which support and encourage girls and women’s development and participation in their society. For instance, girls and woman in Afghanistan may face violence for attending school, while women in Bosnia although not fully equal to men have achieved a certain degree of equality. For instance Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia, has elected a female mayor, and women have a greater degree of freedom than women in societies with a Muslim majority (and those gaps will be addressed in future posts). Such differences can partially be attributed to differences in local cultures and governance structures as well as external political factors. In many societies, religion is a mandatory way of life which cannot be separated from government and morality and as such, addressing religious fundamentalism is a key aspect of fighting for women’s rights.
A woman in the audience asked a very interesting question: she said, given that a lot of these numbers are not giving an optimistic picture [because of slow and sometimes backward progress], and given that women in Iran and Saudi Arabia have attained high levels of education, how can we be sure that any of this will work if they still are oppressed and cannot do much without male permission and control?
My response to her was that although the numbers seem discouraging because social change happens very slowly or sometimes takes a step back, we have to keep fighting. I remain optimistic because if we look at the history and women’s place in it, there was a time where it was unimaginable that women would be able to vote, work, or be considered persons rather than property. I reminded her that I was encouraged by history and progress which we know is not linear, but is still there. I was encouraged by the brave women of the Arab Spring, and I remain optimistic that there will be a chapter in history where women in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) would also be equal to men.
Remembering the definition I used above, it’s important to note that I’m not referring to an illusion of equality based on a social contract where women are protected in exchange for obedience, or separate but equal in their duties to someone higher up on the hierarchy. I remain convinced that it is the women in these countries that must lead their own movements and that men must support this struggle. Naturally, when we offer our support, we should be respectful of their goals and ideas because no woman is free if the control of her life only changes hands, rather than remain in her own.
You can view the presentation slides here:
Note: This post does not necessarily reflect the views of the Maria-Helena Foundation or any of the participants in the February 23rd lecture. This is a broad personal reflection on the subject and should be treated as such.