Our world might be startlingly diverse and eclectic, but there a few standard features of society that are reliably repeated over and over again everywhere, from urban jungles to tropical jungles, from icy backwaters to humid, thickly populated lowlands. Here’s one of them: in most societies, women are relegated to a subordinate position. And by “most,” I mean “almost all” – the ones with egalitarian relations between the sexes are few and far between, and even then, it’s debatable whether women are truly treated equally. Anthropologists have yet to find any society where women are dominant.
For most of human history, this was just The Way Things Were. Men made the decisions, ran the households, ran businesses, ran the government, ran the army, ran the schools, ran the temples, ran most institutions, wrote the books, got the best (or only) education, got the highest status, made the important discoveries, and got legal preferences. Languages everywhere reflect this (heck, in English we say you “man” a ship or an airplane to control it). Women were omitted from history (except for a few important queens or concubines here and there), partially because they didn’t write it, but mostly because they were relegated to the background. Both genders accepted this as the natural way of the world – men were stronger and more assertive, so they had the right to do so.
Then in Europe, beginning in the 1700s, things began to change. In what should really be counted as one of the fundamental social upheavals of all time, educated women gradually came to realize how unfair it was. I think the education part of it was most crucial: girls were taught the same subjects and went through similar schooling as their brothers, and the flowering of a scholarly, bookish culture in salons and cafes in the 1700s drew women’s interest – and made more men interested in smart women as companions. But even if they understood politics, steam engines, Immanuel Kant’s central theses, the core precepts of the Catholic Church, whatever, women were kept out of the arena that actually decided these things. The new political ideas coming out of the Enlightenment also fueled their aspirations: if all men were created equal and allowed a voice in society, then why not women too? Why did they just have to rely on their fathers and husbands to make the best choices?
What happened next should be a familiar story: Women took to arguing their case in public, both in lectures and in print. As men ignored and belittled them, they grew more and more forceful and kept pressing the issue for decades. Over time more and more men were attracted to their cause by realizing how hollow old notions of women as intellectual inferiors were given the rise of women as smart and capable as any man. The women’s rights movement spread around the West, and ever since, old barriers to employment, power, prestige, and status fell. Attitudes also changed, slowly but surely: women were infantilized and marginalized less and treated more and more as equals.
Of course, the story isn’t done. It’s doubtful if it ever will be. Men are still stronger and more assertive, and are unafraid to impose their will on women. Women have had to fight for their rights and made themselves heard, pointing out to clueless men how sexist or hypocritical their thoughts and actions are and exposing continued injustices in society. The pay gap between the sexes is one glaring issue right now in the West, but there are many: barriers to women in the army; an ongoing culture of rape and victim-blaming; male domination in politics, business, and science; an entertainment culture oriented around men and male interests; domestic abuse scandals; prostitution; rampant objectification and/or trivialization of women; a lack of guaranteed maternal leave from work; a continuing expectation for women to somehow take care of the kids and household chores while working full-time; a pronounced bias for men’s sports. Some of the issues raised by feminists count as petty micro-aggressions (a current effort to stop segregating toys comes to mind), but they have a point too: By uncovering lurking, sometimes unacknowledged gender biases, they force society to confront the attitudes that continue to perpetuate sexism and that eternal bogeyman, The Patriarchy.
The West is clearly the vanguard of women’s rights as the birthplace of the feminist movement, but women’s status varies from place to place. Scandinavia is usually considered the least sexist part of the world, with its high proportion of women in politics, college, and the skilled workforce, long maternal leaves, lots of househusbands, and strict laws on buying prostitution. There is still work to be done – it’s hard for women to advance to the highest ranks of the corporate ladder, and rape and domestic abuse still flourish in the shadows – but overall, Scandinavia’s feminist-friendly reputation is hard to argue with. On the other side of the coin, Italy keeps on struggling with a culture that fetishizes and humiliates women, that values them more as fashion models and sex objects than as actual people, and that condones groping and harassment in public. To an extent, this is the fault of Italy’s former prime minister, the lecherous Silvio Berlusconi, who enforced his preferences for sexy TV stars nationwide, but sexism in Italy has deep roots, and women in southern Europe have historically been a few steps behind in status compared to their northern sisters.
Sexism in the West is an ongoing and fascinating topic, but it’s hard to argue with where the new frontier in feminism lies – the 83% of the world that lives somewhere else. The rest of the world is a mixed bag, and although it’s easy to generalize it as a chauvinistic swamp, women’s status there has more subtleties and caveats than might be expected. Still, it’s obvious that the notion of women’s equality is still revolutionary and controversial in much of the world, and it’s given feminists a rich opportunity to spread their gospel.
