In answer to the above question, you'd probably wager countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Canada, Britain and the United States. But ask women around the world, and you'd get a very different picture.
As it turns out, the obvious contenders for where women feel most respected in the world today become less obvious when we reflect on what we mean by the terms. Those previously mentioned countries do, in fact, have among the highest levels of gender equality in education, work and law — factors which largely replace this elusive concept of “respect” in the Western consciousness. But outside and even within the framework of those rights, it’s known that prejudices simply manifest themselves in other ways. Gender-based treatment, even maltreatment, prevails everywhere in liberal countries; at school, in the workplace and in society at large.
Of course Western countries still do pretty well in terms of respect towards women. According to this year’s Social Progress Index, though, none of them land in the top 5, and the US ranks a mediocre 35th in the world. Is this because Western women hold their countries to higher standards? Do they answer “no” to the question, “Do you feel your country treats women with respect and dignity?” out of a more liberal and educated sensitivity? Or is sexism here simply more subliminal and more insidious than in other parts of the world?
The popular Western narrative makes Islam the poster child for women’s subjugation and the antithesis of gender equality. To be sure, fundamentalists of all religious camps tend towards strong gender-based biases, and some countries are far worse off than others in that regard. But while Sharia Law might appall women in Switzerland, the fact that fewer women hold public office than men, perhaps, rouses far fewer sympathies in Saudi Arabia. Do Arab women simply lack exposure to the concept — or worse, are they so subjugated as to fear or ignore the very question? Does Islamic culture derail the question of “respecting” women, or are the connotations of the concept of respect (perhaps worryingly) culturally subjective?
The most compelling — certainly most controversial — snapshot of this question, perhaps, remains within cultural contexts, polling women directly in lieu of prescribing blanket Western models to diverse cultures. That’s exactly the standard the Social Progress Index used this year. Their ranking uses poll data from Gallup to identify the countries where most women feel that they are treated with respect and dignity in 2014. It might not provide an accurate picture of equal legislation, different standards and gender roles in the world, but then again, there’s often something "telling" about these stark yes-or-no indicators.
Note that the following results are based on a poll which acquired self-reported data from each nation's citizens: Each nation is ranked by the percentage of surveyed women who responded “yes” when asked if they felt their country treated women with respect and dignity. Here are the often surprising results for 2014:
10 United Kingdom: 88%
While it’s not so surprising to see the U.K. here, they're part of a Western minority in this list. In the birthplace of liberalism, movements for women’s suffrage can be traced back to 1832, before most countries even considered the idea seriously; though it did take nearly a century of political battles and activism to bring about equal voting rights in Britain in 1928. It took another 50 years for Margaret Thatcher to emerge and whip the entire Western world into shape as the UK's first and only female Prime Minister to date.
9 China: 89%
It’s been said Chinese life is a bit paradoxical these days, and that seems to ring true for gender equality. Historically, women in China have had it tough. The one-child policy is less than kind to mothers expecting girls — often forced into abortions as a matter of course —and even today there remains de facto polygamy in many rural villages. But urban China fares exceptionally well in employment equality for women, and 89% of Chinese women polled said they feel respected by their country. It's likely that much of China’s bad rap comes from its underbelly and rural citizenry who still uphold traditional gender roles.
8 Saudi Arabia: 89%
The 2013 Global Gender Gap Report puts Saudi Arabia as the 10th most gender unequal country in the world; a few years earlier it was the 4th worst, and yet, it’s the 8th best for women claiming respectful treatment this year. How do we explain this? Perhaps we could look to one Saudi saying: “It’s the culture, not the religion.”
At the heart of Saudi gender laws lies Sharia, based on cultural interpretations of the Quran. While some Saudi Sheiks have nothing against gender mixing, others say gender mixing is punishable by death. Unfortunately the more extreme factions often have their way in legislation: Women can’t drive, or travel, attend school, work and marry without their male guardian’s permission in Saudi Arabia. But with 89% of women apparently feeling respected by their country, we have to wonder whether there’s a cultural discrepancy in the terms; prevailing fear; or simply deep-rooted conservatism that makes Saudi women, within their culture, admit contentment. Perhaps it’s a little of all three.
