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What Most Countries At The Bottom Of The Gender Gap Index Have In Common

They are Muslim majority countries plagued by religious orthodoxy.

15/09/2017 9:10 AM IST | Updated 15/09/2017 9:10 AM IST
Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

Last year, when the Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won her second Oscar, one of my friends got into a heated argument with me. His contention was that people like her were "maligning" the image of Pakistan by unnecessarily inflating some isolated incidents. In his opinion, her efforts were just creating negative stereotypical images of Pakistan and thus making "enemies" of the country feel comfortable in their hate. In his opinion, Pakistan's gender- related issues were not systemic and were blown out of proportion. "It is just a tiny minority which is indulging in honour killings and it is unfair to present Pakistan in negative light," he argued.

Is he correct? Now, one can argue that honour killings of the kind that Sharmeen highlighted in her film are not massively common. But one can easily also counter-argue that the mentality which gives rise to such horrific crimes is extremely pervasive. An honour killing is merely an extreme manifestation of patriarchal thinking, which equates "honour" of the family with female chastity. If a woman member of the family is perceived as transgressing some limits, then it creates "embarrassment" for the clan, which in turn leads to a range of possible reactions, of which honour killing is the most severe one. As for said transgressions? It could be something as simple as singing in the presence of a man.

[F]ake national pride aimed at presenting a glorified image of Pakistan in the international arena is not the answer. We have a systemic gender problem and denial is not going to help us.

But female chastity and its linkage with the family's honour is just one part of the larger problem of gender imbalance in Pakistan. The reality is that in Pakistan gender imbalance is systemic in nature and extends to several dimensions. Women in Pakistan have a much lower share in employment, far less is spent on their health and education, and the legal infrastructure is highly skewed against them.

Some of these aspects of gender imbalance have been captured in the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index, which has ranked Pakistan as second last out of a total of 144 countries evaluated in 2016. Only war-torn Yemen was placed below Pakistan. What makes this ranking really embarrassing is the fact that Pakistan ranks worse than many countries with lower per capita income. Extremely poor countries like Ethiopia, Nepal, Ghana etc. have been placed above Pakistan. Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, has been ranked at 72, showing that perhaps they made the right decision in separating from us!

This index measures gender parity across several dimensions, including economic opportunity, educational attainment, health and political empowerment. Within the above subcategories, Pakistan is ranked 143rd in economic opportunity, 135th in educational attainment, 124th in health and 90th in political empowerment. Pakistan's relatively better position in political empowerment has come due to the fact that it had a female Prime Minister in the past and a somewhat sizable number of female legislators. This objective criterion (since it merely measures the numbers of female legislators) does not capture the actual political power imbalance which exists in the society. Moreover, Pakistan's dismal rankings in other subcategories also reveal that merely having female legislators does not essentially translate into improvement for women in other areas.

Muslim countries by and large are stuck in time and have failed to evolve due to religious orthodoxy... the legal code is skewed against women and society's general mindset is patriarchal.

Besides, this gender gap index does not capture the social problems and crimes which women face such as rape, honour killings and work place sexual harassment. It also does not reflect the everyday misogynistic and sexist behaviour which most Pakistani women routinely face.

Rather than referring to people like Sharmeen Obaid and Malala as "enemies" of Pakistan, maybe we need to take a good hard look at the way half of our population is treated. Maybe we need to understand that fake national pride aimed at presenting a glorified image of Pakistan in the international arena is not the answer. We have a systemic gender problem and denial is not going to help us.

However, I also think that gender imbalance is a general issue for Muslim countries and not just Pakistan. If we see the rankings closely we will find that many Muslim countries are right at the bottom.

For example, out of the 144 countries ranked in 2016, not even a single Muslim majority country makes it into the top 50. Kazakhstan is the top among Muslim countries (51st) and out of the 30 Islamic countries which have been ranked, 25 are in the last 50 (90-144). In fact, the last 15 countries (130-144) are all Muslim majority countries. This is an astonishing figure and clearly points to an across-the-board problem in the Muslim world.

Among all other factors, the fact that a country has Muslim majority is perhaps the strongest predictor of a country's position in this index.

Merely repeating that "Islam gives equal rights to women" is not going to solve the problem.

What could be the reason behind that? In my opinion the reality is that Muslim countries by and large are stuck in time and have failed to evolve due to religious orthodoxy. Religious orthodoxy is reflected in the legal code which is skewed against women and also in society's general mindset which is patriarchal. To quote journalist Lisa Beyer:

"While it is impossible, given their diversity, to paint one picture of women living under Islam today, it is clear that the religion has been used in most Muslim countries not to liberate but to entrench inequality."

The gender problem in Muslim countries needs to be addressed and frank acknowledgement is the first essential step towards that. Merely repeating that "Islam gives equal rights to women" is not going to solve the problem. Until and unless we reform the way we interpret religion, the problem will persist. Let's not forget in countries like Saudi Arabia, even in this age and time, women are not allowed to drive. And if they remove their hijab at a public place, they can face severe problems.

Of course, this does not mean that orthodoxy is the only reason why gender imbalance exists in a given society. Let's not forget that literally every society in the world has gender imbalance. The difference between societies is only in form and extent. However, religious orthodoxy is an important and critical causal factor for the sorry state of women in Muslim countries.

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