Latin America – as befits a region so influenced by the West – is the second-best region to be a woman. Despite a deep-rooted culture of machismo (extreme masculinity) and a Catholic heritage, Latinas have made great strides in recent decades, with more and more women showing up at the heads of companies and female presidents taking the helm in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Laws against abortion and birth control are coming down; laws against sexual harassment and domestic violence are popping up. Latinas are increasingly well-educated, and the region has seen a greater rise in women in the workforce than any other in the world. That being said, machismo still rules; sexist attitudes are still commonplace, women are expected to stay at home and take care of the kids, and the brutal gang violence that afflicts many parts of Latin America take their toll on gender relations.
East Asia is another nuanced region. The area has also seen great strides recently, with more women in politics and business, more respect for women, more space for women in the public and cultural spheres, and a rise in female literacy and legal status. Bangladesh and South Korea have female leaders, and India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand have had them before. Southeast Asian societies generally accord women a higher status than their Northeast Asian counterparts. Frequent exposure to Western pop culture helps fuel a growing clamor for more rights and respect. But a Confucian and Hindu emphasis on male privilege and power keeps women sidelined; it is much more common for women to be housewives, farmers, or merchants than powerful figures. Legal recognition of women’s rights doesn’t always translate to respect for them on the ground level. Population control measures in China and India take a heavy toll on female fetuses, since couples almost always would rather have a boy than a girl. A thriving sex industry in Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia is a strong pull for young women, who can usually earn more money that way than in a more fulfilling line of work.
The most sexist regions are the Muslim world and Africa (which intersect – the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, where Islam meets the black African culture that dominates the continent, are considered the worst places to be a woman). Although making sweeping generalizations here can be unfair (as it is for a region as diverse as East Asia), it’s hard to argue that women are second-class citizens. Islamic dress codes keep women covered up in varying degrees – from a bare head but conservative dress to a full-on body covering (the burqa). Women are treated more or less as their fathers’ or husbands’ property and are relegated to the house for most of the day. Many Muslim countries segregate the genders, either formally or informally; it is rare for someone to mingle with the opposite gender unless they’re related. Girls are less well-educated than boys. They are often expected to help with the housework from a young age and are sometimes married before they even go through puberty. Old practices like female genital mutilation (cutting off the clitoris) and honor killings to wipe out the shame of rape linger despite the best efforts of activists to wipe them out. In public life, women are ignored and are barely even present. Saudi Arabia and Iran are particularly notorious for their laws enforcing the most traditional, sexist interpretations of Islamic law.
It’s a varied scene, but one thing’s for certain – work remains to be done. The non-Western world has a long list of things to do to bring women into the mainstream of society and make sure that it’s reaching its full potential. This means an array of activists, NGOs, journalists, and a few politicians have dedicated themselves to publicizing abuses against women around the world and campaigning against them. Feminists have journeyed far and wide to contact their peers in foreign lands and urge them to take a stand against the many injustices and outrages they have to deal with every day. The UN has 3 different bodies tasked with advising countries on how to promote women’s rights.
Yet here we get into an issue I wrote about recently – where do we draw the line between altruistic intervention in broken, unjust societies, and Western imperialism? Feminism can have a missionary impulse to it, with assertive, powerful women inspired by their own high status and the achievement of their foremothers to venture out into foreign lands to inspire other women to follow their lead. Men obviously feel threatened by a movement that undermines their privileges. Cultures everywhere are reluctant to adopt practices strongly associated with foreign cultures – and women’s liberation is still mostly a Western concept.
It’s a tough question to grapple with, and one I won’t get into now, but even less zealous and less activist feminists can take heart with a few facts. As mentioned above, globalization is exposing more and more women to the Western example of women active in public life and unafraid to speak their mind. The same process that eroded the patriarchy in the West could (and in some places already has) take place elsewhere. Over the generations, men start to expect intelligent, well-educated wives; women grow bolder and more assertive. (Many of them already are active in their households and communities and dominate them from the background.) And countries that give more power and economic opportunity to women thrive – which should be obvious, since more women in the workforce means more people working and therefore more income. Banks that lend money to women tend to see more productive investment than when they lend to men. Women, with their (usual!) emphasis on consensus, harmony, and compromise, are more effective peacemakers than men, who often try to maneuver for the best possible position to resume their war or plunder. The experience of countries like Rwanda or Turkey, which have granted women greater latitude in public life than their neighbors, will undoubtedly have a ripple effect (if a gradual one).
Most of all, though, women make up half of the world. For too long, it has shunted them into the corners, consigning them to bit parts in stories, fond childhood memories, and sexual fantasies. Imagine how much more the whole world would gain if women were truly liberated, and allowed to pursue their dreams and fulfill their latent potential without the threat of marginalization or harassment.