7 Switzerland: 90%
It's not surprising to see the Swiss make an appearance. They hold a pretty strong reputation for progressiveness across the board, but believe it or not while the debate started in the 1860s, the Swiss federal government didn’t introduce women’s voting rights until more than a century later in 1971. Two particular cantons (states) didn't even adopt the ruling until after 1989. By some accounts Switzerland actually lags behind the Western standard of equal gender rights in employment (paid maternity leave was only introduced in 2005), but 90% of women—including, we'd wager, Carla Del Ponte (above), former Chief Prosecutor of two UN international criminal law tribunals — say they're respected by their country.
6 Denmark: 91%
With Denmark we end the “unsurprising” entries on our list. A hefty Danish government majority voted in support of women’s suffrage in 1915 — five years before the United States, and eight before Britain. Like all Western countries there’s still a notable gender income gap (men’s salaries are 15% higher on average), but the fact that women make up about 39% of parliament, and more women enroll in higher education than men, puts the country on the frontlines of global gender equality. The current and first female Prime Minister — Helle Thorning-Schmidt (above) — has been in power since 2011.
5 Cambodia: 91%
Here’s how the numbers can contradict each other: While 91% of women in Cambodia say their country respects women, a 2004 study revealed only 6% of the female labour force (which is exceptionally large) actually works for pay, and women remain generally outnumbered at least 1:10 in political office and high-level work positions. Broader studies comparing Cambodia to the West place it in the bottom third of gender equality worldwide.
Historically, Cambodian law has long decreed — even under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime — 'equality' across the board for men and women. But here we see a common scenario of women being culturally unexposed to these rights in practice despite, perhaps, internalizing that they do have them. 91% of women claim their country respects them, though half can't read or write and a fifth report spousal abuse.
4 Kuwait: 92%
With 50% of women in the labour force, Global Gender Gap Reports say Kuwait is one of the best countries for equal gender rights in the Middle East. To Westerners this might be a stand-out pick from a not-so-exceptional basket; the country just gave women the right to vote in 2005 and elected its first female politician only five years ago, but these are certainly steps in the right direction. One thing seems likely: With 92% of Kuwaiti women voting “yes” on their country's respect, either the desire for equal representation hasn't fully materialized, or it remains eclipsed by tradition.
3 Uzbekistan: 96%
In 2012, the BBC investigated clandestine population control programs in Uzbekistan which force-sterilized women with two children. Unskilled labour here is reserved almost exclusively for females, and as of 2003, there were no laws against sexual harassment. Why then do a full 96% of women here say they feel respected by their country? This disturbing tidbit could imply a pretty unsettling answer: A 2001 report found upwards of 500 women committed self-immolation (suicide by fire) every year to escape abusive circumstances. Evidence shows the government recognizes the precariousness of women's rights in its country, but this exceptional approval rating seems at best suspicious in light of the data.
2 Rwanda: 97%
Women’s rights in Rwanda have seen astounding recent progress. Whereas 20 years ago up to 500,000 women were raped during the Rwandan genocide, today parliament is 64% female. There’s a prevailing optimism that women have been somehow responsible for getting the country back on its feet since those dark times, taking hugely active roles in ministries, organizations and humanitarian causes. Rural areas certainly paint a much darker picture of spousal violence and fewer opportunities, but that 97% figure might not be so hard to understand in light of recent feminist success stories here.
1 United Arab Emirates: 99%
In the UAE, gender equality is on the rise like no other Arab state. As far back as twenty years ago female university graduates outnumbered men two to one. But prototypical of the Arab world, women’s work roles remain fundamentally separated from men’s with only 35% of UAE women part of the “national” workforce, and 80% classified as “household workers”. But what's crucial here is the trajectory; the UAE government’s emphasis on gender empowerment largely explains this 99% figure of perceived respect, in a country where women — who still generally abide traditional gender roles — are encouraged to decide their own work roles. The UAE is evidence, perhaps, that 'traditional' gender roles need not necessarily be at odds with respect for women - although this might be anathema in the Western world.
Of course, we could read this in a different way: Traditional expectations still weigh in, and perhaps, like in most of the Arab world, many women aren't expected to voice dissatisfaction. But there’s reason to believe these stigmas are on their way out in the UAE with 66% of women working in government, and a record number in high administrative roles. One Sheikha Lubna Khalid Al Qasimi (pictured above) — UAE’s Minister of Foreign Trade — was named as one of Forbes’ most powerful women of 2007.