By Erin Rodewald // August 25, 2017
(This article originally appeared in Philos Project)
Tomorrow, August 26, will mark the 44th observance of Women’s Equality Day in the United States. The day commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution – which granted women the right to vote – but also calls attention to ongoing disparities and continuing efforts toward full gender equality.
To be sure, the gender gap in this country is real. For example, women earn 80 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. And in 21st century corporate America, only a quarter of CEOs are women.
Still, American women have made important advances in the past 4 1/2 decades, excelling in all aspects of society, including business, academia, politics, athletics, medicine, law, journalism, the arts and the home. Some highlights include:
- Professionally, women make up nearly half (45.8 percent) of the U.S. labor force. More than 9.4 million firms in the U.S. are owned by women entrepreneurs and employ nearly 7.9 million people, generating some $1.5 trillion in sales as of 2015.
- In higher education, more young women (37.5 percent) than men (29.5 percent) are graduating with bachelor’s degrees or higher.
- Politically, there has been a meaningful increase in the number of women seeking and holding public office in the United States. In 1975, women comprised a mere 10 percent of statewide elective executive posts, 9 percent of state legislatures, and just 4 percent of the elected seats in Congress. In contrast, in 2017, women hold 23.7 percent, 24.9 percent and 19.4 percent of those seats, respectively.
- On the bench. While Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment as the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court came nearly 200 years after Article Three was ratified, today, a third of the justices are women.
U.S. efforts at gender equality are imperfect and incomplete, but the fact remains that women in America enjoy a greater degree of freedom and equality compared with women in other regions of the world, particularly the Middle East. There, you will find no Women’s Equality Day.
One thing is certain: Where broader freedom and human rights are lacking, so too is gender equality
Instead, consider the chilling headlines out of Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco in recent weeks. Here, women’s rights advocates are counting as progress the repeal of so-called rape laws that have allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. In a culture in which women who have been raped suffer the stigma of bringing dishonor to their families, the intent of such laws has been the preservation of reputations – but at the expense of victimized women.
Tunisia abolished its rape law and replaced it with the “Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women.” This first-of-its kind legislation finally recognizes domestic violence as a punishable crime, an important step forward for women in a country with one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world.
A structural sexism pervades much of the Middle East, but is perhaps most evident in Saudi Arabia, the only country on the planet in which women are forbidden to drive, and where women’s suffrage was only finally realized in 2015. In her book Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the depth of gender inequality in this Arab nation:
“Women remain second-class citizens in the kingdom – dependent on a male guardian’s permission to marry, apply for a passport, travel abroad, pursue certain jobs, and carry out other basic life activities. Every day, they face social pressures and public dangers if they stray from the strict rule of the hated religious police.”
The power of the so-called religious police (officially known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) has been curbed in recent months. Still, reports of abuses are widely reported, such as an incident this summer involving a young Saudi woman who appeared in an online video wearing a short skirt and crop top while walking through a historic site near Riyadh. The woman was arrested for violating the country’s strict dress codes that require women to cover themselves from head to toe while in public.
Beyond physical safety and personal expression, the women of the Middle East find their economic security – as well as a full range of political, civil and legal rights – compromised. A 2010 study by Freedom House reported that while gains have been made in the workplace, “on average, only 28 percent of the adult female population in the Middle East is economically active – the lowest in the world.” The study also noted significant obstacles to women’s participation in public life, owing to a predominate view that politics is the domain of men.
A notable exception to the gender inequalities found in the Middle East is Israel. Women’s rights in Israel have been protected since the passage of the Law of Equal Rights for Women early in the country’s history. In an interview with Israel Institute Magazine, Former Israeli Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch underscored this point:
“The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which is a core part of Israel’s constitutional law, does not explicitly mention equality, but the Supreme Court ruled quite a long time ago that equality was an inherent part of the right to dignity. Consequently, the Basic Law enshrines the right to equality.”
As such, women in Israel enjoy a high degree of economic freedom compared to women in other Middle Eastern countries. They make up nearly 47 percent of the country’s workforce, well above the global average. Women are active in the political arena, constituting nearly a quarter of the 120 members of the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body. And women account for 58.1 percent of the students pursuing higher education in Israel.
As in the United States, women’s rights and gender equality in Israel are imperfect and incomplete. A significant wage gap also persists in Israel as it does in the U.S. But on the whole, women in Israel enjoy greater freedoms and more equality than do the women in neighboring countries. What makes the difference?
One thing is certain: Where broader freedom and human rights are lacking, so too is gender equality. In its annual global report on political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House consistently ranks the Middle East and North Africa as the worst region in the world for freedom.
That study scores countries based on a broad criteria, including electoral process, political pluralism and participation, functioning of government, freedom of expression and belief, association and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights. Year after year, countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Egypt – in which women’s rights are diminished – have earned a freedom status of “Not Free.”
Nations such as Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco – where attitudes toward women and gender bias are slowly shifting (think rape law repeals) – were rated “Partly Free.” By contrast, Israel – where women enjoy a high level of equality – has consistently scored a freedom status of “Free.”
For those interested in empowering women, there is a clear correlation between equality and freedom: Where freedom is valued, women do better.
In the spirit of Women’s Equality Day, Former First Lady Laura Bush – who spearheads the Women’s Initiative to empower women worldwide by promoting access to education, healthcare and economic opportunity – has said it well:
“The inclusion of women in all aspects of society strengthens their communities and improves the stability of their countries. Free societies depend on the full participation of all citizens.”