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%
9 China: 89%
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.”
7 Switzerland: 90%
6 Denmark: 91%
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.
4 Kuwait: 92%
3 Uzbekistan: 96%
2 Rwanda: 97%
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.
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