Holes in the Gender Gap

Scene in Thula

The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 is out.  A total of 142 countries are listed according to what the World Economic Forum defines as gender equality and inequality in health, education, economy and politics.  If you are from Iceland, there is good news beyond the long arctic cold.  You are number one, followed in succession by the other Scandinavian countries.  The United States ranks at number 20, just below Canada, but considerably below Rwanda (even with the asterisk attached) at number 7.  Qatar, where I live, is down the list at 116, two below India and one above the Republic of Korea.  Then there is the bottom of the list, with Yemen, where I have conducted research since 1978, last at 142, just below Pakistan.

The Google generation mania for lists notwithstanding, there are so many gaping holes in this master list that it is hard to know where to begin.  One of the main take-away points would seem to support the age-old notion of environmental determinism.  Women in cold environments appear to be more equal to men, with some climatic fluke allowing Rwanda and the Philippines into the top 10.  The bottom 10 are either in Africa or troubled areas of the Middle East, hot zones all.  The highest ranking Muslim majority country is Kazakhstan at 43, probably not a tribute to the preservation of values from the old Soviet regime.  Next in rank for a Muslim country would be Bangladesh at 68, one above Italy.  I wonder how many Italian women would think their lot in life as slightly worse than women in Bangladesh.

A mixed Muslim and Christian nation like Lebanon really has its problems, falling down to 135, even below Guinea.  As for the entire Middle East, the highest spot goes to Kuwait, no doubt (in the minds of the list makers) thanks to the great strides of democracy since the first Bush era Gulf War.  In addition to the hot/cold axis, it would seem that Islamic countries have a heavy gender sediment that lowers their ranking.  Hijabs cannot match mini-skirts, except in Italy, in fashioning such a list.

Back to the bottom of the list, what is it about Yemen that warrants such a dishonor?  True, the country is currently in the midst of an unrecognized or at least undeclared civil war, with a smattering of al-Qaeda terrorists holed up in the mountains, but is it really such a terrible country for women?  I searched in vain for news of an acid attack on a Yemeni woman, but reports appear almost daily in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I have never heard of any gang rape in Yemen, although in India this remains a pressing social problem.  Yemen has a low rate of literacy for women, still measured below 50%, but is not being able to read and write as big a drawback as the likelihood of getting raped.  In the United States some estimates are as high as 15-20% of American women who experience rape in their lifetime. Apparently the statistical level of education is not an effective deterrence for rapists, even in the Bible Belt.

I do not dispute the poor health and education statistics for Yemen’s struggling development, but in terms of employment, the situation is as bad for men as it is for women, even assuming that domestic work is necessarily a sign of gender inequality.  Surveys like this which rely on statistics torn out of meaningful cultural contexts indicate more about the subjectivity of the criteria used than the actual gender relations.  What about the role of women in designing the recent National Dialogue to build a new government? There is still a tribal and family safety net in much of Yemen, despite the insecurity and recent influx of more conservative Salafi religious sentiments.  Here is a country where, under Islamic and tribal law, women are protected and guaranteed economic rights.  How long do you think the brothers of a raped Yemeni woman will allow the man who did it to live?  And what part of Yemen or what social class makes Yemen or any of these countries a meaningful whole for the purpose of ranking gender?

If you think that gender equality means being Western and secular, then you will love this list because it is made for you and about you.  If you want to know something about gender equality beyond Western borders, it is best to avoid this list. Actually talking to women in the contexts they live in might be a good start.

This commentary was originally posted in Anthropology News.